It’s been long suspected that there’s a connection between artistry and mental illness. Whether the idea began because many great painters, writers, musicians, and other creative minds have endured some kind of breakdown, disability, or affliction during their lifetimes, the truth is that this question continues to plague psychiatric research as well as the collective human understanding.
The hardest part about treating psychological problems is that, being internal peculiarities that at times can be seen as personality traits or eccentricities, they are difficult to detect or diagnose. Even today, the mind is still a vast territory that science has barely started to understand.
Alex Forsythe from University of Liverpool believes that she’s found a way of detecting clues that someone might develop Alzheimer’s or some form of dementia later in life just by analyzing their artwork. Among her research she quotes the work of Willem de Kooning, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about a decade prior to his death.
There are plenty of retractors to her research who refuse to think that the fractal density, calculated by mathematics and digital imaging, is an actual way of discovering or preventing the illness down the line. Yet her response is, “I don’t believe this will be a tool for diagnosis, but I do think it will trigger people to consider new directions for research into dementia.”
According to Forsythe, different artists will change their fractal patterns throughout their career, but for those who would develop debilitating cognitive diseases, these patterns would disappear almost entirely when they reached their forties. De Kooning and another abstract expressionist who also developed Alzheimer’s, James Brooks, exhibited the same kind of signs.
Terry A. Rustin from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston wrote about his experience of using art to help his patients communicate the sensations they encounter and are not able to explain verbally as easily. He found both his patients would express themselves better, so he could connect in a different way to their situation.
Before embarking on this endeavor, he researched into other artists who also had suffered from some sort of mental or emotional disability. One of the artists he mentions is Francisco Goya, who after contracting encephalitis began painting differently both thematically and technically.
A character who always comes to our minds when we think of artistic dexterity and mental illness is Vincent Van Gogh. Aside from anxiety and depression, he was in and out of mental hospitals for a great part of his adult life. The clinical diagnosis that’s been done post-mortem indicates that more than likely he suffered from undiagnosed bipolar disorder.
Rustin says that among the psychiatric community there is “disagreement over the advisability of treating creative individuals with mental illness” because, what should be the medical priority?: Treat the “illness” or protect the creative mind? Bipolar patients who are highly creative often complain that their medication inhibits their artistic side. To this day, there is no treatment that has proven to protect that aspect while dealing with the debilitating problems.
Another important point should be made about art is that it is intrinsically therapeutic. Is it possible that people who experience episodes of cognitive problems are slowly able to find solace, comfort, and even peace through art? In 1932 Georgia O’Keefe had a nervous breakdown linked to not being able to complete a commission for the Radio City Music Hall. She would not be allowed to paint until 1934. It’s probably at that moment when O’Keefe was slowly able to recover both her confidence and start feeling herself again.
So it is still a mystery why the creative mind edges toward instability. What scientists are starting to understand is that to deter artistic tendencies does not imply the patient will improve, but that they might not be able to recover. What matters is the possibility to find a treatment that can either prevent these episodes or at least treat the illness while allowing for creativity.