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Mental Illness Poor Artistic Standard

Columnist

Published: Thursday, December 6, 2012

Updated: Thursday, December 6, 2012 02:12

 

I’m going to try my best to only write this from what I know, and not to speak for anyone else.

In terms of the well-being of a permanent percentage of the population, I don’t think there’s any trope as prevalent and damaging as this: that the best writers, and artists of all kinds, are the depressed and damaged ones.

I’ll begin with my own experiences. In middle school, puberty brought with it self-awareness, idealism and an unhealthy dose of depression for me. But by the time I realized this, I found that it was a competition. At the time, I carried a sketchpad instead of a notebook, but the concept was the same: the poets and painters of the time talked about their problems and divorced parents, their anger and sadness as a show of bravado.

Just look at Kurt Cobain and David Foster Wallace. Their mythic public statuses are only amplified by their relatively young suicides. Their art gets even more glorified; it was all genius to begin with, perhaps, but mysterious, tragic deaths create a powerful narrative, even outside the art itself. The idea, it follows, is that the tortured souls have more experience, have more to say, know more and are more pure because they’re fighting a harder battle than anyone else.

In middle school, was I already depressed? Yes. But did this mythos exacerbate my depression? Absolutely. What was once private self-abuse became as public as possible. Pain was a commodity. You showed the cuts on your arm, and people listened, or cracked open their sketchbooks.

Now, here’s the distinction: admitting this doesn’t make me a strong person. It does not qualify me to write about this, but it does show that I’m calling my own BS.

Let me be clear, I am in no way criticizing people who struggle with mental illness. How I’ve managed to handle it doesn’t reflect at all on how anyone else does. But what I can say, from friends admitting it to me and from me admitting it to myself, is that the belief that you have to rely on pain is the worst misconception about being an artist.

Yes, it could be argued that art from tortured souls is often beautifully intense. Look at Cobain, Wallace, Sylvia Plath and Vincent Van Gogh. Yes, some of art’s biggest icons had their share of mental illnesses. But what is missed is that those problems aren’t what made them great artists. 

One of the best writers I’ve ever known was raped at 

 

11, got cancer at 15 and became infertile at 16. But she never spoke openly about her past. Her writing was intense, in your face and honest. It simply did not tolerate falsehoods, but it also celebrated people’s ability to improve.

What made her writing great wasn’t the pain; it was what she had to say about the pain, the world, relationships, people, herself and how hard she worked to express those things. Those famous artistic geniuses’ tortured souls aren’t what make them great; it’s what they do about it. The artistic community glorifies violent, powerful emotions in art, but the idea that they’re good is a myth, and an unhealthy one at that. 

What so many young people don’t realize, and need to, is this: no matter how influential you become one day, you aren’t a martyr giving your message to the world before you burn up in a brilliant display. 

Don’t fall into the trap, Kenyon. Don’t idealize mental illness. It’s not beautiful, it’s not poetic, and it’s not the only way to creativity. Just because we have a writing culture on this campus doesn’t mean we need to fall prey to its every failing.

Another one of the best 

 

writers I’ve ever known has had her fair share of problems, although none have truly damaged her life. And she doesn’t have a mental illness. But she can describe things in a way that no one else can, and it’s not from mental illness, it’s from an unbelievable amount of practice and talent. 

And those with mental illnesses need to realize something: using that mental illness as a crutch, as I once did, is not the answer. It’s horribly detrimental to yourself to do so. Screw societal glorifications of mental illnesses. Don’t think that you need it. One of the hardest things I’ve ever done was admitting I needed help, and getting over the fear that becoming “healthy” would take away from my art. 

It didn’t, and doesn’t. I only hope that if anyone else thinks this way, they won’t hesitate to contact the Counseling Center. 

If you have a mental illness, forget what artist culture thinks. It doesn’t make you a good artist. You do. Well, you, and lots of practice, of course.

Derek Dashiell ’16 is a prospective English major and math minor. He’s been an artist of one sort or another since the third grade. His email is dashielld@kenyon.edu.

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