The Mad Genius and other pathetic clichés.
Why is madness fascinating, terrifying and underwhelming in equal measure?
You’ve heard the list; Sylvia Plath, Syd Barrett, Van Gogh, Yayoi Kusama etc. – I can’t really be bothered listing more, you know the cliché. The question of significance here is: Are people who suffer debilitating mental illnesses and ill health more creative than those who don’t? Are there a higher proportion of creative people who are mad, than non mad? I’ve never seen any stats on this because most likely they don’t exist. Which doesn’t tell me much, except that maybe the claim that if you suffer mental ill health you’re more creative is perhaps as rose tinted as most other things we look at with those darn pinky glasses on.
My own experience is this. I’ve met a lot of artists in my time, and I’ve met a lot of mad people too, most of the time in completely different contexts with the odd exception. But that also tells us little, so let’s us cut to the real point, which I’ve already formed an opinion on. I admit that this is a purely speculative opinion. We have a romantic view of the ‘mad artist’, the creative genius with their mad ideas or the mad genius with their creative ideas. I get the feeling there are two reasons for this.
Firstly so we can hold these figures closely, it helps us feel more able to accept their ‘wacky’ ideas, lifestyle and behaviour. We perhaps like the idea that madness breeds creativity, insight and moments of originality, however uncommon these experiences are in the mundane reality of mental illness. Secondly it allows us to hold these ideas at a distance, as the other, the work of someone who has been touched, gifted with a curse and brilliance at the same time. Yet I bet you know a few people who have been through a period of mental ill health, and I’m also fairly confident that not all those people experienced a period of intense creativity, insight or moments of originality. You get where I’m going with this and which also leads us onto the point I feel aware of today.
There aren’t that many contemporary experiences of madness that aren’t viewed through the previously mentioned rose tinted glasses. What would an art work, of any media, look like if it weren’t touched with these clichéd notions?
In the previous post I mentioned how I’d become aware that some experiences I’ve had as an adult are not common. This has sat with me since then, and whilst working through the material I have had to remind myself that most people won’t know what a psychiatric assessment looks like, never mind how it may feel. Equally, the same can be said about my police intelligence file or the corporate stuff either. Yet none of these events fit into the popular perception of ‘the mad’ or ‘the outlaw’. There are events of survival in a system that has little value placed on these experiences, however much mainstream culture may pay lip service to them. A lip service that seems to come from the same person wearing those glasses tinted with rose.