Artistic Creativity, Mental Health and Humanness

This post aims to clarify and test some opinions I’ve had for a long time about how art and mental illness may relate. We’ve all heard stories about Vincent van Gogh’s troubled life, and seen paintings that allegedly illustrate his bouts of depression, including indicators of suicidal mentation to be ‘read’ from his work, such as this one, which was perhaps his last painting – ‘Crows in a field of wheat’

There have been efforts to use art work, both as a measure of mental health, and as a means of improving it. Regarding art as a measure, there is for example the House-Tree-Person (HTP) test, which attempts to assess mental health, personality, and intelligence (as well as revealing possible brain disorders).

In the HTP test, developed in 1948 by psychologist John Buck (and updated in 1969), the test-takers are asked to make line-drawings of a tree, a house, and a person, on 3 separate standard size sheets of white paper. All three are sometimes drawn on the same page. Instructions  are given before hand (e.g. ‘Draw as good a picture as you can’. ‘Make the person a different gender from you.’), and questions are asked about the work, during and after, depending on the age and mental maturity of the subject, and what the professional is looking for. (‘Is that person happy?’ ‘What kind of tree is that?’ ‘How do people get into the house?’ Can people see out of the windows?’).

A second stage may be to add colors to the drawings with crayons. Obviously, there is a great deal of subjectivity about these tests, on the part of both test-taker and test-giver, but with a trained professional, the results match very closely with other instruments for determining personality and mind states, such as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS), mentioned in Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders here.

At least 35 years ago, a counselor colleague friend shared with me  some examples of HTP drawings made by his clients to illustrate what they can reveal. They bore no names or identifying marks, and I later threw them out, but I still recall how striking they were. Even without being trained, after learning a few cues to look for, I was confident that some of the clients were expressing clear signs of depression, anger, loneliness, alienation or even disorientation. Few, if any, real examples can be found today in an online search, no doubt because of privacy issues. What are shown below are mostly illustrations of the kind of thing a professional might see, and how she might interpret it. Some ‘art work’, such as that given here, is fairly obviously made by someone who is angry and even disoriented. 



Other drawings suggest the subjects are positive, confident, well grounded, and happy in their home, as the example to the right.

Still other subjects are not easily assessed. Their art works may be ambiguous. They may simply show creativity, especially in adult clients whose work demonstrates maturity, or artistic skill. That ambiguity is seen in the drawing shown below, which could indicate a megalomanic emphasis of self, or a wry comment on these tests, or just be very imaginative. I would enjoy hearing a professional discuss this piece.

Beside using art to discover and measure personality traits and emotional states, art of all sorts is employed as therapy for those who have mental health problems, or are dealing with disruptive and traumatic experiences or difficult environments. This could be in terms of visual, written,  musical, or dance forms, or some combination. Take fiction writing, for example. There are many famous poets and story writers who have taken their own lives (and of course many who haven’t). Silvia Plath and Earnest Hemingway come to mind. (For a long discussion  of author-suicides, 33 of whom are listed on pp. 2-3, see this 2005 dissertation at Nottingham University by Lilia Loman.)

One American clinical psychologist – Edwin Schneidman (1918 – 2009) – was also very interested in the connection between suicide and writing. He and associates developed studies and treatments for the prevention of suicide, and self-destructive behavior. But he felt that fiction writing can be either “life-sustaining”, or “death-facilitating”, saying that British novelist and short story writer Joseph Conrad (1857 – 1924) exemplifies the former; while Italian novelist, poet and critic Cesare Pavese (1908 – 1950) exemplifies the latter.

Chapter 7 of Schneidman’s 1993 book, Suicide as Psychache: A Clinical Approach to Self-destructive Behavior, is an analysis of Pavese’s death-facilitating way of thinking. Readers with some experience in formal logic might find “suicidal logic” an interesting form of rationalization. Schneidman develops 3 aspects of Pavese’s thinking which he believes intensified and reinforced the author’s suicidal moods: (1) his ‘thinking in oxymorons’ (i.e. joining opposites); (2) his ‘idiosyncratic syllogisms’ (e.g. misusing the middle term, or confusing the attributes of the predicate term), and (3) his “mentational tunnelling or constriction of thinking”. Here is a favorable overview of Schneidman.

