Art and Mental Illness

“Vincent Van Gogh ate yellow paint so he would get the happiness inside him.”  This infamous phrase used to infect every Tumblr post, every “artsy” caption. But the quote is incorrect. According to Van Gogh’s physician, Dr. Peyron, the artist wanted to poison himself by eating paint, but he never succeeded.

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Despite the quote’s falsity, its existence raises a larger issue in regard to creativity and mental illness. Van Gogh’s own mental illnesses—allegedly depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder—are often romanticized or ignored in light of his famous works. As art critic William Wilson once wrote for the Los Angeles Times, “Van Gogh has been romanticized as the very model of the Mad Genius and made the focus of rationalization for every pathetic unknown artist who labored in unrewarded obscurity.”  While that is true, Van Gogh has also become a catalyst for something deeper: a more universal idealization of struggling artists.

For years, many have upheld a glamorized attitude towards the life of the mad, starving artist. As if recreating the 2000 film Almost Famous, some people assume life is simple: the key to happiness is to travel the world, to easily create art, and to live “in the moment.” In this Hollywood view of artistry, the word “depression” is translated to mean an emotion, rather than a mental condition. In a film like Almost Famous, viewers forget the depicted “artistic” lifestyle comes at the expense of poverty, addiction, and the occasional sexually transmitted disease. Groupies are too busy inspiring musicians, and musicians are too busy making powerful music for there to be a moment in which viewers can fully understand the mental and physical tolls their lifestyle perpetuates.  

Perhaps it is both media and technology that allows these modes of thinking. Consider that in today’s society, moments of romanticization tend to begin with an incorrect portrayal or even a simple misunderstanding. An assumption from someone’s Instagram post—such as assuming their life is perfect because they’re on vacation—can skew the idea of a “mad genius,” a “starving artist,” or even simply, a “mentally ill person.” People often think that if someone posts something positive, there is nothing else wrong.  Popular culture can especially dictate society’s idea of what an artist is. Particularly in the media, a popular artist such as Elle King can be portrayed as a young, perfect, bubbly musician. However, despite her charming smiles and catchy music, King struggles with both PTSD and depression.

Living in Patti Smith’s depiction of the Chelsea Hotel in her memoir Just Kids, sketching Bob Dylan and being evicted because the rent cannot be paid are two separate ideas.  In her book, Smith reveals what the reader needs to know: how her relationships inspired her musical career. But in real life, one cannot live through struggle as poetically as her words portray. There is still rent to pay, there is sickness, and there is pain. While Smith struggled with all three, her poetic narrative can lead readers astray; one might think these struggles were not terribly difficult. Reality often plays out very differently from what one hopes or believes from novels and television. Depression is not beautiful; it is frustrating.  Poverty is not carefree; it is immensely stressful. To be an outcast is to be devoid of necessary interpersonal connection.

As one begins to idealize the “starving lifestyle,” they may tend to romanticize the influence of mental illness on creativity. Following the lines of the idealized “Mad Genius,” people perhaps assume that inner struggle influences an artist’s work for the better. For someone like Van Gogh, the momentous struggle of balancing artistry and depression seems not so difficult: the artist releases his demons onto the canvas, and all is solved.

In 2016, the Van Gogh museum presented an exhibition called “On the Verge of Insanity.” The exhibit hypothesizes that through it. One must never forget that Van Gogh’s career ended when he shot himself in the chest, ultimately dying two days later.

Artists today suffer the same struggles as Van Gogh. In Modern Baseball’s YouTube documentary “Tripping in the Dark,” member Brendan Lukens discusses his personal connection between mental illness and creativity. The documentary explains how simply delving into one’s illnesses for artistic output is not always the healthiest method to create. In fact, it could impair creativity; if an artist suffers from illness, the artist should first seek treatment. Treatment may not solve every issue, but it may help the artist to view their emotions in a more honest fashion.

Marina Diamandis of Marina and the Diamonds has dealt with mental illness for years, and she has publicly expressed her experiences with both anxiety and depression. In an essay penned for Mental Health Day in October 2017, Diamandis opened up about her experiences and coping mechanisms. “For me, life = experiences + reactions to those experiences,” Diamandis writes.  “The only power I have is choosing how I react to them.”

Diamandis’ third record FROOT doubled as a means of shedding her inner negativity.  Through the record, Diamandis came to terms both lyrically and personally with her depression. “I think I used to believe that being depressed was part of my personality or that I was born like that, but it's quite shocking to realize that perhaps that isn't the case,” she told The Line of Best Fit in 2015. She controlled most of FROOT’s creative process herself, unlike the past two records. Through FROOT, Diamandis took time to understand her own identity.

Despite using her third record as an outlet, Diamandis advocates for other practices to manage mental illness. As with any artist, simply creating may not be the most perfect or most effective coping mechanism. Her three highlights include practicing meditation, exercising, and identifying with thoughts. Identifying with thoughts, she expands, means to not take your thoughts so seriously. In the essay, Diamandis explains, “I try not to identify with a thought and interpret it as truth just because it came into my mind.” Her practices certainly make for more honest lyrics; on FROOT, Diamandis unveils a level of honesty and integrity not found on either Electra Heart or The Family Jewels.

It is something to be said about our views towards struggle that people so readily accepted Van Gogh’s “yellow paint.”  Perhaps onlookers truly want the struggle with mental illness to be something that can be solved with simple colors and motions. Perhaps some truly believe that art provides a sole outlet for illness. Sometimes art can, but not for every artist, and not in every format. We can appreciate art that is derived from pain—it provides a subject matter many can relate to.  But sometimes, there emerges a line between a certain sadness and something deeper.

Photography by: Anastasia Yan