Saturday, February 1, 2014

Visual Art and the Need for Mental Illness

It is not by chance that the best representation of the mental illness ever to be published is neither a photo of a mentally ill patient nor a representation by a psychiatrist, but the creation of an artistic mind. It is "The Scream" by Edvard Munch. Reproductions of the painting decorate psychiatry textbooks, mental health websites and psychiatric articles. In fact, The Scream is one of the most recognizable works of art in the world. Munch himself was subject to mental distress, suffered from anxiety, hallucinations and paranoid thoughts but until the mental disease took the best of him, he used various techniques to masterly express his anguish in his paintings.

Munch is hardly an isolated case in the world of art. Many other visual and other artists are known to have suffered from mental illness and the history of art is, at least in part, a history of the mental illness.

Alive between the years 1770-1827, a musical genius changed forever the shape of classical music: Ludwig van Beethoven.

Struggling with depression, intestinal disturbances, alcohol and opium abuse, and possible lead intoxication, Beethoven created musical more powerful than anything created before and since.

"The Heiligenstadt Testament" written in 1802, 25 years before his death and the first out of three testaments he produced during his lifetime, is a vivid representation of his feelings of despair, lineless and hopelessness. So profound is his despair that he is convinced that even death would not free him from his sufferings.

Despite and maybe because his despair, it is during the years of despair that Beethoven's artistic proficiency was at its best.

Beethoven did not consciously commit suicide, but his alcohol abuse was the cause of his demise through extensive liver damage he inflicted to himself.

The famous Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh lead also a life of abuse and despair, prematurely ended by suicide at age 37. Documents left after his death point to numerous psychiatric symptoms, including insomnia, nightmares hallucinations and depression.

The list of artists with documented symptoms of mental illnesses includes many of the modern and classic artists.

Even before descriptions of mental illnesses existed, mentally ill artists left the mark of their disease in art. From Michelangelo to the unknown sculptor of the Medusa head, from Durer to Hyeronimus Bosch, the common denominator of creativity is madness, especially depression.

In neurosciences, the left hemisphere of the brain, which is the dominant hemisphere in all of us is the part of the brain dealing with reason and depression, while the right hemisphere of the brain, deals with creativity and is responsible for mania. It is therefore at least strange the fact that so many artists show a hyperactivity of the left hemisphere as manifested by depression. A modern therapy for depression, transcranial magnetic stimulation (stimulation of the left prefrontal cortex with a powerful magnet) has been shown to temporarily increase artistic creativity.

In conclusion, throughout history, artistic creativity has been associated with mental illness, especially with depression. The traditional view of creativity being localized in the right hemisphere of the brain might need to undergo further scrutiny.

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