Art and Mental Health


For a long time I’ve held a belief that creativity or creation requires mental ‘freedom’. For this discussion, let me define creativity as any thought or activity for which the maker is responsible or ‘in charge’. Creation (creativity) requires a creator, of course. Creative activity must  be intentional, as well as free. I’m not thinking of the created object – e.g. a poem, a song, a painting, a thought, or a question – but the physical or mental labor that produces it. Suppose a person says (as often happens), ‘This thought popped into my head’, or ‘This guitar riff just came to me’, or ‘This story wrote itself’. The artist is not taking ownership; she or he is denying responsibility. The creation came to or through, but not from her or him; that person was not in charge. Usually, people disclaim responsibility to excuse themselves from some  fault (real or perceived); but they want credit for any work that brings approval, especially in the arts.

So what is creativity? Machines can’t be creative. Robots can’t create anything (except in a movie). I’ll look at multiple views about the connection of mental state to creativity here. I hope to be objective, but quite likely the issue is not subject to scientific solutions. It’s a matter of belief; maybe even faith. After all, a lot of people still talk about the Divine Creator.

Imagine that machines have molded, fired, decorated and glazed the porcelain serving dish on your kitchen counter. Was any creativity involved there? No, but the painter who designed the decoration may have been creative, unless she or he was controlled by some compulsion or mental illness. That’s the question for this post. Can we properly call a work creative, or its  producer a creator, if it results from a diseased state of mind?  Ludwig Van Beethoven,Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Silvia Plath, and countless other less famous artists are thought of as disturbed . How does their ‘disturbance’ relate to their artisitic productions? I believe that if their work was produced by their illness, they were not truly creative. The disease – not the person – brought it about; the person was a tool.

This 2017 article on creativity and mental health published by the Indian Journal of Psychiatry goes against my thesis. It says their findings confirmed earlier studies during the 70s and 80s, namely that “there was no difference between creative and non-creative groups in terms of mental illness and stress profile”. I find this study unconvincing. The terms ‘creative’, ‘non-creative’, ‘mental illness’ and ‘stress profile’ are very complex; how they relate to the question is not made clear. The study defined creativity as “an ability to make new combinations …” That definition is too facile, and covers activities and objects ranging from obviously creative and historically influential, to insignificant and/or not at all creative. We all make what could be called ‘new combinations’ every day, in our thoughts, emotions and behavior. Most parents are delighted by their children’s creations, whether it’s a Lego Block tower, or a musical composition by one of the Bach family. I make ‘new combinations’ of letters on documents every day, with my signatures (that are no longer legible).

Does  creativity apply to non-human work or thoughts? Can higher Apes create ? Can they even think? Do they have language? I’m sure they do communicate, by vocal or visual signals, but those communications are not free . Nature compels them . Science can’t prove their claims about these questions. They argue, in every case, by analogy with human behavior. They say, ‘when we make those sorts of sounds and gestures, we are thinking and understanding and feeling things, so the apes must be doing the same’. I’ll grant some feelings, like pain or fear. But sadness, worry, loneliness, gratitude, sympathy, hope? No, let alone are they creative.

And what about lower animal forms? They make new combinations as well, all the time, e.g. bees (working on their hives), or spiders (rebuilding their webs). Plants make new combinations too. Photo-synthesis (Greek for ‘light-combination’) in trees turns CO2 and water into sugar (which feeds them) and Oxygen (which is vital to animals). How about the non-living world? Bodies of water, from rain drops to the Seven Seas are in ceaseless motion. So are unpredictable weather and changing climates. The earth will pass away. The sun will die. These are all ‘new combinations’. Are they creations? Only, I believe, if they are results of non-material causes, which scientific theories can’t explain satisfactorily. Why? Because these combinations and recombinations are all ‘processes’ of one sort or another. Science is exact. It’s measurements must be numerical. But processes – especially life processes – are never fixed. They are uncertain, and entail ‘guestimates’.

