Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Artists and Mental Illness: Part 1

Recently, a bit of debate took place on a friend's Facebook feed regarding whether or not artists were more likely to buy into stuff like conspiracy theories and other . . . let's call it "nonlateral thinking." Artists have been stereotyped for ages as folks who think outside the box--and along with the creative tendencies, people also assume all sorts of negative things: we cannot balance our checkbooks, arrive on time, dress neatly, or think in logical ways. We're all right-brained nonconformists, after all. I've seen plenty of friends and colleagues refer to this stereotype quite conveniently as an excuse: "Don't put me in charge of figuring out the budget! I'm an artist dude, we just don't think like that!"
Ed Harris plays a nice, normal guy who likes to paint. Nah,
just kidding, he's a raging alcoholic with neuroses a-plenty.

People have, rightly or not, associated being an artist with all sorts of undesirable qualities: alcoholism, substance abuse, a variety of mental illnesses, or just being a general derelict. The list of famous artists and other creative types who sufferred from mental illness is indeed quite long and has helped ingrain this association into the general public's psyche. I cannot recall a single biopic movie about an artist that did not rely on the artist's not-exactly-sane tendencies to provide drama and move the plot. Then again no one wants to watch a movie about a rational, level-headed painter with no addictions, obsessions, or interpersonal strife who just works hard at his craft. Craziness makes for memorable material. Ask anyone on the street to tell you what they know of Van Gogh, and I'd bet that the first thing most everyone would say is that he cut off his ear. Brilliant but crazy, like so many artists, right?

Now, bear in mind the whole right-brain / left-brain thing is a myth. But do "artists" or "creative types" as a whole think differently than non-creatives? How much of this artistic stereotype is founded in reality? Are there any correlations between being an artist and having mental illness?

"Would you like black and white or color, ma'am?"
A recent article on CNN.com titled "The Dark Side of Creativity" looks at a few studies and, while speculating in a few interesting directions, sums things up with a journalistic shrug: "Clearly some people suffer for their art, and clearly some art stems from suffering. But it would be inaccurate to say that all creatives run the risk of mental illness."

There is an additional stigma, I think, to caricature artists as a whole. We are the street peddlers, a bit lower on the food chain than the gallery show ponies, right? My mother recently confessed that she worried for me when I first got into the caricature business as a teenager--since the field is rife with a lot of low-class degenerates and unstable sorts (I think that was how she put it). Such was her perception. 

I feel I should put a huge "present company excepted" here so as to not offend readers . . . and I think that phrase truly applies, as most of the folks who fit into the "low-class degenerate" category simply do not care enough to read blogs, join trade organizations like ISCA, or do much of anything to better their careers. They are truly "suffering artists." Some folks, as they say, have a lot of holes in their boat, but usually they are the ones holding the drill. Many of these artists don't last a whole summer in a retail location, or they get out of the business after a year or two, embittered that they never found fame or appreciation. This profession has a high turnover rate, but if you can last three years you will probably do it for the rest of your life (in some way or another). Likewise, I am NOT saying that mental illness = being an unstable degenerate. Mental illness affects many, and you likely know someone who has battled clinical depression or a mood disorder, but it's not like people advertise their diagnosis on a little lapel pin. In fact, one of the disorders mentioned in the CNN article was "schizotypy," which is a milder manifestation of schizophrenia; people with that disorder often display odd or quirky beliefs (like aliens, or government conspiracies) and peculiar behaviors (like wearing inappropriate clothing). Seriously, that sounds like quite a few people I know in the arts. But what I'm discussing here, in this first blog post about the topic, is the stereotype, the image of the "mentally unstable artist," and whether it's fair to say that artists live up to that image more so than people in other professions.

In addition to nice, "normal" coworkers who have simply had bouts of depression or substance abuse, I have also indeed run across some real low-class individuals and unstable sorts in this industry. Some of these coworkers proved to be just plain flakey, quite a few were habitual thieves, and others were in fact dangerous. At one operation, a registered sex offender was hired unbeknownst to the boss, only to be suddenly wiped off the schedule after a new arrest revealed his past (and present) offenses. 

