A History of the Mad Genius
On the relationship between creativity and mental illness (the artist, his imagination and his image)
Since the nineteenth century a relationship is established between creativity and mental illness: either a disturbed mind generates exceptional creative achievements or creativity leads to mental problems. This idea is not only deeply rooted in the popular view, but also sustained by academic research, especially done by psychiatrists and psychologists. The many examples of artists, writers and other creative figures who suffered from mental problems and chose an untimely death further strengthen this (romantic) image of the mad genius. Sceptic scholars have criticized the relationship’s advocates for their insufficient evidence and weak arguments. Yet, despite their valid critical notes, the opponents’ denial of a relationship between the artist’s creativity and his mental illness is too radical, because it ignores the history of this question and the long list of famous examples. A dialogue between the two camps rarely takes place; the persistent belief versus simple denial is probably what prevents a productive exchange.
Instead of answering the question, is there a relationship between creativity and mental illness, I will examine the history of the question. How has the relationship historically been made and to what extent has the relationship been proven? It appears that the image of the artist is crucial in the debate, but in which way still needs be explored. How did the role of the artist change in society (e.g. from romantic, bohemian, provoking to outsider) and in what way does this development relate to the image of the mad genius? And how did the artists themselves contribute to this image? Through a history of ideas, the relationship between creativity and mental illness is studied in its historical context and perceived as a cultural and social construction instead of a given fact or romantic fantasy.
exhibition curator, Museum Panorama Mesdag