You know what the typical artist looks like: mad van Gogh dreaming in fire tongues of color and slicing off his own ear; Charlie Parker, gaunt and shaking from withdrawal, trying to wet his reed. Mental illness and the creative spark are just two terms for the same phenomenon, right?
Wrong, says Dobbs Ferry’s Judith Schlesinger, PhD. The 61-year-old psychologist, author of Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius, says she’s one of the few academics studying the link between mental illness and artistic genius who, well, doesn’t even believe there is a link. “I’ve always loved art and music,” says Schlesinger, who has also worked as a concert pianist, jazz singer, jazz critic, and music producer. “The biographies of these people were so tragic, and there was an expectation that they would be. When I started studying psychology, that started to smell.
“Everyone was citing the same four studies,” she continues. “So I went looking for them.” The two most famous authors claiming the link is real—both did their seminal research on fewer than 20 people, and both papers were plagued by biases, she asserts.
Schlesinger’s book traces the origin of the mad genius myth, beginning with the Greeks, with Plato’s concept of “divine madness” and Aristotle’s notion of melancholia. Those ideas have been “morphed and twisted to the point where creativity is considered a symptom, where inspiration is mania.” Today, Schlesinger says, the ideas perform a function in society, ennobling the suffering of those with mental disease and excusing the callous behavior of the brilliant but sane and dry.
Even the famous cases of mad geniuses, she says, have their holes. van Gogh’s bipolar symptoms may have actually come from tertiary syphilis, and many think van Gogh’s friend and rival Paul Gaugin actually cut off his ear in a fight. As for Charlie Parker and the jazz junkie? “Why doesn’t anyone care about Dave Brubeck, who has five kids
and a sixty-some-odd-year marriage? Duke Ellington? Notoriously healthy. We want to hear about Amy Winehouse. If somebody is talented, we prefer to believe that they suffer. That way we don’t need to feel bad about not being talented.”