Painting a Picture of Mental Illness

Amy Julian

With October 5-11 being National Mental Illness Awareness Week, it’s important to talk about a topic that affects so many but is talked about by so few. Mental illness affects all who are involved: the patient him or herself, the family and friends of the affected person, clinicians, colleagues, romantic partners, and in a larger scope, mental illness affects society as a whole and affects the legislative policies that are enacted as well as our media portrayal of the mentally ill. But what is often forgotten is that people who have mental illnesses (from depression, anxiety, and eating disorders to bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and personality disorders) are functional and important contributors to society.

The stigmatization of the mentally ill (which I addressed in a 2007 Opinion column) has led to a notion that people dealing with a psychological disorder cannot produce valuable work or have a meaningful relationship with the larger society. Being an Arts section (and not Opinion), I think it’s important to raise the issue of creativity and art produced by those suffering from mental illnesses. Does mental illness lead to enhanced creativity among the diagnosed or is it a prescription for judgment of their work against a different criterion? Once we know a person’s diagnosis, do we then view their work as a product of insanity?

The link between art and psychological disorders has been prevalent through much of history. Clinicians and treatment centers today still rely on this form of self-expression through art therapies. Art, in these professionals’ opinions, can offer a better window into the mind of a person who may have a difficult time expressing or talking about his or her issues. Analysis of the colors, shapes, and subjects of a patient’s artwork can lead to deeper insight into an illness. Using Sigmund Freud’s concept of the unconscious mind, psychologists have been able to use artwork as a way to delve deeper into the thoughts of patients; thoughts that the patients themselves may be unable to accurately or fully explain. While the use of art therapy in clinical populations has provided the mentally ill with techniques of expression, coping, and self-soothing, it’s interesting to consider how the art of the clinical population differs (if at all) from the artwork of those who are not diagnosed with or fit the criteria of mental illness.

There have been many accounts throughout history both heralding mental illness as a gateway into elevated creativity to proposing that the art of the mentally ill is sub par to the works of “fully functional human beings.” And while research has yet to prove a definitive causal relationship between artistic ability and mental illness (if one even exists), many studies have found that the majority of the best artists in all of history have been clinically diagnosed, or were diagnosable, as mentally ill.

The ability of insanity “to transform into painters persons who have never been accustomed to handle a brush,” to Caesar Lombroso and other nineteenth century clinicians and public figures, was clear. The most exciting and dramatic art came from prison inmates with psychosis and “insane asylum” populations during that time. Similarities in the “absurdity,” “symbolism,” “obscenity,” and “minuteness to detail” can be found amongst the art of the mentally ill. Furthermore, the art from these creative geniuses has been described as invoking a “disquieting feeling of strangeness.” Described as strange and off-putting, the artwork of these “madmen” was strikingly different from the works of the “normal” population. But why? Scientists, art historians, and psychologists are still trying to pinpoint exactly what it is about the “insane brain” that lends itself to such incredible artwork.

Though certain conditions are not necessarily more conducive to creativity, it is theorized that a large majority of some of the most famous artwork has been created by individuals suffering from bipolar disorder. In HimaBindu K. Krishna’s “Bipolar and the Creative Genius,” the author explains that the manic-depressive cycles of bipolar disorder patients are states that could potentially set the stage for great artistic expression. The manic state, Krishna explains, is a state of physical and perceptual alertness that allows for creativity due to the person’s inhibition and unyieldingness to conformity. The manic individual feels sensations above themselves; they feel that they can do anything, thus producing images and objects inconceivable to those who are not in a manic state. As far as the depression that accompanies bipolar disorder, Krishna and others believe that art is a form of self-preservation in lieu of self-harmful behaviors during the period of despondency and helplessness. This combination can lend itself to great creativity and thus great works of art.

It has been theorized that people suffering from mental illness have created some of the world’s greatest art. It is thought that Pablo Picasso may have suffered from narcissistic personality disorder or schizophrenia; Edvard Munch, Vincent Van Gogh, and Jackson Pollack have been said to be bipolar; and many artists such as Claude Monet and Casper David Friedrich dramatically met the criteria for clinical depression. It is undeniable that, while their mental illnesses may or may not have been the source of their creative genius, these individuals have made a lasting impact on the artistic community. And while it’s important to consider our perception of these pieces as only a few out of thousands of possible explanations, we cannot discount the fact that the images of the mentally ill are brilliant and rich in sensory stimulation and emotion.

Art, whether one is “insane” or not, can speak to us unlike other mediums. It can evoke the most powerful emotions from deep inside of us; and the creation of our own art, while perhaps not very good, can serve as a way to better connect with the world around us and with ourselves. You don’t have to be a Picasso or a Monet to appreciate and understand the overwhelming feeling of releasing your unconscious on a canvas. Art is a powerful form of expression, and expression knows no diagnosis.