Art, depression and identity


Dot writes: this post is more of a set of questions and directions than a single idea. It started with this essay by Dro Carey about being a musician who’s suffered anxiety and depression. Dro talks very intelligently about how he has handled his periods of depression in relation to his career and, especially, his media image. He talks not just about the stigma of mental illness, which is something that a number of campaigns have been trying to address recently, but something more complicated: a sense that referring to his depression in interviews or on social media becomes part of the game of constructing his public identity, and that he wants to be very careful in how he does this. On the one hand, he feels that being open about, specifically, the reasons for a tour cancellation, might be the only honest way towards those disappointed or inconvenienced by it, as well as something that might contribute to the reduction of stigma. On the other, he says that early in his career he feels he used depression rather glibly as an answer to any “difficult questions”. Later, a Facebook post about how his health had improved became his most “successful” post, and he feels uncomfortable with (perhaps) commodifying his mental health as part of a media popularity contest. I liked his reflective and complex take on these issues, his sense that being honest and preserving his integrity meant neither concealment nor constant display of the mental health problems he had suffered.

After reading the article and having a short exchange with Dro about it on Twitter, I felt I owed it to him to listen to some of his stuff, and I rather liked it. Try the Westernzone EP here on Bandcamp. It’s weird and theatrical and would go well with a modern dance performance in a black box-type theatre with strobe lights.

Dro Carey’s thoughts on the public construction of his identity made me think further about identity and depression. I wondered if artists might be especially prone to depression, because trying to produce art – any kind of art – is both so hard and so personal. Artists are defined by their art in a way that, say, people who work in insurance are not defined by the policies they sell. An artist who isn’t feeling inspired, or who is dissatisfied with the work s/he is producing, might feel like a failure as a person, as well as cut off from what s/he loves. And indeed, when I started to do a few searches in the library catalogue I quickly came across material to support this idea. For example, an article by Christine Guptill complicates this line of thought but in a way that reinforces the implicit underlying association between identification with one’s art and psychological vulnerability:

It has been postulated that the high rate of mental mental concerns in PAH [Performing Arts Health] may be related to the strong vocational element in this type of work. I would suggest that personal investment in the occupation of performing artists varies rather more than we might initially believe, and that this personal investment is reflective of the degree to which the artist’s identity is defined by what they do.

– Christine Guptill, ‘Guest Editorial’, Work 41.1 (2012), 1-4 at 2.
DOI 10.3233/WOR-2012-1275

It seems to be well-established that artists do suffer high rates of, especially, depression and manic depression compared to the general population. I read articles by Nancy C. Andreasen and Kay Redfield Jamison (both in the same 1996 volume – so not hugely up-to-date) which surveyed a range of different studies suggesting this.

Adele Juda, who studied 113 German artists, writers, architects and composers, was one of the first to undertake an extensive, in-depth investigation of both artists and their relatives (Juda, 1949)…. Juda found that … [t]he highest rates of psychiatric abnormality were found in the poets (50%) and musicians (38%); lower rates were found in painters (20%), sculptors (18%) and architects (17%).

– Kay Redfield Jamison, ‘Mood Disorders, Creativity and the Artistic Temperament’, in Depression and the Spiritual in Modern Art: Homage to Miró, ed. by Joseph J. Schildkraut and Aurora Otero (Chichester, 1996), pp.15-32 at 17.

The language of ‘abnormality’ here is an unattractive one – who’s normal? – but Jamison, herself a sufferer from manic depression, sees a link between the ‘artistic temperament’ and mental illness that embraces positive as well as negative aspects, the intensity of the sufferer’s affective state sometimes feeding into their art. In manic depression, at least the early stages of mania can be highly creative, while more ‘normal’ or mildly depressed phases supply the ordering and detailing that completes the artistic process.

Other assessments are less sympathetic than Jamison’s. I found an abstract – I admit I didn’t read the article – that described a study comparing the cognitive styles of Arts and Science undergraduates, saying that the Arts students had ‘higher levels of creative potential and experienced lower levels of mood than their science peers’.

Differences in probabilistic reasoning were observed which are in keeping with the pattern reported to be present in those suffering with psychosis in that they tended to “jump to conclusions”. Arts students also displayed…poorer problem solving abilities. Our results extend previous findings associated with the mediating role of cognitive processes in the relationship between creativity and some forms of psychopathology.

– Mark A. Papworth et al., ‘Artists’ Vulnerability to Psychopathology: Towards an Integrative Cognitive Perspective’, Journal of Creative Behavior 42.3 (2008), 149-63 [abstract]

It’s hard not to find this annoying – it sounds very much like self-identified scientists congratulating themselves on their cognitive superiority to those benighted arts types. In fact, I suppose, the language is simply that of the academic discourse: what might need to be questioned is the extent to which the arts students who displayed higher levels of creativity were also the ones who showed poorer problem-solving abilities. I’d also want to know what the problems were that the arts students were bad at solving, because the arts and sciences tend to address different sorts of problems. However, these caveats aside, one might derive from this study the idea that the creative leap, the ability to bring things together into something new and special, might itself be closely akin to the dark illogic of depression or mania. Unless, of course, you simply think that depression is seeing the world as it is.

What to make of all this? Personal investment in the job, the artistic temperament, cognitive styles – none of these can fully explain why depression or mania should fall on one artist and not another, for not all suffer in this way (the majority don’t, even though the rates of illness are high), nor can they account entirely for the mood curves of any particular person. For any individual the task is to do their work and build a self as best they can. This brings me back to Dro Carey, who tweeted to me that he’d resist a ‘pathological idea about disposition’ in relation to artists. Rightly so, because it would be paralysing and prejudicial to see an artistic disposition as also a disposition to illness. I suppose this raises questions about how studies like those of Papworth et al. can be used in a way that is actually helpful for the people involved; how these third-person views, these pieces of (provisional, proposed) information can be incorporated in the business of at once knowing and being oneself. Because of course we construct ourselves for ourselves as well as for our facebook friends or our media profile: a set of ideas we can work to, ideas of encouragement or limitation. I heard Kay Redfield Jamison speak at St Andrews when I worked there and I remember a woman in the question session speaking of her own mental illness and saying how Jamison’s ideas about the artistic temperament encouraged her, ‘because I would like to think that I could create something beautiful’. It seems that even the idea that creation is bound to pathology might be encouraging for some. But this was someone who identified herself as depressed – whose identity was tied up in depression – and hoped that she could extend it into creativity. What for the person who identifies as creative, but doesn’t want their depression to become, inescapably, part of what they are?


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