Does Mental Illness an Artist Make?


Since I was a teenager, I’ve been aware of a “tradition” of the creative artist as being perceived as or actually being unhinged, neurotic, mentally ill.  This week I’ve been trying to figure out where I first saw or heard this, and I’ve failed in coming up with a specific example.  Creative artists were defined as being “different,” a vague enough term to possibly hide something else.  I remember reading a biography of Peter Tchaikovsky that painted him as a suffering, emotionally unstable man — and not once mentioning his homosexuality, which, in 19th century Russia, would have made life difficult for him especially keeping it secret.  In college, I learned of Sylvia Plath, the poet who committed suicide, so she must have been emotionally unstable.  There seemed to be a way that societies found to accept creative artists while demeaning them at the same time, i.e. explaining their gifts as a by-product of some sort of mental or emotional instability.

Earlier this week, a friend and I went to see the movie, The Soloist.  It reminded me a lot of another movie about a schizophrenic musician: Shine.  In both, an extremely talented young musician suffers a mental breakdown while in music school and spends the rest of his life playing music but in much different circumstances.  For Nathaniel Ayers, it was on the streets of L.A., but for David Helfgott, it was in an institution.  As I watched the friendship develop between Ayers and the L.A. columnist, Steve Lopez, I kept thinking, inexplicably, of Virginia Woolf and her bipolar disorder.  I have been amazed by Woolf’s output, how she wrote in spite of the intense mood swings and headaches she experienced, as well as the psychotic episodes.  It was almost as if the writing was a channel of relief from her suffering, her way of holding reality.  Surely, that was something I noted in Ayers’ love of music.  And like Woolf, his playing for others on the street became a gift to the world…and back to Ayers himself.

The population of writers worldwide, I’d guess, is no more likely to have a high percentage of mentally ill people than the general population.  I suspect that’s also true for musicians.  But is it true that only great art has been created in the past by people who suffered in some way psychologically and the mediocre stuff by “normal” people?  What is “normal”? 

For Evan Quinn and all the creative people that he knows in his future world, I wanted to show their humanity, their vulnerability, their fallibility, their intelligence.  I refused to think of any character as “normal,” but rather, unique in him/herself.  I decided that I wouldn’t go for the easy stereotypes of artists as alcoholics or drug addicts, the suffering artist in the cold, empty garret, or neurotics, as such.  I wanted to create characters who are creative and show their creative processes, the way they live.  As I’ve worked on the novels, I’ve realized that creative artists see the same reality as everyone else, just at a different angle or focus, or from multiple angles.

And isn’t that the way people with mental illness see the world?  It’s like they have cable while the rest of us are stuck with only network TV.  But I don’t believe that psychological health determines creativity or one’s access to the imagination.  There was something childlike in the way Ayers behaved, the way he related to the world and other people.  All children are creative in their play, curious about the world, wide open to the imagination and to learning.  Are they crazy?  Do humans begin their lives psychologically unstable and grow into stability?  I think creativity is a connection to childhood and the imagination….

I enjoyed The Soloist very much.  The friendship that developed between Ayers and Lopez and how it helped each man in different ways was moving.  Ayers love for Beethoven’s music gave us lots of Beethoven’s music on the soundtrack.  My one gripe involved two sections of visual symbolism offered by the director — one showed two pigeons soaring into the sky as Ayers played his cello, and the other filled the screen with changing colors and patterns while Ayers and Lopez listened to an L.A. Philharmonic rehearsal of a Beethoven symphony.  Both of these visual sections struck me as cliched and really schmaltzy, not terribly original.  Now if Ayers and Lopez had soared into the air on the music….

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One response to “Does Mental Illness an Artist Make?

  1. Pingback: Daily News About The Soloist : A few links about The Soloist - Friday, 15 May 2009 17:11

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