Hype of the ‘mad genius’: Pop culture romanticism of mental health and contemporary art

It’s not the mental disorder itself, but the fight against it.
Hype of the ‘mad genius’: Pop culture romanticism of mental health and contemporary art
Hype of the ‘mad genius’: Pop culture romanticism of mental health and contemporary art
Written by :

Initiation of ‘the mad genius’ has long stemmed from the infamous generalization that having a medical condition somehow promotes creativity. But this connection indeed is whimsical as a research interest, and has insinuated phrases like ‘painting a thought’ to be classically telling. While acknowledgement of legends like Sylvia Plath, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Edvard Munch confirms this dim connection of mental illnesses and the art that came along, a universal link relies only on subjective and anecdotal data.

That doesn’t mean that art does not deal with suffering of the mind or vice versa. Take the advocacy of art therapy that uses creative techniques such as painting or making artifacts, or the multi-modal expressive art therapy that takes poetry and dancing, as therapeutic approaches.

Contemporary art in India too has a cloud of mental illness floating above its roof. It’s only recently that a lot of actors, or celebrities as we like to address them, publicly addressed their battle with mental illness. But in the realms of powerful overcoming stories and somewhat faulty campaigns, we overlook artists who are devoted on the grassroot, while also confined in the ghastliness of depression, OCD (Obsessive compulsive disorder), bipolar and anxiety disorders, and the like.

“It’s a complicated relationship. My mental illness shaped itself around my skills as a painter. It affects me to an extent where I know how a particular sketch is going to turn out and I have to stop right there and start another. Drawing does help because it keeps away the mood swings but it has to be constant, as soon as I stop, it all comes back,” says Maanas, a painter and visual artist based out of Chennai who was diagnosed with manic-depressive three years ago.

Like Maanas, there are many who have an extorting correlation with their skill-set. The kind that instigates a ‘blackmailing’ nature where the person has to keep on with their work in order to avoid suffering.

There also are times when artists guide their resistance into their competence. ‘Utilize’ would not be a suitable word for this. It’s rather a transition.

“It’s not the mental disorder itself, but the fight against it. People with mental illness are constantly in a fight with themselves and it incorporates our ability to produce skill in whichever art form we have adapted. We use it. All art is about conflict and the most poignant of it comes from our own conflicted selves, beliefs and the reality that is around us.”

Says Varun Gwalani, an author whose second book, The First Storyteller, is an eccentric fictional tale that synchronizes with his battle against mental illness, “It was written at a time when I was at a very severe stage of my OCD, and so it became about that struggle.” Varun has also given a TED talk on mental disorders and their association with creativity.

Channeling the inner grapple into artistry is more challenging than amusing as it sounds. It has been for Varun and so for the others, but India rolling down the cliff of happiness index has no scarce of content. Artists do share a social responsibility when it comes to impacting a larger audience, and those who have an ongoing struggle within themselves understand this responsibility all too well. But at the same time, a stereotypical version about the mentally ill being exceptionally creative has derailed them into believing that treatment will perhaps diminish their credibility.  

“I've been diagnosed with OCD, bipolar type 2 disorder, borderline personality disorder and panic disorder, but being a mentally ill artist is romanticized in pop culture, which had always plagued me to believe that my art was good enough only if I was in a mental turmoil. This tends to be a problem for many artists who refuse to recover due to the fear of losing their artistic ability,” says Aishwarya, a slam poet based out of Mumbai who loves doing spoken word on topics like mental health and feminism.

Stand- up comedy is another expressive art that has been rapidly scooping popularity and love all around the country. It is often concluded that comedians have a share of traits similar to psychosis. In fact an Oxford study supports this statement, but also clarifies that conditions like depression are mostly sourced from work-related stress instead of stemming out from the nature of work. The same study also highlights the social discomfort comedians share among themselves, off-stage.

Aakash Mehta is a beloved Indian stand-up comic who suffers from depression and bipolar disorder. He has also discussed about having social anxiety disorder but when he is on-stage it’s a self-therapy he gets paid for, instead of the other way around.

“I think art as an outlet is very thoroughly discussed concept but honestly comedy is more than an outlet. It's more than a form of expression. It's live. You're a person on stage and they're people in the audience. I don’t feel as alone on stage somehow. It also fuels objective thinking. I know when I'm sad - I'm sad because I have depression and thanks to comedy for that,” he says.

With references to classical artistry like Ophelia, the striking portrayal of clinical depression by Lars Von Trier in his film Melancholia is an illustration of the kind of medium art is. Similarly, the undisputed comedian Louis CK has a style that is a transformed upshot of his own depression and suicidal thoughts that he had when he was young. His award-winning sitcom, Louie, humorously embraces the loud discomfort of being in a constant state of stress and defeat.

In India, the existence of mental heads, a rap song that tackles stigma within mental health, fosters the call for turning to art. Performed by the diagnosed themselves, including filmmaker Rohan Sabharwal, mental heads is a product of Crayon Impact. They recently organized a comedy fest named ‘sex and sexibility’ which entwined disability and stand-up performances.

Despite the polarising theories and findings, there is something of value in this medley. Art is not merely a method of expression, it is also an avenue of solidarity. It can and must be something people can perhaps look up to for establishing a better understanding of mental illness instead of drawing partial connections that aren’t backed enough.

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute