Sylvia Plath, Vincent Van Gogh, Ludwig Van Beethoven… what do all of these artists have in common?
We glorify artists riddled with mental illness, pore over their poems or paintings, and immerse ourselves in their music. We lie in wonder, weaving our ideas of their internal struggles in with their works of art, thinking how each chest-punching anxiety attack, terrifying psychotic vision, or life-ruining bout of alcoholism contributed to the masterpiece in front of us. How awestruck we are at the sight of such traumatic beauty. How admirable that they could create such delicacy from such pain, and showcase the mess inside their head with words on a page or a lick of paint on canvas. What a cause for celebration.
But when it comes to real mental illness, here, now, within the people we love, we put it to one side. We hide it, overlook it, complain when we have to live with somebody so irritable or sensitive or unpredictable. So what’s the difference?
We analyse tortured art until we’re blue in the face, trying to figure out what the artist was thinking or feeling, and diagnosing them with modern labels that just seem so obvious to us as we evaluate their work, all whilst ignoring the thoughts and feelings of the people right next to us. Once the depressed, the manic, and the psychotic put their pen to paper, brush to canvas, fingers to piano keys, something in our brains lets go of the negative stigma around mental illness, and we glorify their misery. Such hidden talent! A beautiful outlet for a tortured mind. How commendable that somebody can produce such great art inspired by, or in spite of, their mental illness. We are all too ready to applaud the artistic few who can convey their feelings through decorative means.
Art that carries the burden of mental illness, no matter its form, is fascinating and invigorating to the spectator. It lends you a peep to a world you haven’t seen before, or it acts as a relatable comfort. A praising comment here, a patronising one there. If they can do this with such a troubled mind, then why can’t X, Y, or Z compose such wonders when they suffer the same, or less? We place ourselves, or others, in the artist’s position. We fail to see the difference, to distinguish between the intricacies of what makes one person’s mental illness different from another’s, and why not everyone with a prescription for antidepressants or mood stabilisers is the next Virginia Woolf. But to the artist, this isn’t just something to hang in a gallery – it’s their everyday life. Your coffee table book is their mind pressed between pages, and your vinyl collection is the voice in their head on repeat. It’s frightening and frustrating. But they have the amazing ability to reveal their mind’s inner workings and communicate through their art. Not everyone can do that.
Mental illness isn’t necessarily the propellor of great art, as much as we like to envisage every mutilated mind finding solace in a creative outlet. It is all too often the block: the locked door against great ideas and creative freedom. It’s the head-in-hands in the office when you can’t focus on anything for more than 10 seconds, the inability to get out of bed for the interview that you really need to nail, the staring at the wall as time crawls by behind the bar of your local pub. It’s the ordinary – more so than it is the revolutionary, and it crushes creativity as often as, if not more than, it spurs it on.
Mental illness needs to be appreciated in a context outside of the artistic. Yes, admire the masterpieces. Immerse yourself in the theatre and the films sprinkled with body dysmorphia and suicide, but don’t lap it up at face value, and don’t ignore the everyday. Do not praise the tortured soul of your favourite artist and then slash the suffering barista with the same tongue. Do not compare the portrayal of one person’s mind with the reality of another’s.
We glorify the hand that mental illness plays in an artist’s life, then sneer at the same hand that taunts our neighbours. Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and OCD are more than just a catalyst for creating art, and they need to be recognised as such. We are not all Edvard Munch. The mentally ill work regular jobs, or maybe live in supported facilities. They are the people you move away from when they talk to themselves on the bus and the ones you gawk at for being “too skinny”. There’s your tortured artist and beautifully tormented soul. A cast out member of society, made to feel alone by a lack of understanding for what they’re going through and failing mental health services. Had you known Sylvia Plath in person, you may have viewed her differently. You may have looked down upon her with the same merciless criticism that you are so quick to fire upon those in psychiatric hospitals today. It won’t do to whisper “did you hear that Becky’s brother has been sectioned?” with disdain, but then tuck yourself into bed with a copy of The Bell Jar and a great appreciation for Plath’s way with words.
As talented as the mentally ill are, we are not just your Netflix series or weekend trip to the gallery. We deserve thought and recognition more often than when you binge watch 13 Reasons Why or catch a glimpse of The Scream. We need awareness more than just one week a year. And we need the same respect and thoughtfulness that you offer to your favourite artists, no matter what our day job might be.