Artists Or Their Audiences? Who Is Crazy Here?

Published in Maadi Messenger

Crazy artists! This quite provocative statement touches a nerve with many people. So are artists really crazy? If so, is it because they cut off their ears (Van Gogh), hang themselves (Arshille Gorky), drown themselves in rivers (Virginia Woolf), claim to have visions (William Blake) or are diagnosed with schizophrenia (Antoine Artaud)? Salvador Dali’s famous statement “The only difference between a madman and me is that I am not mad,” is always perceived as a quote from a madman himself.

But, wait a minute . . . There is no scientific proof of mental conditions existing only in the artistic world. Didn’t Roosevelt suffer from mental problems? Winston Churchill spoke openly about his bipolar disorder calling it his “black dog.” Finally, remember the Beautiful Mind? The story depicts the life of none other than John Nash, mathematician and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, and his struggles with schizophrenia. We can give myriad examples of nonartists who were also victims of mental disabilities. Maybe it’s not about artists but people with tremendous minds, great skills and creative powers, regardless of the profession.

Being an artist is the same as living in constant limelight. Even if an artist is part of a group project, no matter how supportive his colleagues are, no matter how supportive his friends, family or other artists are at the moment of his creative presentation—be it an exhibition, concert or a book—an artist stands on his own while his craft and inner self are being judged and analyzed by tens, hundreds or thousands of people. This is a lot of pressure on any individual. In comparison, an employee in a big corporation is not individually judged by the masses for the company’s status in the market—he is judged by one or more supervisors.

An artist is fully responsible for his or her production, and he or she is the first to feel its glory or perish in its failure. Also for this reason, artists are, and should be, very self aware, and this fact is often misinterpreted by others accusing artists of being narcissistic or vain. And of course, artists put very high expectations on themselves, as many of them dream. Furthermore, constant limelight, the struggle to respond to audience expectations, the demand for originality in a world where almost all has been said and done and the need for appreciation—all of these constitute enormous pressure that each artist lives with on a daily basis.

Taken together, don’t these elements create the perfect soil for various anxieties, extreme moods and, as a result, depressions? Van Gogh’s story, as memorable as it is overdramatised, serves as yet another example of an artist who did not cope well with all social pressures.

We must not omit another important element—the image of an artist as a bohemian soul, especially promoted by the 19th century literature, music and paintings. And even if hedonism or other fin-de–siècle fashionable trends are no longer fully applicable to today’s artists, their so-called unconventional ways of living are in the centre of attention of many people. Artists are still looked at as “unconventional people” regardless of how actually conventional they might be.

We can top it with the fact that the lives of many artists became an open book for people to analyse and often criticise, before trying to understand them, or simply let them be. That’s the price any artist pays for the little exposure he receives all the big fame.

Finally, whether or not they are crazy, but definitely socially classified as such and socially pressured, many artists are not affected by all the misjudgments. Obviously artists themselves are not willing to fight the myth of a “mad artist,” and many of them do not even mind presenting an image which we want to see.

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