It’s as old as Aristotle and his Daughters of Zeus. “Why is it that all men who are outstanding in philosophy, poetry or the arts are melancholic?” the ancient Greek asked. Two thousand years of Western culture have done little to challenge the stereotype, from Goethe’s Werther blowing his brains out at his desk to David Foster Wallace hanging himself on his patio. The history of art is as littered with corpses as the stage at the end of an Elizabethan revenge play. The list of famous artists who seem to have suffered from depression or other mental illnesses is impressive, to the point where we almost expect our artists to be miserable. When a stereotype is parodied in The Fairly OddParents, you know it’s truly ingrained in the culture.
Dr. James Kaufman coined the term ‘The Sylvia Plath Effect’ to describe the high prevalence of mental illness among artists. Particularly poets. Even more particularly, female poets. It makes sense. High levels of creativity require a willingness to defy convention, to go against the crowd. And any kind of genius requires a mind that works differently to most people’s; that in itself is indicative of mental illness. A number of studies have noted a correlation between creativity and bipolar disorders, in particular.
Any great passion implies imbalance, and happiness, in the sense of a lasting contentment, requires a certain equilibrium. It’s not just art; if you obsessively devote yourself to a certain person, or to creating the perfect pancake, or to making a suit of armour that will withstand a charging grizzly bear, you have strayed from the range of normal human equilibrium, and misery lurks on those paths less trodden. Misery, and glory. Creativity requires that an artist step off the trodden path into the darkness beneath the trees. It’s a scary and dangerous place, and if you were perfectly happy on the path, why would you ever leave it? It’s those who aren’t entirely at ease in this world that go off looking for something else, something better. As a group, artists are already self-selected to be miserable.
Does it follow, then, that in order to make great art, you have to be unhappy?
Well, no. While a terrifying number of the great artists of the past have lived miserable lives, it’s impossible to draw a simple line between the two and state that misery is a necessary condition of art. It’s simply not true. For every Virginia Woolf, there’s a Mendelssohn; a great artist who lived a stable family life, and as far as we can tell, was not unhappy. The thing about being an artist is that it is, in itself, a depressing proposition. Few other spheres of life open a person up to such a level of rejection. Even in romantic relationships — the arena in which every dilettante becomes, for a while, an artist — rejection, while virtually inevitable, is rarely forever. Everyone gets married sooner or later. It may not be a happy marriage, but that’s a separate question. The artist, on the other hand, must plow ahead in the knowledge that it’s not only possible that no one will ever appreciate their work; it’s probable. And artists care deeply about their work. They have to. No one ever produced any great work of art by not trying, and to try hard at anything means to care about it. You work steadily in the dark, hammering out your vision, baring your soul, until finally you produce your masterpiece — and the world shrugs and carries on. It’s devastating. So, just as unhappy people make art, art makes unhappy people. If you decide to dedicate your life to your art, you’re going to be unhappy quite a lot of the time. It’s a cruel and vicious business, this practice of exposing one’s inner heart to complete strangers.
At the same time, though, you are opening yourself up to what is certainly the greatest joy I’ve ever known. When I’m sat at my desk and the words are coming, when I can’t type fast enough to keep up with my racing thoughts, it feels like I’m flying. I’ve lived a pretty good life so far and had some amazing experiences, but nothing beats that, nothing. Just as we all do when we fall in love, artists risk soul-crushing lows in order to attain dizzying highs, choosing one hour as a lion over a decade as a jellyfish. That’s the secret flip-side to the misery; the feeling of your brain being on fire, lightning shooting from your fingertips, your whole being lit from within like a paper lantern. The trouble is, these moments of ecstasy, especially in the case of poets or novelists, are generally solitary. Nobody sees me at my best. They see me when I’m doing something other than writing, when I’m postponing the thing I love most in the world in order to do something I have less interest in. If artists often seem miserable, that might be part of the reason why.
The myth of the suffering artist can become a trap. It’s easier to mope around being angsty than it is to actually create something, let alone something good. Myths about creativity like this one serve mainly to give people a way to call themselves a creative person simply because they’re not very cheerful. Misery is not a virtue, no matter what anyone says. And while great art is often made by desperately unhappy people with deeply unsatisfying lives, that doesn’t mean that an artist must be miserable. Far from it. Creating a masterpiece really only requires two things: a bit of talent and a truckload of hard work. Look into the biographies of great writers and musicians and artists, those who seemed to simply breathe out gems without really thinking about it, and you’ll find it isn’t true. With most artists — though this is less true than it used to be — all you see is the polished, finished product, not the several aborted mediocrities whose rotting corpses fed the soil of the finished masterpiece. Just like in sports, mastery of an art form does not come without years upon years of practice, even for those with a natural aptitude. Any artist who wants to amount to anything must therefore develop the mental toughness to bulldoze their way through failure after failure, and for a depressive, this is unlikely. Depression says don’t bother, stay in bed; nothing you do will come to any good. You’re deluding yourself; you have no talent. You have nothing to say. You’ll die alone and unremarked, and all the effort you’ve put into this will have been wasted. We all hear these nasty, negative voices from time to time; everyone who has ever tried to make any kind of art will know what I’m talking about. But the greatest artists are those who have found a way to ignore those voices, to push through despair, to create with a desperate optimism, a belief that even in the face of utterly absurd odds, your creation can be seen, heard, felt, that it may touch the lives of others, even people you’ll never meet. That’s wildly optimistic, yet there’s no stereotype of an optimistic artist.
Goethe — who had a fair bit to do with popularizing the suffering artists stereotype himself — put it like this: “The person born with a talent they are meant to use will find their greatest happiness in using it.” The real energy and insight needed to create a great work of art comes not from a place of despair, but of joy. It’s when we are happy — not merely content, but genuinely joyful — that we approach the world with the open eyes and heart of a true artist. Many famous artists were deeply unhappy, but not while they were making their art. To say an artist must be unhappy is like saying a sub-Saharan African must have HIV; there’s a higher than normal prevalence in a certain population, but that doesn’t mean one automatically follows the other. Art is born at the raw edges of human experience, and joy or love or awe will get you to those edges as surely as unhappiness will. An artist is one who responds to the unknowable mystery of existence with fascination, not despair.