The Myth of the Genius - on the link between creativity and mental health

CW: This article includes discussion of mental illness and addiction.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness. - Allen Ginsberg

The creative mind excites me; I’m fascinated by the creative faculties of the mind, by people who see the world differently to me. Through the creative industries - literature, art, music - I’ve been able to access thousands of new lenses to illuminate the sheer fucking brilliance of the world around me. Distortions of reality. Normalising the realities of distorted perspectives. And I love it. I love the art I’ve surrounded myself by. Art in its purest sense, as I understand it, is a sort of ineffable expression of the nonsensical, of madness even. For me art is ‘Howl’ (Ginsberg), its ‘Metamorphosis’ (Kafka), art is ‘Life on Mars’ (Bowie, miss u Starman), it’s ‘Self Portrait’ (Gogh); because it all makes perfect nonsense to me.

They’re creators, artists, they’re genius. They create genius. Yet, there’s a commonality in most, if not all of the art I’m drawn to. Alcohol abuse, drug abuse, depression, psychosis, anxiety, bipolar, mental illness. It’s been immersed in the arts for a long time. And so, it should be. Art should be there for us to explore and express, capture and mirror, the realities of what it is to be. Mental illness deserves a representation in art.

But what is it that’s happening when we start to see the artist and madness as the same thing; when we start to see the creator in what’s being created. When we recognise the genius in the man and not in the art.

The genius doesn’t exist. It’s a cool word that has its place in 3 am drunken conversations about the best fucking lyrics you’ve ever heard. To hold the ‘artist’ on a pedestal in that way, to identity the artist as the ‘genius’, is to identify the creative process itself as something ‘other’. This great mind who creates. This genius.

I came to Edinburgh with a number of things that I wanted to have achieved before I graduated and I haven’t achieved any of them. I wanted to write a book, or a play or a script, something tangible that I could be proud of and really do something with. 4 years to build and to create something to give me a chance at a creative career, instead of having to look at real jobs and do something realistic and dull and boring and corporate or end up working for the fucking council. And so, I’ve been forced to challenge my own conception of what it means to be creative. I’ve realised that making art is something I have to work at, it’s not something that I am, or should be. It’s not some passive process where extraordinary ideas should come to me. Achieving something, making art, is an active process that requires graft and hard work and persistence.

The greats aren’t great because at birth they could paint, the greats are great because they paint a lot.

And I’ve seen it a lot at university: great, talented, brilliant people trying to create and build. Striving for the extraordinary. And you don’t have to be clinically mentally ill to engage with art in a way that’s unhealthy; mostly it’s about romanticising and perpetuating unhealthy habits and calling that thing creativity. We’ve romanticised pain and insomnia and alcoholism and drug abuse and depression. Writers, musicians, artists trying to feel, to hurt, to relate. And I’ve seen it in my friends, drinking ridiculous amounts of coffee and gin. Artists. Because you’re not creating if you’re not hurting, and you’re no genius if you don’t know pain. Consistent happiness is for those who lack depth, who don’t think, or feel. Hurting for our art is about capturing truth, right? It’s about being real, raw. It’s about being emotionally intelligent. It’s about being an artist.

We need to challenge the myth of the genius and protect the mental well-being of the artist. Creativity isn’t some disposition only possessed by the talented, by the genius. To be creative can be about being intentional, proactive, persistent. It’s about being able to recognise bad and unhealthy habits for what they are, and not as some extension of critically engaged and gifted mind.

For any musician, but also any artist or writer struggling in the creative process, I couldn’t recommend the WHOLE TRUTH podcast enough, supporting the IAMWHOLE campaign - a movement that encourages people to take an hour out of their day to do something to support their mental well-being- it’s run by Jordan Steven’s (@althenative) and it’s a series of open and honest accounts by musicians of how their mental health has been damaged and affected by their art and the industry; it’s so very worth the listen.

Music, art, and literature should be therapeutic. They should be a joy to engage with. When it starts to be the case that it’s our art itself, or our understanding of what it is to make art, that’s damaging the mental health of the artist, something has gone horribly, horribly wrong.

*Illustration by Paola Lindo Valentina*

© 2018 The Rattlecap

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