The Trope of the Mad Genius: Romanticising Mental Health in Art

Words by Emily Fuller

Most of you have stumbled across the label of the ‘mad genius’. A historic plethora of writers, painters, sculptors and filmmakers alike have been sealed, stamped and delivered as this dangerously marvellous package of unhinged creativity and cleverness. In popular culture, an artist’s mental health is a measurement of their creative genius – their emotions and hardships morph into a romantic depiction of what it is to make art. We applaud and marvel their ability to supposedly feel to the darkest depths of their despair for our own entertainment, as they forge a piece of art that transcends our mundane existence.

Take Vincent Van Gogh, for example. Today, how many of us can identify his painting achievements as to how many people instantly think of the man who savagely sawed his ear off? During the time of his career, he struggled fiercely with acceptance of himself and from those in the art community. He could never seem to attain a solid artistic reputation which could have opened creative realms for him – he only managed to sell a single painting in his entire lifetime. But today, he is heralded as the king of Impressionism, and people gather in droves just to sneak a glimpse at the likes of his Sunflowers or Starry Night. We perceive his life as a romanticised tragedy of his suffering, and how that allegedly shaped him into a true artist of integrity and complexity.

Or what about Sylvia Plath? Oh yes, the tortured poet who tragically committed suicide after years of emotional abuse and mental turmoil. Despite her merits in creating a raw feminine experience within her poetic work, her struggles with mental health ignited a phenomenon regarding the mental health of artists. A psychologist even coined the term of the Sylvia Plath Effect, suggesting that poets are more susceptible to mental illness as a result of their genius.

So why are we so enticed by the struggles of the tortured artist, and why is it warmly received by an audience donning rose-coloured glasses? Maybe we’re so insecure of our own mental health and hardships that we feel justified and validated by seeing others suffer. Possibly, we have become so conditioned in a world of pain, where we feel like our suffering makes us more valuable and complex as a human being.

This harsh generalisation and romanticising does not benefit anyone – not our artists nor those who are observing their art. Indeed for myself, I can often utilise my creativity as an emotional outlet or to provide a platform to discuss particular human experiences – art is a wondrous expression and dialogue of the human condition, whether that be regarding love or grief or everyday life. However, I appreciate my creativity as a safe space for me to help dismantle my suffering or of those around me. I long to weaponise the power of language to grow flowers out of weeds. I have now sought comfort in the healing powers my creative outlet provides for not only myself, but for anyone else who seeks that glimmer of hope and resonance for overcoming their own turmoil. And I truly believe that is the driving force for the majority of creative souls I know – it is very rare that I encounter an artist who is struggling with internal dis-ease and creates art in order to wallow in the depths of their pain.

Art and creativity is dynamic. Transformative. It is our lifeline in which we can grip with two hands, and haul ourselves in, inch by inch – for me, word by word. It does not discriminate – it can celebrate euphoric joy and positivity just in the same vain that it can help to heal internal unrest. Pain and suffering does not make a great artist. What makes a great artist is their ability to wield a range of experiences on the emotional spectrum – blue skies or gloomy clouds – and utilise them to give birth to something extraordinary and empowering for not only their journey of internal healing, but also for those finding their own meaning from the art they are interpreting. If we stop romanticising this image of wretchedness and chaos, it may give us the clarity to see that healthy and happy experiences of art can evoke thought and self-reflection just as vitally as what ‘the art of suffering’ can.

Art by Nikki Scioscia

1 Comment

  1. Really happy you wrote about this!! I think part of the problem comes from the common perception that artists are only ‘valuable’ (to themselves and others) when creating incredible and profound pieces. Quite a few of my friends have spoken of feeling useless until creativity ‘strikes’ and they can pump out good pieces. These moments of ‘genius’ are praised and adored, and healthy lifestyles and practices seem quite bland in comparison. People are far more interested in the person who created five masterpieces in a week, then never again, than someone who creates something new and honest once a year. It makes me sad that because the former method is so revered, newer younger creators see it as something to aspire to, and thus the cycle continues.
    It’s like someone glaring at their garden from inside all year, then trying to harvest oranges in the middle of Summer! You’ve got to fertilise the soil, feed the trees, help them flourish in time for winter, when your hard work will pay off and the beautiful fruits are ready!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s