My own thesis about the connection between a person’s artistry and her mental health is an idea I haven’t heard others speak about. Perhaps it goes against mainstream views about what ‘artistic creativity’means. It seems to me that creativity is hampered – not enhanced – by mental illness. I think creativity implies that a person owns, or is the ‘source’ of her work, which implies that she must be free and in charge of what she is doing. If a disease entity is controlling the artistic output, the artist is not truly in charge. Although many artists appeal to the old idea of being inspired by a “muse”, inspiration is not the same as being controlled, or made to produce the art work. My notion of artistic creativity is one of the reasons I reject determinism in the old philosophical controversy about “free will”. Genuine creativity becomes impossible in  a deterministic world.

El Greco 5th Seal 1610If a person has a mental disease, and what she produces is the result of that disease, I suggest that the disease is responsible for the art. Suppose, for instance, that El Greco – an artist famous for his sinuous upward-striving figures – was suffering from astigmatism (as it has been suggested). If his signature elongated paintings are the way he actually saw the world (or his imagined world), then his creativity is a natural effect of a natural cause. In that sense, it isn’t a ‘creation’. Now I adore El Greco, and think this idea about his work is ridiculous. But it illustrates my point. Creativity cannot be the effect or result of a disease  entity. Even so, a person with a disease may still be creative. The trick is to know whether the person or the disease is in control. Maybe this can’t be known.

It was said above that some authors write to help overcome depression, and protect themselves from suicidal thoughts, while  others write in ways that support and intensify depression – even to the point of suicide. We can see in this that producing art can be therapeutic, as well as debilitating. I don’t believe someone who commits suicide, after a long and twisted kind of pseudo-logic in her writing to make herself feel right about her suicide, can be called free. Her art work was definitely anti-therapeutic. (This is not to say that suicide can never be rationally justified. I believe it can.)

Might it be that other forms of art (music, drama, movement, etc) can also display this same duality? For example, consider someone of the Brazilian Candomble religion, who dances in order to become possessed by her guardian spirit, or a Sufi “whirling dervish” who seeks a trance state to receive divine influence. Would these artists be creative in their dance forms, or are they controlled by the possessing spirit? That onlookers may find the dances touching and beautiful does not make the art free or ‘creative’.

One of my family members, who is a psychotherapist, suggested that my view is problematic, because the artistic person who is mentally ill may actually be more free, since she is not afraid to express herself. That’s a provocative point. But I would say that the ‘freedom’ referred to is not real independence, or individual creativity; rather, it’sa loss of concern for the social conventions that limit ordinary people. If I get drunk, and set about dancing naked in the middle of the street, is it proper to call my unabashed behavior free? I don’t think so. I’m reminded of the Tom Petty song, “Free Fallin‘”. Actually, ‘free falling’ is a misnomer. It means the falling object or person is totally and only under the controlling force of gravity. It or Tom Petty is ‘free’ of any counterbalancing forces, like a parachute or wings. And such free-fall ‘freedom’ won’t last very long to be enjoyed.

The point is that art can be therapeutic or the opposite. But when it is therapeutic,  what is it about the art that works the therapy? I think it is by helping the artist or participant to see reality in a correct (even true) perspective. Therefore either making or experiencing art can free a person who is burdened by mental illness. The converse holds as well. One who is not free, but is under the spell  or control of a disease, has an incorrect (or false) view of reality, and her art work is not her own (even if others admire it).

I need to say more about my idea of ‘true’  art, or art that reflects reality. This is certainly not a mainstream perspective. The reason for this, I suggest, is that for the last two centuries – starting in Europe and America – attitudes about what constitutes art have changed radically. The primary mover of this change was the belief that art is personal. Anyone can be an artist. The ‘real’ artists were the Bohemians, on the Rive Gauche (‘left bank’ in Paris), and others who ‘do their own thing’, whether or not they make a decent living, and who won’t prostitute themselves to please someone else. In fact the struggling artist who opposes societal norms is a favorite romantic topic. Think of Puccini’s La Boheme (1896), which still makes me cry (and countless others), no matter how many times we’ve heard its heart-rending music and story. In fact ‘Romanticism’ accepted wholeheartedly that life is complex, unpredictable,  full of diversity and often tragic – as are ‘ordinary’ people.

