‘I want to keep these sufferings’: art and mental illness

Edvard Munch’s iconic painting The Scream provides a distorted and surreal sense of anxiety and isolation. It’s a trip into the underbelly of Munch’s psyche, based on his own experiences with mental illness.

Munch was a man who believed that mental anguish fuelled his art: ‘[My troubles] are part of me and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and [treatment] would destroy my art. I want to keep these sufferings.’ He was terrified of many things. But losing his art – in his mind inextricably linked to mental illness – seems to be what he feared most.

Popular culture has long touted the link between creativity and mental illness. The image of the tortured artist is a trope: a highly unstable individual, buzzing with mania and turmoil that is released periodically through art and placated perpetually through substance abuse.

This image draws our compassion as well as a dark fascination. We have been conditioned to view the suffering of artists romantically, because we equate madness with genius.

We see this in films such as Shine and The Hours. Vincent van Gogh, Herman Melville, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf attract an endless amount of fascination, not just because of their art, but also because of their tortured lives.

And the famed myth of the ‘27 club’, involving the deaths of music legends, including Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, at the age of twenty-seven also attracts a rampant fascination.

In this, the tortured artist is given an exalted, almost magical, status. I would define this obsession not just as a trope but as a fetish; ‘an object regarded with awe as having magical potency.’

Rather than understanding creativity as an amalgamation of different factors that tap into the collective human experience, it is understood here as having mysterious and tortured origins.


But this trope involves the glorification of artists’ suffering. It dehumanises artists where we understand their suffering through a romantic lens and as a prerequisite for their genius. The lives of tortured artists are seen as being expendable for the sake of their creativity.

The image of the suffering artist – wild hair and hungry eyes, indulging in substances and drowning in a self-induced stupor at the mercy of the storm within them – has a strange magnetism to it. It’s an image I have been guilty of succumbing to.

I was, quite predictably, obsessed with Sylvia Plath. My tender sixteen-year-old mind inhaled The Bell Jar as though it was simultaneously an actualisation of the anxieties of youth, as well as a twisted aspiration for life: to suffer immeasurably and create something insanely brilliant.

Then, also predictably, came my obsession with Kurt Cobain. His tumultuous life, his depression, his addiction and his self-loathing became tragically exalted. I viewed these aspects of his personality as prerequisites for his creative output.

And then came the film The Hours, in which the character of Virginia Woolf weaves words of beauty out of her own madness. As she wastes away, her work flourishes. Upon finishing her masterpiece, in an iconic scene that will forever be imprinted in my mind, she walks into a gloriously sunlit river, with rocks in her pocket.

Her voice in the background, set to sweepingly lilting music, says: ‘… to look life in the face and to love it for what it is … and to then put it away. Always the years between us … always the hours.’

The romance of this scene coupled with my admiration Woolf’s work cemented in my mind the idea that to attain the brilliance of creation, I would have to lead a tortured life. Not only would I have to create art, my life itself would have to be a work of art, filled with tragedy and metaphors.

The link between creativity and mental illness is not entirely unfounded. An Icelandic study found that artists are twenty-five per cent more likely to carry a gene linked to schizophrenia and bipolar. But whether this link is a matter of causality or correlation is difficult to determine.

David Nettle at Newcastle University has drawn a distinction between psychosis and psychoticism. He concluded that while psychosis or mental illness in itself does not lead to creativity, psychoticism, or the predisposition to mental illness, may lead to creativity. While the issue of causality remains murky, he also concluded that the creative process has elements of psychopathology.

And there is a crucial distinction to be made between a tortured process and a tortured lifestyle.

Creativity is often a spontaneous overflow of feelings, a cathartic expulsion of pain. Creativity can also be a laborious and neurotic process of revision and self-doubt, especially apparent when it comes to creative writing. Whatever the personal process of an artist might be, it can often be propelled by emotional tumult.

Many of us will agree that suffering is an integral part of the human condition. And suffering, in the form of existential angst, may be a part of the artist’s biography. The pursuit of art, by its very nature, is often subversive, and therefore isolated. The process of the creation might be tortured, and art itself might reveal tortured aspects of experience.

However, being in the grips of mental illness and engaging in self-destruction does not translate into creativity, at least certainly not when one is consumed by it.


When artists succumb to this trope it can exacerbate and normalise mental illness, substance abuse and self-destructive lifestyles. It can enable the hungry, demonic cherub on the shoulder of the artist whispering: ‘Do it for the experience. Maybe you’ll get some great work out of it.’

Artists like Edward Munch can fear their sanity far more than insanity. They can succumb to idealising suffering and mental illness.

I, like many of my counterparts, have linked sanity with creative stagnation. Sanity makes for a dull, uninspiring life. But ironically enough, when I was busy being a tortured artist, I produced very little work that I was proud of. I was too busy being tortured to create.

Creativity has a number of aspects to it. It involves method, discipline, motivation and inspiration. And it involves joy in the very act of creation itself.

The romanticisation of mental illness can be just as dangerous as the stigmatisation of it. Marcel Proust, in Grief and Oblivion, said, ‘We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.’ Suffering and mental illness may be transformative and inspire art, but only once recovery is under way.

While suffering may inspire creativity, ultimately, health is the prerequisite for creativity, not illness.


Image: Virginia Woolf – Christiaan Tonnis  / wikimedia 

Neha Mulay

Neha Mulay is an English major and writer. Her writing has appeared in Feminartsy and Demos Journal. She has a self-indulgent blog.

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