on the misrepresentation of artistic suffering

I strongly object to the kind of romanticization of creativity and/or genius associated with mental illness seen in this NAMI post

While I understand the desire to highlight positive aspects of a life altering condition, it’s a bit like saying, “This anorexia is fantastic for helping me lose weight!” or, “Yay, cancer! Now I can smoke weed!” It’s just irresponsible and, on a social/ representation level, dismissive of the very real devastation caused by the symptoms of untreated/ unmanaged illnesses. 

I hate, too, when films/ TV shows come out with leads or villains whose “superpower” is a one-dimensional representation of mental illness; like in payment for the suffering, it grants those afflicted with talents beyond mere mortals. Most people with mental health issues are just ordinary people, dealing with the same problems as everyone else in addition to the weight of their symptoms. 

It is a disservice to suggest the illness is a conduit to creative success or genius, because the logical conclusion is that by eschewing treatment, one cultivates creativity/ genius and therefore success. I have lost far too many loved ones among my friends and family to this dangerous mythology.

I think it’s interesting, too, because of the class myth about the starving artist, which is often unconsciously referenced in justifying the payment of artists in “exposure” or “experience,” neither of which can pay the bills. 

Both of these myths serve to create a link between creativity and suffering; creativity as the natural result of pain — and while perhaps an argument can be made in that regard, it does not then follow that all creators must suffer for their work to be valid, and it certainly doesn’t follow that the best work comes from instability and suffering. 

The best creative work results from access to resources, time, support, and the artist’s emotional/ physical health allowing consistent practice of their craft, which leads to growth and regular productivity. All of this requires a modicum of financial security, emotional stability, and reasonably good physical health.

An starving artist working two shifts just to pay the bills will be hard pressed to find funds for materials, let alone energy or time to create.

An untreated mentally ill artist who chases flights of hypomanic or manic creativity for inspiration will find their output sporadic, disconnected, and unreliable — which doesn’t pay the bills, resulting in stress and spiraling despair. It doesn’t matter how talented a bipolar, schizophrenic, etc. you are; if you are homeless and lacking resources for treatment or artistic creation, those flights of “creative inspiration” are merely symptoms of the illness.

A physically ill artist lacking the financial resources to access good healthcare resources or caretakers, who must expend what little energy is available to them navigating complex healthcare systems, appointments, treatments, and specialists with little to no assistance is unlikely to have the emotional or mental energy for creative output.  

The notion that suffering equates to creativity is a dangerous and, frankly, classist myth. Only wealthy artists or those with financial benefactors/ networks can actually afford to risk their livelihoods by chasing sporadic manic daydreams of creativity.


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