Today, artists of all stripes – musicians, painters, poets, dancers – are forced to ‘make a living’, rather than do what their artistic sensibilities would prefer. That generally means they must please the ‘public’, and sell their wares at festivals and on Facebook pages. But artists have always had to please someone, from ancient times until today. However, their patrons have changed. Up through the 18th century, patrons weren’t common people, but oligarchs and rulers of their societies, which included civil and religious authorities – in ancient Greece, and Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Most of these patrons were, for obvious reasons, conservative, establishment types, with conventional ‘classical’ tastes, that separated them from the tastes of the rabble. Their conservatism was to preserve the status quo that benefitted them. But this changed in the  19th century.

Today it seems radical to suggest there is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art. Art is art. Anything can be art. Found objects (e.g. Duchamps’ “Fountain” – i.e. a urinal); popular icons (e.g. Warhol’s Campbell Soup can); random variable experiences (e.g. Phillip Glass’ “Four Minutes & Thirty-three Seconds” – which consists of a pianist sitting quietly in the concert hall for a few minutes (4′ 33″), sharing with his ‘audience’ the ambient sounds around them, like coughing, air-conditioning, traffic noise, etc.; and Yves Klein’s “Body of Art” (where female models, covered only in blue paint, lay on large canvases to make their expressive impressions), etc, etc. –  All these have been called “art”. In fact, some say that art need not even be creative; it can be destructive.  We might even try to distinguish ‘destruction as art’, from ‘art as destruction’. “Destructivism: A Manifesto” was published in 1962 by Raphael Montañez Ortiz, who performed various sorts of undoing of western, European art forms, as described in this (2013) exhibition catalog and interview from the Jersey City Museum.

So-called “happenings” have been popular, and have evolved into ‘performance art’, which today ranges from sublime to ridiculous. The latter includes silly destructive events, in which an ‘artist’ or well-to-do customer destroys something for gratification , whether an actual piece of art, or a common toilet. There is even “Conceptual Art”, where the artist describes in a text, an object or project she has in mind, and simply leaves it as an idea – unfulfilled in concrete form.

For me, this evolution in art is not just part of the obvious fact that cultures change. It involves a fundamental conflict at all levels of society between what is true and good, and what is false and self-serving. It’s another variation of what traditional biblical language depicted as the contest between the ‘heavenly father’ and the ‘father of lies’.  In America and other western countries, the most noticeable form of this old conflict is the obsession with money and power. The arena where it is most easily seen is popular culture. The principal players are government (at all levels), media (at all levels) and financial firms (at all levels).  The few who dominate those groups support each other’s  interests, and collude to increase their control and financial success, to the disadvantage of  ‘ordinary’ citizens.

In this  world, art becomes a weapon for self-advantage, in the arena of politics/ media/ finance. While art has always been used to ‘touch’ people through their senses, it’s most important influence has been seen to transcend material concerns, or self-interest. Art is needed as part of  everyone’s life and growth as a human. It can opens hearts and minds, and bring people to recognize their commonalities.  Commercializing art demeans it, as well as the  people influenced by it, and producing it. Today the highest paid artists work for financial/ political/media firms, whose purpose is way far from elevating the spirit.

There are many artists who go against the commercial trend, of course, just as there have always been artists who are agents who bring about new viewpoints. One admirable effort to buck commercialism was the 2011 N.Y. Armory exhibit by French/ Israeli photographer Alan Schechner. He decided to photograph the art dealers in the museums, who had no interest in the art around them except how to buy and sell it for a profit. He put no prices on his pieces, made them available to anyone for non-commercial use, and entitled the exhibit “New York City Art World Scum“.

