Are artists crazy?
Working ever hard on their craft, disregarding convention and commerce? Are they unbalanced by holding different values from the mainstream but also maintaining hope, projecting confidence in their abilities despite vast rejection?
Or is it profoundly the opposite?
Perhaps artists are amazingly strong individuals trying to weather a storm that defines their life almost as much as the urge for creativity, with poverty looming around every corner of artistic choice. It is a storm to contend with valiantly, one that surely holds potential to fell many — breaking spirit, bank account and determination to make a name.
These questions internally plague working artists. Despite the integrity that usually comes with claiming that one is a professional, artists can find themselves in a severe internal battle in doing so.
For painter Esther Phillips (whose life and art I wrote about in This Fantastic Struggle)1 and far too many creative people, the psychological and physiological manifestations of a frustrated life can lead to hospitalization, debilitating depression, mania or flourishing of mood disorders. For those attempting to cope in a world that doesn’t embrace alternatives too well, the consequences may seem less severe, but are clearly identifiable as emotional problems that indeed interfere with healthy functioning.
A creative artist has the stigma of being an outsider to a society that rewards only the scientists and architects of objects of necessity and mainstream desires. All dispossessed people can identify with the wall Esther found herself constantly up against. Especially artists. To this day, in any city, artists can identify with constant resistance. They have to have a tough spirit just to survive.
Valiant though the efforts for an original life might be, powerlessness in a money-equals-power society (and the pain that this position brings) takes its toll. Madness can be seen, after all, as “the desperate communication of the powerless.”2 Most artists lucky enough to be in the boundless freedom of creative life still find themselves straitjacketed in this desired role, which ironically keeps them and the mass of society distant from each other.
It is a terrible predicament to be good at something, to know you have a unique ability, to even recognize that those abilities could creatively transform problems into solutions and certainly should have a place in society — but to see little prospect of work. As fantastic a ride as such a life can be with accompanying freedoms, the struggle wears thin — to the point where the worth of tending to one’s innate and cultivated abilities is questioned.
Mental illness especially runs rampant among the creative fringe. In order for that to change, the artist’s role in society will need to be re-envisioned.
Artwork courtesy of the author from her book This Fantastic Struggle
- This piece came in part from a draft essay originally entitled “Mental Illness and the Artist’s Struggle,” which drew from ideas presented in the closing chapters of my book This Fantastic Struggle: The Life and Art of Esther Phillips (2002, Creative Arts) [↩]
- Showalter, Elaine. The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture 1830-1980. 5. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985. [↩]