At another location, long ago, I worked with a guy who just seemed broken from the start. This was twenty years ago, and I am betting he's no longer alive. But still, I'll change his name and call him Todd. He displayed signs of chronic alcoholism and social problems, but the boss took pity on him and gave him a few shifts. Todd had just passable drawing ability and seemed to get angry too easily. His rapport with customers was nonexistent and coworkers didn't like him. I didn't work with Todd often, but I don't recall having any squabbles with him on the shifts we did share. He was only 40 but looked so much older--I was 19 or so, and he seemed quite ancient to me. 

After a Saturday shift, a couple of coworkers complained to me that Todd had come by and "really creeped them out" during the busy night. Todd was angry and a bit jealous that he didn't get the really profitable shifts, and so to show his displeasure he came by and tried to rankle the guys on duty, apparently. He appeared drunk, or high, and was behaving really oddly. He shook a pair of marbles in the artists' faces and yelled "I lost 'em all! But I still got these two! Lost all my other marbles though!"

Needless to say, this freaked the guys out, but Todd wandered off before they had to call security or anything. 

I was working Sunday and heard all this during shift-change, if I recall correctly. Then Sunday night after my shift I headed out to catch a cab at the Hyatt, which was my habit if I had the cash (Baltimore isn't the safest city and I hated waiting around for the bus anyway). The cabbie who picked me up asked me if I was in a hurry or if I wanted a reduced fare in exchange for letting him pick up a regular first. No problem, a cheaper ride sounded great. His regular fare turned out to be an ER nurse at the hospital downtown, and she was exhausted. We chatted a bit, and she had a harrowing tale to share. 

An 80-year-old woman had been brought in during the wee hours of the morning, multiple stab wounds and slash marks. Her 40-year-old son, who lived with her and had a history of schizophrenia, had come home drunk and gotten violent. He thought she was stealing his money and hiding it in her mouth, so he had cut into her face trying to get at it. It takes a lot to upset an ER nurse. But seeing an elderly woman who had been stabbed and slashed in the face by her own son had clearly hit the nurse pretty hard. 

The cab driver and I were horrified as we listened to the nurse's tale. The police were just waiting, she said, because the old woman wasn't expected to live. Her son was in custody and they were expecting to charge him with murder, not assault. The nurse got dropped off, then the cabbie took me home; all three of us were rattled that night by the inhumanity of man and the tragedy that can result from those with untreated mental illness. 

But my true shock came at my next shift at the caricature stand. You have probably figured this out already. Yes, our fellow caricature artist Todd was the one behind bars for murdering his elderly mother. By uncanny coincidence I had just learned of the crime sooner than my coworkers--but I could never have guessed that the homicidal psychopath the nurse described was grumpy old Todd. The news rippled throughout our small crew and we were all sickened, a feeling I experienced yet again years later when we found out the annoying, socially awkward new artist was actually a pedophile. 

Was my mother right? Is our profession filled with this sort? Are all artists a bit sick in the head--some just "quirky" but others dangerously unstable? 

This is a really daunting topic to write about. Mental illness is a really complicated arena, and disorders range greatly in severity--there are points on the spectrum where it's hard even for professionals to agree on what is an illness versus what is non-pathological. Does your coworker have narcissistic personality disorder or are they just an egotistic jerkface? (Something many of my colleagues have wondered, no doubt). 

And I am no psychiatrist or psychologist, but I have a passing, maybe "slightly above average" knowledge (my minor in college was psychology, and I read more science news than the average layperson, I'd venture to guess). I do know enough to recognize that the general public consistently throws around psychological terms without knowing what they mean. How many times have you (or I) claimed "Omigosh, I am soooo OCD" because we are details-oriented or keep a neat house? People who actually have OCD (or have a loved one with the disorder) don't throw the term around so flippantly. When you cannot leave the house because of crippling compulsions to do things repetitively, or need medication to calm the urgent voices that tell you to perform ritualistic behaviors or something terrible will happen--THEN you have OCD. Otherwise you're just tidy. Oddly enough, no one ever does this with schizophrenia. No one talks about hearing "that little voice" in your head that tells you someone is cute, or that cupcake looks good, or maybe you should apologize to your friend for that fight you had, and says "Omigosh, I am soooo schizophrenic!" 