What Alessandro  Imperator says in his commentary on Schechner’s exhibit (also in the website above) brings up some points I want to think about. He speaks of “aesthetic  idealists”, who concentrate on what an art experience ‘does’ for the participant. Does it bring about the right response? Does it have the right “form”? Thinking it should do so gives great – maybe too much – authority to conservative traditions. Opposed to that are the views of ‘leftists’, who emphasize the changing, relativistic circumstances of particular societies and their  needs. That involves “discourse” in a particular society, about its particular needs.

“To the aesthetic idealist, aesthetic value is mainly a question involving the primacy of aesthetic responses to a work, and this is via sensation and individual pleasure.  The focus on a direct experience of the work and the sensation received adopts highly entrenched ideals of spiritual experience and subjectivism…   [Others say the] belief in aesthetic value is not a property or quality inherent in things themselves but in human society; it is created by the social existence of humans as creative beings.  To answer what aesthetic value is in these terms is to explain why certain works or groups of artifacts are considered appropriate for aesthetic attention.  Aesthetic judgment then becomes contingent due to the social nature of the experiencing of art objects in contexts of meaning and evaluation.  Is aesthetic experience a historically relative mode of perception because perception is a product of history, which legitimises particular forms of art and not others?  Do ‘aesthetic’ evaluations reside in form or in a discourse and belief in cultic objects where society sets the standards of behaviour and the criteria of judgment?” Imperator continues:

“Kant argued that for art to be called beautiful it had to be: “…the object of an entirely disinterested [ohne alles Interesse] satisfaction or dissatisfaction.” There are no interests at stake and can only be: “a disinterested and free satisfaction; for no interest, either of sense or reason, here forces our assent.” Qualitative judgments that are defined in terms of aesthetic valuations such as disinterestedness are rooted in Platonic philosophical discourse… According to Kant, the senses and bodily pleasure was facile and inferior to the taste attained through mental reflection.  Kant derived his binary from Rene Descartes’ body/mind dualism; therefore the cerebral capacities of the rational viewer were accorded a greater value, even ethically, as a superior distinction over the body.”

Finally, in favorably critiquing the Armory exhibit, Imperator points out the ironic ‘double disinterest’ of Schechner’s work. It demonstrates clearly the bad ‘disinterest’ of the art dealers, while the photographer himself demonstrates good (not personal) disinterest in the exhibit’s success. One could hope that the viewers of the exhibit were also moved to think ‘disinterestedly’ about the truth of the message being expressed.

I hold a position about the ‘value’ of  art somewhere between (or perhaps accepting both of) these seemingly mutually contradictory perspectives: spiritual or bodily, objective or subjective, universal or particular, human or personal.

Against the contentious and contemporary trends to ‘deconstruct’ the meaning of art, outlined above, I hold a view that is old school- very old. It dates back to the beginnings  of civilization, and perhaps even before that, if we could only know what was the “meaning” of prehistoric art (for example cave paintings), which we can only guess. I believe there is art that is good, and art that is bad, and probably much art that is value neutral. Good art is what educates and moves the participants to think and act in good ways. That implies that art must be able to express a vision of the good, and be performed by artists who share that vision (either intuitively, or guided by a master). It also implies that those who experience the artistic expression can ‘get it’, in the sense of being able to share the vision.

An obvious problem arises here. Is it possible to know what a correct or incorrect vision of the good is? I think not – at least not with any proof or certainty. Ultimately, it must remain a matter of belief. However, for practical purposes, e.g. in ancient civilizations, there was little question about who had the correct vision. The rulers did, aided by priests. Both claimed access to the same ultimate higher authority – the Gods.

One example of art used to educate and elevate the thinking of those who experienced it is the Ishtar Gate in Babylon, built around 575 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar II. The myths about what is to be believed and followed are, so-to-speak ‘illustrated’ by these large and impressive figures seen by everyone entering the capital city – symbolizing the powers which determined how they should think and act, in both the worldly, political realm, and in the other-worldly, imaginative realm.

I, as a non-believer, would say that this visionary art is simply propaganda.

On the other hand, rulers in Mesopotamia (Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Chaldeans) were believed to come from the gods, or by the leave of the gods. Their efforts to motivate subjects to know about the gods, and respect the rulers, were simply part and parcel of the culture, imposed dogmatically by force. Religious authorities everywhere have always claimed to have that role. Needless to say, they don’t all agree.

