Melencolia I, Albrecht Dürer
Part I: Art and ‘Madness’
Copyright 2013, David J. Bookbinder
As both an artist and a therapist, I tend to attract, as clients, people who identify themselves as artists, either professionally or as an avocation. This is the first of a series of posts about doing psychotherapy with artists.
Artists, and their mental health, have been the subjects of study in Western culture since the age of Plato and Aristotle. Writers and researchers have avidly conjectured about a possible relationship between art and madness, and artists themselves have exhibited an inventive variety of aberrant behaviors. Since Freud, the psychological community has tried to define creativity, and in the past fifty years, psychotherapies that make use of drawing and painting, dance, music, writing, theater, and other arts have become full-fledged professions. But in all this time, little attention has been paid to the process of healing the wounded artist.
Are artists ‘mad’?
Have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but the overacuteness of the senses?
– Edgar Allen Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart”
Researchers have associated creativity with atypical brain organization, increased right-brain activity, left-handedness, language-related disorders such as dyslexia and, since ancient times, with what has variously been called madness, insanity, and mental illness. The list of books and films devoted to the madness of artists is long and varied.
The debate goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks and Romans. Plato, in his Phaedrus, wrote of “an inspired madness” which is “a noble thing.” Aristotle wrote, in his Poetics, “Poetry implies either a happy gift of nature or a strain of madness.” Seneca — Roman statesman, tragic poet, and Stoic philosopher — wrote: “There is no great genius without a tincture of madness.”
Artists, from Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I (1514), through the idiosyncratic Renaissance artists and the moody Romantic poets, and on to the surrealists and the postmodernists, have also explored the relationship between madness and creativity. Beneath the engraving Melancholy, by Jacob de Gheyn, is a Latin inscription which, in English, translates as: “Melancholy, the most calamitous affliction of soul and mind / Often oppresses men of talent and genius.” Shakespeare, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, wrote: “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact.” Dryden observed: “Great wits are sure to madness near allied / And thin partitions do their bounds divide.” And Wordsworth wrote: “We Poets in our youth begin in gladness / But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.”
In the field of psychology, the alleged relationship between madness and artistic creativity has been seriously investigated since Freud wrote about creative writers, daydreaming, and Leonardo da Vinci. Recently, it has become the subject of hot debate among psychological researchers.
Is it true that there is a link between madness and art? Or is that a social construction which is of no real help either to the culture at large or to individual artists themselves? What are your thoughts on this question?
To be continued…
David J. Bookbinder, LMHC