If you’re on the cutting edge, you’re going to bleed
Do you have to have a tortured mind to create great art? Not necessarily, but there certainly seems to be a correlation between the two. This could be true in the convincing case of Chinese photographer Ren Hang who sadly committed a suicide at the age of only 29.
Hang was a self-taught artist, who began shooting nude images of his friends while in college. His signature style was to desexualise naked bodies while turning them into human sculptures. Highly acclaimed outside his home country, Ren's work was not published in China due to censorship, but he resisted his art to be any form of political or personal statement:
“I don’t really view my work as taboo, because I don’t think so much in cultural context or political context. I just do what I do.”
Intentionally or not his photography pushed the boundaries. From Ren's poetry we learn more about him and the mental illness he was blatantly honest about:
But I often feel
It seems to send the wrong man.”
As I read countless articles stating Ren's work to be a by-product of pain, I couldn't help and wonder; why is mental illness so closely associated with creativity?
The research for this took me back to 384 BC Classic Greece.
Aristotle once claimed that there is no great music, scholarly or literary genius without a mixture of madness.
In search for a more scientific evidence I found solid association between mental illness and a creativity in a work of University of Iowa neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen. She led a survey among 30 writers with a result of 80% of them meeting the formal diagnostic criteria for some form of mental disorder including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and ADHD.
While it's more common for us to associate mental illnesses with substantially increased health risks; according to evolutional psychologists they may come with productive side effects. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger?
Edgar Allen Poe, who is thought to have suffered from manic depression, once wrote: "Men have called me mad, but the question is not yet settled whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence..."
And my favourite poet John Keats backs it up with what he wrote on The Vale of Sole-Making: “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!”.
While his depression was not clinically proven, Keats truly had many difficult moments in his life:
father died when he was 8, mother died when he was 14, his brother died when he was 23, he also had financial problems and that caused further health problems leading to death from tuberculosis at the age of 26.
While we can draw parallels to connect his intense creativity with periods of low moods; it is impossible to say whether he would today have a clinical diagnosis of depression or was just overwhelmed.
Lord Byron comes in handy having expressed:
"We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched". The link between illness and creativity is said to display a capacity to see the world in a novel and original way; to see things that others cannot.
These are cases that appear to support the somewhat controversial idea that mental illness enhances creativity, but there is also strong support that mental illness does not have to be present for creativity to exist. All artists create out of the same basic desire to communicate. And while for people like Ren Hang the art comes from pain, the term 'tormented artist' is a very relative concept. Should we encourage artists to prolong their depressive bouts in order to increase their artistic abilities? Shouldn't creativity support personal growth and resilience?
Instead, people are fascinated by the concept of a tormented genius. As a result many gifted artists like Heath Ledger may have been affected by this approach.
An Australian actor liked to physically and mentally dive into his characters. It was his true belief that he could only give justice to the character by pushing the boundaries of the creative process:
"Joker’s just an absolute sociopath, a cold-blooded, mass-murdering clown, and director has given me free rein. Which is fun, because there are no real boundaries to what The Joker would say or do. "
Ledger locked himself up in a hotel room for weeks preparing for the role. He formed a little diary and experimented with voices. As a result he ended up landing more in the realm of a psychopath - someone with very little to no conscience towards his acts.
While his cause of death was an accidental overdose many believes that Australian actor struggled after he created Joker, his Batman villain.
As the saying goes, If you’re on the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed. Computational psychology gives a fascinating insight into the concept of creativity. It is said that creativity cannot be attributed to any given brain state or mood. It is a hysteric effect brought through chaotic phases.
"The more intense these swings, the more novel the creative product, but at the expense of increasingly severe pathologies, including hallucinations, confusion, inattention to the external environment, and inability to differentiate imagination from reality."
Since there are many different categories of artistic expression, we base our links and correlations on a rare group of individuals; there is a possibility for a biased assessment of the creative process. At the end of the day depression always will be a thief, it steals from you rather than contribute to what you do. To say Ren Hang or Ledger, was mentally ill may well be true – but it also does the artists and their work a real injustice. Some psychiatrists regarded it as little more than irresponsible speculation, a justification for human suffering.
As a society, we’ve come to see depression and sadness as something that must be medicated away. We’ve been so eager to avoid it that we’ve ended up romanticising it.
Why don't we just let it be?
Why should we invest in a work of art that was created without conflict, peace or struggle, happiness and pain? Without both where is the movement, the challenge? This whole research suggests that sadness comes with its own set of benefits and that even our most unpleasant feelings serve equally important purpose as pleasant ones.
Regardless of the suffering or happiness artists have the capacity to change the perception of the world. Art is a reflection of humanity, and humanity’s greatest virtue is its ability to overcome their own adversity and give hope.