A Note on Generalizing, in General

It's also difficult to parse stereotypes or imagined frequency from real correlation. Stereotypes form, and are pernicious once formed, because our brains are super good at generalizing based on a few experiences and remembering selectively. Being shown just one or two examples of something matching a stereotype can really make you accept it as an overarching fact about a whole community. Further, when you see an example of something personally (or hear about it from your best friend, or a relative), you are up against another bias: that of anecdotal evidence, which is another form of cherry-picking. A personal example of just one individual can sometimes lead to a person dismissing a mountain of good research and data. (E.g. "They say cigarettes are harmful, but my grandpa lived to a hundred and smoked two packs a day! So that's gotta be a load of bull!") Cognitive biases and logical fallacies are like blind spots in our brains. We can compensate for them, the way a convex mirror can help reduce your blind spot as you drive a car, but only if we know they exist. 

An acquaintance of mine once took a stand against gay marriage because he felt they made awful parents: to back up why, he detailed the goings-on at his neighbor's household. He saw examples every day of a lesbian couple interacting with the daughter they were raising--and he was right, those two sounded like truly awful parents. I told him that when I was growing up I, too, had witnessed a neighbor couple doing some really awful things and being terrible parents, and it had left me with the firm conviction that Koreans should not be allowed to raise children. 

He got the point, I think. (And I have widened my outlook, thankfully, from when I was a twelve-year-old racist). A sample size of one means literally nothing in the grand scheme. 

So my tales of working with a murderer and a rapist, while they are probably going to remain in your memory far better than any statistical data I could spout off, should actually mean nothing when it comes to the question of whether artists are more frequently criminal types or sufferers of severe mental illness. If I had worked in, say, the postal service, would I have run into twice the number of unstable coworkers?  (Uh oh, there's that phenomenon of stereotyping by profession again!)

But sometimes one or two examples actually do represent truth. When you see one or two cockroaches skitter across your kitchen floor after you turn on the light, it isn't just conjecture or wild generalizing to say that there are dozens more where you cannot see them--that's a verifiable fact, just ask any exterminator or entomologist.

Now I'll Need to Go Do My Homework . . . 

I'd like to get a good idea, based on real data, not just leaping to conclusions based on one or two (or fifty) examples, as to whether this correlation between doing art for a living and being mentally ill really holds water. What sort of studies would tell us with clarity whether this is true? What might compromise a study's findings? What kind of factors influence the link (e.g., is it just plain harder to be a working artist and therefore more stressful, which certainly can affect mental health and well-being?). And if it is a real correlation, what does that tell us?

So part 2 will come next week. And don't get me wrong, this is a topic that would take years, maybe decades, to REALLY sort out. But my blog isn't up for any Nobel or Pulitzer prizes. I'm just skating along, exploring topics, and reporting back to you several dozen people who read it. And, for the first time in my blogging adventure, I have realized that I just couldn't do a topic any kind of justice in a few days of note-taking and Googling. So let's see what I can dredge up in the next seven nights. Until next week!


  1. I love how the words pernicious and super good appear in the same sentence. i'm convinced that's the vernacular of a writer intent on making a point, as opposed to trying to just sound good. Or maybe it's laziness. I'm not 100% sure.

    Pick twenty caricature artists you know, and pick twenty random people you know that are not caricature artists. I'm betting the 20 caricaturists contain more people that you suspect have some degree of mental illness. Maybe that's because you know more about them, since their art reveals elements of their personality that non artists might not display. Maybe because those of us with some sort of mental illness are drawn to non traditional jobs, without typical hours and typical responsibilities and requirements. Maybe there is a real correlation between mental illness and artistic talent, or maybe just a correlation between mental illness and the predisposition to spend many hours alone, every day, working on honing a craft that very few will appreciate. Or maybe there's a correlation between a desperate and constant need for the approval and validation a five minute caricature might achieve (is this good? Do you think it's good?), and the deep seated insecurity that may be at the root of some types of mental illness. I don't know. So I'm anxious to read your next blog entry and find out.

  2. I think it's more economic factors. I'm not sure about right now, but a few years back a caricature artist job was a pretty easy job to get, so strange antisocial people (present company excluded cough cough) could make money drawing but not, say, working at Bath and Body. As you mentioned that that guy who lost his marbles' drawing skills were "just passable" it seems likely that he might not have been drawn to caricatures in the same way that Charles Dickens was drawn to the written word. Anyway, I always enjoy your blog. Keep rockin!