Being long immersed in philosophy, I favor an approach to ‘good art’ illustrated by two Greek philosopher-artists: Pythagoras and Socrates. Their similar views are less based on authority, and more on the belief that reality and truth can be known in principle by any rational person, through a philosophical life, devoted to thinking objectively and with modesty, and disiplined self-control, under the guidance of an enlightened master. Pythagoras (c. 570 – 495 BCE) was a student of music and creator of western musical theory. He thought all reality is reducible to number, and that musical tonalities, which are produced by whole fraction segments (intervals) of a single ‘guitar’ string (Kithara), perfectly reflect the orderly ‘music of the spheres’. So listening to ‘good’ – i.e. harmonious – music will train the minds of hearers to be harmonious too. ‘Bad’ music will corrupt the hearers, like the music performed on an aulos, popular among the followers of Dionysos (the God of intoxication). It was like two oboes played together, which had a reedy wailing sound. Pythagoras would without doubt reject today’s ‘rock-n-roll’, together with the emotions and life-styles that  go with it, as my parents rejected ‘jazz’ that I loved.

Every part of the world has oral traditions, often kept alive by storytellers. Presocratic (i.e. pre-philosophical) Greece had the Homeric stories, which continued even after writing was developed. Blind Homer was the storyteller par excellence. The ‘mythology’ of traditional Greece continued, especially in  popular culture, even after the shift to philosophy began to have great influence. Socrates (c. 469) – 399), whom we know through the writing of his pupil Plato, was also a story-teller. Although he could write perfectly well, his craft was with spoken words, but not in the ‘oral tradition’ of passing along the accepted history and values of his listeners. His verbal artistry was used (as is a poet’s) to inspire and educate. But not about commonly accepted values and beliefs. Instead, he tried to motivate his listeners, with whom he held conversations, to think objectively about various points which were the subjects of exchange and debate.

Socrates was not ‘telling’ his listeners what was true, but asking them to share with him the search for truth and especially wisdom, which lies beyond mere knowledge. Socrates (and Plato) hoped that their followers could come to experience reality. They sought to help listeners (readers) open their minds, and be receptive. Receptive to what? To reality, rather than common views of reality. But reality is not the same as truth. Truth lies in words (really in ideas, formed in words). Words are limited and limiting. But reality, in this perspective, is not limited. It is also therefore beyond ‘nature’, which is limited. And for these reasons, reality must also be beyond the grasp of language – even the true and reasoned language Socrates used to argue and clarify his claims about what people ordinarily believe to be true.

Since reality ultimately lies beyond literal description, these ‘wise’ philosophers used their verbal art to craft stories (especially mythical or symbolic stories) to ‘point towards’ transcendent reality . In this respect they were like Buddha, and the Hindu gurus, and Zen masters. The role of art is to motivate, to make people search, to prepare them to receive ‘enlightenment’ that will eventually come to those devoted and ‘loving’ their craft and purpose enough to serve it, and avoid the  temptation to be conceited or self-serving. This is not the modern way of life. I think ‘true art’ is therapeutic –  indeed capable of working healing magic in our worldly and unfree lives. Can medical  science do the same? I think not. Can philosophy heal in the same way? Not if it remains only an intellectual  exercise.

‘Good art’ can be  therapeutic without meeting some formal standard or other of correctness, or being acceptable either to tradition, or current popular tastes. There are as many ‘true’ works of art as there are individual thoughts and purposes. But each must, I think, advocate for and inspire to something that is ‘universal’ – not in an unearthly sense, but in the concrete way that humanness, and love of others for their sake (not what’s in it for me) are universal.

James Joyce said this famously, in a 1921 conversation with Arthur Power, “For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal” (in Power’s From the Old Waterford House) [cited in  Tymoczko, Maria. The Irish Ulysses. Berkeley: University of California Press,  1994] This expresses beautifully what I think art should, and can be and do. In the end, however, these views about art are matters of belief, not obvious on the surface, but perhaps discoverable and supported by experience.





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