There’s a long history – and much disagreement – over why the world and life are as we experience them. In Ancient Greek and Roman times, there were two basic kinds of explanation. Call them worldly and other-worldly, material and spiritual, Nature and the Gods (or The God). Medieval religious philosophers asked not only how everything began, but also how it has continued or endured, while ceaselessly changing. They thought of ‘lasting existence’ as ‘endless creation’. However, a more modern French philosopher – Henri Bergson (1859-1941) – appealed to experience more than religion in his discussions of change and permanence. Some of his most influential work dealt with these questions, primarily by separating space and time. In science, space is reduced to numbers, which are fixed, exact and forever. In that sense, people can’t experience space. But time is different; it is experienced. Time, which he called duration (la durée) involves events that are lived. Space is an abstraction.

Time exists in human consciousness which changes constantly and differs for every human; it’s a process. Bergson was a ‘process philosopher’ – one of the earliest and most influential of that modern movement. He first introduced these ideas with his hugely popular 1889 dissertation Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. For a while, Bergson was the unappreciative object of women’s admiration. discussed in this 2019 Aeon article by Emily Herring. Women crowded into his lectures and caused the press to ridicule them with sarcastic and inventive jokes. It was still generations before feminism began to take hold.

Some ancient thinkers, like the Greek philosopher Epicurus (4th C. BC) and Lucretius the Roman philosopher (1st C. BC) (shown here) claimed that change was wholly a function of nature. This included human minds. No need to appeal to gods for moral guidance, or to explain existence. Lucretius was a materialist. His poem De Rerum Natura (On the nature of Things) taught that all change amounts to the motion of atoms, which are rock-bottom reality. They are eternally falling down (of course!) through space (the void), but occasionally and randomly they “swerve”. The gods are either composed of atoms too, or perhaps don’t exist. If you catch a tone of sarcasm, it’s because he’s basing his theory on weak evidence. Stephen Greenblatt’s 2012 book The Swerve : How the World Became Modern explains and confirms Lucretius’s thinking. It was a best seller, being good historical reporting, with some controversy over it’s anti-religious ideas, and for supporting modern materialist scientists.

Scientific explanations of life are relatively modern, starting in the Renaissance ‘Age of Modern Science’. Copernicus 1543 Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres and Galileo (shown here) Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems marked the beginning and end of an effort to revive the wisdom of the ancients. And Newton’s 1687 Principia was the grand summary of ‘modernism’. After him physics has been constantly changing and speculative. These few generalities about The Scientific Revolution. are from a very long Wikipedia article, in case the reader has hours for speculation.

In modern times, important scientific ideas are labelled ‘creative’ too quickly and unfairly. For example, when Watson and Crick were awarded Pulitzer prizes in 1962 for discovering the “Double Helix” shape of DNA, they got more credit than they deserved. Many previous thinkers were directly involved for generations before that. They ‘stood on giants’ shoulders’. But were all these giants creative? Were some of them lab technicians who noticed something going on in a petri dish? Many people ‘put parts together in new ways’. When your daughter draws a picture of grandma with long needles sticking through her head is she creative or disturbed? Is Steve Martin creative while ‘walking like an Egyptian’ and singing in hilarious rhyme? The answer depends how others view these activities and ideas. It’s a matter of culture.

Bergson’s ideas about humor give another dimension to his thoughts on lived experience vs. abstract theory. In 1900 he wrote an essay on “Laughter” (le rire) and comedy – the first time an academic had undertaken the topic. He says it also reoriented much of his thinking for the rest of his life. Our inner self (‘soul’) is flexible and free, but our bodily self is stiff and awkward. When a comic takes a ‘pratfall’ in a show, the audience laughs. But when people mimic others in ordinary life, they are giving a fixed, exaggerated copy of the object of ridicule. This can cause trouble when the latter is a politician or other person of importance. (Think of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, or Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury.) Bergson says making fun of someone may be morally useful to keep people from violating social  norms – e.g. using out-of-date dress style or speech mannerisms. I think that kind of ridicule is generally wrong, but it can certainly have powerful influence. Today there is increasing polarization between those who would eliminate anything that might offend (Cancel Culture) and those who will say (and even do) whatever they damn please. I’m painfully aware of these ethical issues.

