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An area of study that is still unfolding for me centers on the relationship between creativity and psychological health.   My personal interest lies especially with the benefits of the creative arts as a means to address psychological conditions.

For the purposes of this post, I will be relying on Rollo May’s psychological lens to address art as a creative expression of an artist’s encounter with his or her exterior world, with an inner vision and/or idea.  There appears to be a rather paradoxical polarity of causalities surrounding creativity and the factors affecting psychological wellbeing.

Artists, as well as you and I in moments of intensive encounter, experience quite clear neurological changes.  These include quickened heart beat; higher blood pressure; increased intensity and constriction of vision, with eyelids narrowed so that we can see more vividly the scene we are painting; we are oblivious to things around us (as well as the passage of time).  Now all of these correspond to an inhibiting of the functioning of the parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system (which has to do with ease, comfort, nourishment) and an activation of the sympathetic nervous division…(described as the “flight-fight” mechanism)…This is the neurological correlate of what we find, in broad terms, in anxiety and fear.

But what the artist or creative scientist feels is not anxiety or fear; it is joy.  I use the word in contrast to happiness or pleasure.  The artist, at the moment of creating, does not experience gratification or satisfaction (though this may be the case later)…Rather, it is joy, joy defined as the emotion that goes with heightened consciousness, the mood that accompanies the experience of actualizing one’s own potentialities. (Rollo May, The Courage to Create: Chapter 2, The Nature of Creativity, 1975)

When discussing creativity he defines it as “the encounter of the intensely conscious human being with his or her world.”  Yet, the point that May makes is an even stronger one than this experience of the encounter alone. He reasons that the nature of the encounter that is chosen by the artist will be one that will challenge the artist to create a new sense of order.

In a study conducted by Frank Barron of persons in the fields of art and science (as described in May’s book), it became evident that creative individuals purposely chose to confront the anxiety associated with a universe that was not “in shape.” When presented with a series of Rorschachlike cards (that included both orderly and disorderly designs), the creative types chose the cards that had chaotic designs.  “They found these more interesting.  They could be like God in the Book of Genesis, creating order out of chaos.  They chose the “broken” universe.   They got joy out of encountering it and forming it into order.  They could accept the anxiety and use it in molding their disorderly universe “closer to the heart’s desire.”  (May, The Courage to Create: Chapter 4, Creativity and Encounter, 1975)

What are the actual observations at this point concerning the nature of the connection between artistic expression and psychological difficulties amongst creative types?  From what I have read, it looks like it is a highly controversial subject where mostly tentative conclusions have been forthcoming.

I began this investigation following a conversation with a friend and former professor Ira Lapidus about the letters written by Vincent Van Gogh. Following our talk, I decided that it could be helpful to better perceive the dynamics involved with the process of creating art and its transformative effect on ones’ awareness and understanding.

In the next posts, I will look at the experiences of  Van Gogh, together with those of Arshile Gorky and Mark Rothko, and consider the dynamics involved with the birth of an artwork, especially the psychological factors that undergird creative expression.  Whether or not the term “divine madness” is still one that we would want to adopt in this day and age, it does appear to still be a meaningful concept to start-off with.

Creative people, as I see them, are distinguished by the fact that they can live with anxiety, even though a high price may be paid in terms of insecurity, sensitivity and defenselessness for the gift of the “divine madness,” to borrow the term used by classical Greeks.  They do not run away from non-being, but by encountering and wrestling with it, force it to produce being.  They knock on silence for an answering music; they pursue meaninglessness until they can force it to mean.  (The Courage to Create: Chapter 4, Creativity and Encounter)

In this estimation then, an artist is challenged through the process of creativity – it affects an artist’s perceptual grounding and self-awareness.

Our sense of identity is threatened; the world is not as we experienced it before, and since self and world are always correlated, we no longer are what we were before.   Past, present and future form a new Gestalt…The anxiety we feel is temporary rootlessness, disorientation; it is the anxiety of nothingness. (Ibid)

The psychological effects from this encounter and “the nature of the symbols and myths that are born in the creative act” are both regressive and progressive.

Symbol and myth do bring into awareness infantile, archaic dreads, unconscious longings, and similar primitive psychic content.  This is their regressive aspect.  But they also bring out new meaning, new forms, and disclose a reality that was literally not present before, a reality that is not merely subjective but has a second pole which is outside ourselves.  This is the progressive side of symbol and myth.  This aspect points ahead. It is integrative.  It is a progressive revealing of a structure in our relation to nature and our existence, as the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur so well states.  It is a road to universals beyond discrete personal experience…the dichotomy between subjective experience and objective reality is overcome and symbols which reveal new meaning are born, [this state has] historically [been] termed ecstasy…Ecstasy is a temporary transcending of the subject-object dichotomy.  (Ibid)

Echoing this conclusion, David Whyte’s observations about Van Gogh’s self-portraits, address similarly with a keen insight the artist’s ongoing transformation through the creative experiences of his lifetime.

After a long afternoon in front of the paintings, what struck me was the lack of self-indulgence in these portraits: no self-pity, no look-at-poor-me.  Each time Van Gogh painted himself, you felt he was actually capturing a way he was paying attention to the world in that particular epoch of his life.   He was in effect, painting the threshold he was looking out from.  He seemed to look out bravely, too, even from under a bandaged ear, at a world that looked back just as fiercely. (Whyte, The Three Marriages, Chapter 4, The Doorless Door:  Youth’s First Glimpse of the Self, 2009)

This initial approach at a subject that is fairly sensitive and not clearly understood by artists and the community at large, has given me a lot to think about.  Much of this evaluation and analysis was not evident to me initially.   But, I can see how it does contain echoes with my own experience as an artist.   I imagine that others will find these reflections thought-provoking as well.

I look forward to continuing this study and will share what I discover in my next posts.