Monday April 23, 2012

I listened to AL Kennedy’s Radio 3 programme last night, an exploration of the ‘cliched link’ between madness and creativity/art and insanity.

There were some things of interest, for example identifying the link as cliched upfront, and challenging the view that art and madness somehow ‘belong together’. As Kennedy stated, the long held myth merely serves to trivialise mental illness and to further isolate the artist.

The historical basis of the myth was discussed, particularly how the notion of the mad artist flourished with Romanticism.

Something that was also alluded to, and which I have often also had a problem with, is that our notion of the mad genuis/artist, is largely based on individual ‘case reports’, where diagnoses are retrospective, and ‘benefit’ from advances in psychiatry, with new and revised definitions and classifications. Thus, we can never truly know what Byron/Clare/Dadd suffered from, we can merely attach a label with a retrospectoscope.

Society has always needed to pigeon hole artists, for a host of complex reasons – Munch’s peers repeatedly attempted (and failed) to classify him as mentally unstable, believing him (and his art) to be contaminated by a family history of madness.

The controversy around the association between madness and creativity has not yet been settled, but it feels good that it is being challenged. By not accepted it glibly, we can start to explore whether the connection is real or illusory, and whether either way it matters in the end.