Saturday, April 21

The association between madness and creativity is a controversial one. A long held view has been that both are inseparable, that insanity is somehow a prerequisite for artistic genius. And it is easy to compile a list of those who were both ‘mad’ and famous artists/poets/writers. But I have long struggled with this reductionist argument. By ascribing artistic genius as sanity gone wrong, we conveniently explain away something that is beyond the reach of most, but also, more worryingly, this very process potentially belittles the creative work itself. I believe that the work of creative genius should stand alone, and not be viewed or judged against a diagnosis of mental instability.

In recent times, mental illness has become a more explicit theme in the world of the arts, as artists (and I mean this in the broadest sense, not visual artists alone) with mental illness share their experience of what this is like, and also as mental illness has become a much more prominent subject matter for artists and writers, who may not suffer from the condition, but recognise the importance of putting it out there.

Recently, I interviewed the artist Josephine King for Resonance FM ( at The Riflemaker Gallery, where she currently has an exhibition, I told him I was an artist. He said “can you cook?” ( The exhibition has as its theme King’s relationships, but also alludes to bipolar disease. I saw her debut exhibition, also at The Riflemaker, a couple of years ago, Life So Far, which focused on her experience of living with mental illness. The series of poster type ink paintings, colourfully vibrant and flamboyant yet accompanied by text such as:

‘Born with bipolar disorder. In painting I find protection from the darkness of this illness.’ (

leave no doubt as to the burden of living with chronic mental illness.

Undoubtedly, separating the illness from the artist is impossible. But the artist, and her creative output, need not be defined by a diagnosis, and the temptation to pathologise art should be resisted.

Tomorrow night, April 22, Radio 3 features a programme with AL Kennedy: Art and Madness, which will hopefully provide further insights into this most debated of topics.

Otherwise, I will also be on my own self-exploration of same, including the opera Jacob Lenz, and the work of the artist Richard Dadd at Bethlem Royal Hospital, and the singer and visual artist Daniel Johnston at 18 Hewett Street…