Over time, many cultures have believed that inspiration  is the source of creativity. It comes into an artist, from above, or from unrecognized inner space. The Greeks felt creativity was from The Muses which are described by various ancient writers with many tales and explanations. The historical roots and meaning of these mythical higher beings are not clear. In addition, we have the religious perspective on creativity from the Abrahamic faiths. They believed the only real Creator (of everything, including humans) is God, with whom no fault can be found. Human artists – however capable – are ultimately just tools in his hands. Can the pot criticize the Potter? “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to Him who formed it, ‘Why did You make me like this?'” (Romans 9:20).

So who or what was responsible, e.g., for Van  Gogh’s creativity? Dr. Paul Gachet treated Van Gogh at the end. He too was an artist, and interested in alternative medicines, especially for mental problems. Homeopathy came into their conversation. I was raised in a family who practiced Homeopathy. It’s connection with religious beliefs is strong. In fact, it was greatly influenced by the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg. Names of its German developers were actually part of my father’s mother’s family!

Everyday people’s art sketches have been used to evaluate their mental state. The House-Tree-Person test was developed with several major updates after 1948 with revisions in 1969. It’s a practical, very subjective test that requires a lot of training to understand, administer and interpret. Here’s a summary from I find it surprising that drawings of trees are the most  revealing. Perhaps simply because they seem like a safe subject to be open about. As a child I used to hide in the crown of a weeping willow tree, and let my mind wander.

I’ve had half a dozen bouts of depression over the years. Being a private person makes it harder to share these, but it’s helpful. Many psychologists admit that their own unhappy mental states benefited from admitting them to students and colleagues, and in fact advocate doing so. Kristen Lee discusses this in Psychology Today. ‘Physician heal thyself’.

I think my own failed efforts at the arts illustrate, and perhaps explain my perspective on  emotional disturbance/ illness harming creativity. I loved to sing in, and even led choral groups. I danced, and played many instruments – piano, clarinet, recorder, flute, guitar, ukulele, and even trumpet – each for a time and then gave it up (except for singing, philosophy and essays). I was bound to fail, because I was dissatisfied with every effort; nothing was ‘good enough’. Instead of practising until it I was good enough, my perfectionism killed any creativity. That’s a sad mental fault – perhaps an illness – which I hope to overcome in another life. Speaking of the next life, I believe there is such a thing; and there is only one truly creative being. In fact, ultimately The Creator is responsible for all human creativity, in its infinite variety of forms, both heavenly and hellish. The former are indescribably beautiful and enlightening; the latter hideously ugly and repulsive. Those polar opposite outcomes come from our spiritual ability to choose for or against the Divine loving purpose. That freedom is never denied, else our lives would be a Divine game with Robots.



One thought on “Art and Mental Health

  1. This makes me think about what creation is really. How to define “creative”. To me there isn’t really a black and white. Creation is an expression of an internal world, which is tied to our environment, our mental state, the physical body, past memories, future hopes and dreams, connections to other people or nature or spirit, all in many intricate ways. And a work doesn’t have to be completely novel for it to be creative. It can be an exploration, a journey rather than a destination (to put it uncreatively). Sometimes, someone is skilled enough to reach deep into the core of themselves and create something that speaks to others in a meaningful way, or reaches so high as to almost touch some divine beauty or truth. I think this power of creativity to connect people with themselves, with others, and with something sacred and universal, something greater than we can know, is really a miracle. Thanks for the thoughts. I’m gonna go draw some trees 🙂

Leave a Reply