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“The Mad Artist: Is Madness a Prerequisite for Creative Excellence?"

It is a universally acknowledged tendency to make a direct connection between an artist’s mental health struggles and the incredible quality of their work, whether we fictionalise or attempt to reconstruct their life. Especially as if the latter were the direct outcome of the former. Why do we romanticise artistic

endeavours when mental health problems are equally prevalent across all fields? And is it reasonable to assume that the one in four people who have mental health issues necessarily possess some innate talent for the arts? But as a previously ended exhibit at the Van Gogh Museum highlighted, the connection between the two is anything but easy.

Yes, there are countless examples of "mad geniuses." For instance, Van Gogh amputated his own ear and gave it to a prostitute. The well-known author Sylvia Plath sadly battled severe depression before her suicide. Robin Williams, an actor and comedian, struggled with mental illness but ultimately failed. Such real life examples are used to generalise the assumption that every artistic person is “crazy” or eccentric in some way. Society tends to romanticise the "mad genius" stereotype and maintain that mental illness and creativity are inextricably linked. But the validity of this thought remains a mystery.

A study where Nobel Laureates, psychiatric patients, and art students were evaluated on their creative skills was among the most recent researches that questioned if mentally ill persons have greater creativity. On performing the experiment, it was discovered that the Nobel Prize winners were the most creative, followed by art students and then psychiatric patients. However, this experiment is inadequate since, assuming the Nobel Laureates and art students were in full possession of their mental faculties, no psychiatric evaluation of either group was done. Pragmatically, there are simply insufficient reliable trials to determine if the "mad genius" myth connecting creativity and mental illness is utterly false or not.

If not solid evidence, we have at our disposal the iconic letters of Van Gogh to slightly contradict the deep rooted stereotype. In his heartfelt correspondence to his brother Theo, Vincent expresses, "Oh, if I could have worked without this accursed disease – what things I might have done."

Adding on to Van Gogh’s relationship with art, his most productive years as a painter were inside the walls of St. Remy's mental institution where he spent most of the later days of his life. Van Gogh painted around 150 paintings in a year during his stay in St. Remy’s. It is said to have given him solace and reduced episodes of breakdown too. Unfortunately, a form of epilepsy took a toll on the painter’s health as the living conditions in the asylum were not ideal for patients.

The notion that people who suffer from mental illness may choose to engage in creative hobbies to manage their symptoms may be true. But to assume that a “real” artist is simply born with the combined traits of mental problems and creative intelligence is a double-edged sword. Consequently, what if the living conditions of an artist is what actually pushes so many people over the edge? Although many musicians, writers, artists, and other creative geniuses may struggle with alcoholism or depression, this could just as easily be a result of ongoing social stigma, financial burdens and feeling excluded by their peers.

This trope cannot be talked about without mentioning its liberal use in pop culture. The idea of the "eccentric artist" or the "mad genius" has been used so recurrently in popular culture that it has become cliché. It simply claims that every artist, from poet Sylvia Plath to composer Mozart, went insane after their own brilliance tormented them for years.

It's Rain Man for autistic people, Van Gogh documentaries starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and A Beautiful Mind about a prize-winning mathematician who has hallucinations about secret military sites. We forget that these were people in the real world, more than mere characters on our screens and caricatures to be boxed into tropes. We forget to leave room for their nuances. Such representation in the media does not help the cause of mentally ill people or creatives.

Romanticization contributes to the stigma associated with mental illness. In movies, the primary mentally ill characters are portrayed as tragic heroes who unavoidably experience violent outbursts. Van Gogh self-mutilates; Raymond in Rain Man accidentally drowns his little brother; John Nash, the psychotic mathematician, has a meltdown and almost kills his wife and child.

By wrongly correlating creativity with mental illness, we risk refraining mentally ill individuals from being heard or seeking proper help, and encourage artists to fall prey to sicknesses “to fully reach their potential.”

The "mad artist" stereotype and romanticization of mentally ill and creative individuals should be avoided since they contribute to the harmful stereotype that those with mental illnesses are especially violent. Unfair but persistent connections will be made between creatives and mental illness as long as attitudes toward both don't shift.

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