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Is there a link between mental illness and creativity?

“Spider: by Louise Bourgeois
“Spider: by Louise Bourgeois
National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden; Washington, DC

“Secrets of the Creative Brain,” an article in this month’s The Atlantic magazine, tells a provocative story. But it’s got holes.

Neuropsychiatrist, Nancy C. Andersen said she found that mental illness and creativity go together after testing 13 “creative geniuses.” Her diagnosis took in bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety and alcoholism.

Hmm. Let’s talk about this.

A couple of years ago, the Freud Museum in London, former home to the father of psychoanalysis, put the work of a deceased artist on the proverbial couch. The “patient” was sculptor Louise Bourgeois, who died in 2010 at 98. Granted she was in analysis for three decades, which was not generally known until the Freud Museum made it known in an exhibit of her work under the banner “The Return of the Repressed.”

The banner seemed a discrediting way to view her work, but exhibit curator Philip Larratt-Smith seemed unaware of this when he said, “Art was for Louise a system of self-knowledge . . . of discharging tensions and anxieties, of exorcising early traumas.” He didn't get this from her art, but rather from her private jottings about her therapy found in her Chelsea home after she died.

Calling attention to Bourgeois’ traumas not only was an invasion of privacy, but it also gets in the way of interpretation of her work. Apparently, the curator doesn’t know that artists’ demons are immaterial to art appreciation, that even without records of Bourgeois time on the couch, her art communicates, and that her art – abstract explorations of birth, sex and death - gives visual form to emotions that speak independent of Freudian analysis.

Bourgeois said it herself: “Freud did nothing for artists, or for the artist’s problem, the artist’s torment – to be an artist involves some suffering. That’s why artists repeat themselves – because they have no access to a cure. People sublimate and turn to art.”

Sounds like a good way to channel bad feelings, don’t you think?

Besides, one can't do all the work of being an artist and be unbalanced. Van Gogh comes to mind. He completed more than 2000 oil paintings, 100 watercolors and 200 letters to fellow artists and his brother – in French and English, as well as Dutch, no less. And as everyone knows, when bad moods hit, it's hard to get any work done. Van Gogh's exceptional production level suggests that whatever problems he had, they didn’t cause dysfunction.

There's also the care of his brushes – characteristically encrusted with thick paint, given his love of applying pigment in globs. He didn't have money to buy new brushes. Painting every day, he had to clean them after each use before the pigment dried on them. It's hard to imagine someone out of control doing such housekeeping every day, let alone painting some of art history's more gorgeous works. Van Gogh was plainly too busy to be sick.

Ditto Bourgeois. Besides creating sculpture in a wide variety of materials - glass, wood, steel and marble - her body of work also included drawings, books, prints and installations. She also held salons in her apartment for fellow artists.

Given the Freud Museum’s exhibit tag for Bourgeois’ work - “The Return of the Repressed” - one may wonder how the word “repressed” applies.

Post Script: Following Anderson’s report of her investigations, she came to a conclusion that seemed to render her study of creativity irrelevant:

“Some people see things others cannot, and they are right, and we call them creative geniuses. Some people see things others cannot, and they are wrong, and we call them mentally ill.”

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