The figure of the mad artistic genius is compelling, but unhelpful
If you want to be an artist, does it help to be mad? I went to Changing Minds Festival in London to find out and wrote it up for the Economist.
ARTISTS are mad geniuses, or so we like to think. They are seers, and mystics unfettered by the quotidian, connecting with the divine and reporting back. We connect madness and artistic talent so strongly that we use it as a proxy for determining the quality—and selling price—of an artwork. Shrewd artists have long known that the economic benefits of unkempt hair and erratic statements far outweigh those achieved with an extra year of painting lessons.
This figure is idealised in theory, but often not in practice. Robert Schumann, a German composer and pianist, was on the brink of madness when he composed his “Violin Concerto in D minor” in 1853. The piece was rejected by its dedicatee, the violinist Joseph Joachim, as the product of a deranged mind, and it remained unpublished for 80 years. The first public performance was given in 1937 after Schumann’s spirit advised Joachim’s grand-niece, via séance, of the concerto’s existence. A second message revealed its resting place as the Prussian State Library.
At the Changing Minds Festival in London this February, the concerto was part of an interdisciplinary weekend exploring the intersection of arts and mental health. Though important, considering the recent willingness of MPs, athletes, and other public figures to discuss their mental health struggles, Changing Minds wasn’t especially groundbreaking. That said, it is difficult to imagine a similar event being hosted at a Philharmonie or at New York’s Lincoln Centre.
In performance, the Moldovan violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) did everything short of tap dance to make the concerto sound as good as its backstory, but it was all for naught. The piece just isn’t very good, which is not at all surprising to any who have struggled with their mental health. Breakdowns are all-consuming. Vincent Van Gogh knew this, writing to his brother Theo of his depressive episodes: “I am so angry with myself because I cannot do what I should like to do, and at such a moment one feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well”. Creating the world’s next masterpiece is a great deal more difficult when there are such feelings of helplessness to contend with.
A commercially successful artistic practice often requires perseverance, discipline, and robust mental health. Yet the long-term stress, constant rejection, and crushing poverty often encountered along the way can precipitate a breakdown. Five months after Schumann finished his rejected concerto, he tried to escape the singing angels in his mind by jumping into the Rhine. He survived, but the angels remained until his death in an asylum three years later.
In an amateur sphere, art and mental health can co-exist more happily. At the Changing Minds Festival, many panellists stated that they found making or engaging with art, music, poetry or theatre to be restorative. Naming the black dog tames it. Drawing or writing about it helps others to understand, and be empathetic. Jack Rooke, a young British comedian, said that “self-indulgent outlets are so important when you’re dealing with mental health. There’s something quite nice about being vulnerable on stage and having people recognise that.” Sofie Hagen, a Danish comic, finds that stand-up comedy, though often brutal, is comforting because “it makes scientific sense to me. That joke went wrong because of X, not because I’m a bad person.” Given the current estimate of the World Health Organisation—that by 2030, mental health will account for more disability and lives lost worldwide than cancer, strokes, heart disease, and war—the process of naming and taming becomes all the more necessary.
There is no definitive link between mental illness and creative pursuits; about one in four people in the creative industry struggle with it in some form, which is the same ratio as the general population. At least two recent studies have found that creative people are significantly more likely to be a sibling or child of someone who is autistic, anorexic, schizophrenic, or bipolar. They experience a milder expression of schizotypal traits such as openness to new experiences, a tolerance for ambiguity, and an approach to the world relatively free of preconceptions. Enough for novel connections and perspectives, but without the burden of scrambled thoughts or an inability to feel pleasure in day-to-day activity.
After the violin concerto, the OAE played Schumann’s third symphony, the Rhenish. It surges with energy and light, is full of grand themes and shows, for Schumann, a certain deftness in orchestration. The piece was composed quickly in 1850 after a peaceful and happy holiday in the Rhineland with his wife Clara. It proves that artists, like everyone else, do their best work when they are well. It ruins the story, but saves the life. That must be enough.