by Robert Genn
How sick are you?
August 15, 2006
Every so often some researcher will publish fresh info on the
mental or physical problems of creative folks. The general
implication of some of this stuff is that you have to be just a
wee bit sick in order to be creative. They often show that many
historic artists had something wrong with them. The latest
outbreak comes from clinical pathologist Dr. Paul Wolf of the
University of California. He cites that illnesses, rather than
being obstacles, can be the paths to genius. He cites the likes
of Einstein, Warhol, Newton, Cezanne, Goya, Michelangelo,
Turner and Berlioz. According to Wolf these folks suffered
varying degrees of depression, autism, myopia, anxiety, chronic
pain, gout, stroke and dementia.
Another recent outbreak has to do with sight. According to John
Morley of the St. Louis School of Medicine in Missouri, the
presence of cataracts leads to Impressionism. Citing Monet,
Renoir and Cassatt, he implies that eye problems helped them to
paint the way they did. Cezanne is mentioned for a diabetic
condition that caused the colour blindness that shows in his
work. Van Gogh's probable epilepsy spurred on his hallucinatory
imagery--the fuzz and swirls around the stars in "Starry
Night." Edvard Munch had "floaters," that also floated around
in his paintings. Michelangelo's manic depression, now reverse
engineered by the experts, affected the way he saw
things--according to Morley you can tell by the sad figures on
the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Monday morning quarterbacking aside, what about the others who
pioneered Impressionism without benefit of cataracts? Gauguin,
Bazille, Sisley, Pissarro, Degas, Morisot, Seurat and Signac
didn't have cataracts that I know of. As a matter of fact, what
about many of my friends who don't appear to have anything
wrong with them at all, but still find it within themselves to
create magnificently and with originality? Actually, it's
possible that the clear-sighted individuals with no known
diseases may be the ones who are doing most of the good stuff.
Historically speaking, we artists have been through a hundred
years where "artist" has been aligned with "nut case." It
hasn't always been so. I, for one, am working to have this
current connection declared null and void. It's always struck
me that the artists who I admire are some of the healthiest
folks I know--physically, and yep, mentally. I could be wrong,
of course, and the thought of it makes me depressed.
PS: "Had better treatments been available to certain artists of
the past, they might not have found their inspiration." (Dr.
Esoterica: At Oxford University, Ioan James has a book in
progress on Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism. James argues
that the obsessive and repetitious behavior often associated
with autism has had a positive result for about twenty
successful creators he has studied. "Perseverance,
perfectionism, disregard for social conventions and the
opinions of others could be seen as a prerequisite for
creativity, and these are also behaviors associated with
Asperger's." I'm happy to report that virtues such as
perseverance, perfectionism, and disregard for social
convention can also be learned and are frequently self-taught.