Is There a Dark Side to Creativity?

‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.’ Pablo Picasso.

As a writer and someone who is training to be an actor, I value creativity. I generally see its bright side and think  it can bring a sense of personal fulfilment, improved mental health and an experience of ‘free-flow’ where one is in a focussed yet relaxed state of being. I feel this particularly when I am acting and in communion the with other  actors and the audience.  I feel fully alive.

According to Mazlov’s hierarchy of needs, creativity is up there at the top of that pyramid and is a path to self-actualization. Julia Cameron, author of The Artists Way would go so far as to see creativity as divine. ‘Creativity is God energy, flowing through us, shaped by us, like light flowing through a crystal prism.’ A little hippy for my taste but I get where she’s coming from! And I think, generally, as a society, we are  enchanted by creativity . For many people, creativity is a new way of finding solace in an imperfect world in which religion no longer offers such conditions. (Gammel 1946 The Twilight of Painting)

However, I have on occasion wondered whether there is a dark side to creativity. For myself, I recognise the potential for workaholicism and perfectionism when it comes to my own creative pursuits. But when one is intrinsically motivated and rewarded in creative endeavour it is difficult to know where to cut off or when the job is done. Having written my second novel, Pharmakeia, which centres around a creative temptation, I have also reflected on the moral or ethical dimension to art and creativity. I am aware that this is a huge topic but I would like to offer some of my initial thoughts on the dark side of creativity or, as some have called it, ‘negative creativity.’

Creativity and Mental Illness

I think it is fair to say that there is stereotype of the artistic genius. But is there a genuine link between creativity and mental illness? Of course ‘creativity’ is a broad concept but if we were to look at just mental health and the ‘arts’ there is some research to suggest that mental health is lowest in people who work in this field. My experience at the University of Exeter bears this out. The university counselling service was jam-packed with drama students! And of course writers such as Woolf, Plath and Hemingway committed suicide whereas artists such as Van Gogh and Goya or musicians such as Beethoven  are reported to have suffered from depression, bipolar disorder and breakdowns. But are such famous artists representative? Or is there something about  being an artist and delving into the unconscious and into areas that most people would wisely leave be? Do modern-day artists have shamanic status? And who is to say society in general is sane? As Thomas Szasz says, insanity is a sane reaction to an insane world.

Creativity and Addiction

Of course, many artists are not addicted to either drugs or alcohol. But there may be an increased likelihood of becoming an addict if one has artistic leanings. To a certain extent, artists do have an outsider status. They often challenge the status quo, go beyond convention and offer new ways of seeing things. Drugs similarly offer the user new perceptions and ways of looking at the world, particularly hallucinogenic drugs. They are also illegal which might provide an additional allure to an artist of a rebellious nature. The 27 Club is a term that refers to a number of popular musicians who died at the age of 27, often of drug or alcohol abuse. They include, of course, Jim Morrison, Cobain and Hendrix. But perhaps childhood trauma and/or the pressures of sudden fame also played their part in some of these artists early deaths.

The Creative Personality Type

‘It is the creative person we need most to fear.’ (Graham Greene)

There is some recent research that suggests creative people may be a little more dishonest, arrogant and distrustful than other members of society. One could argue for example that the criminals who committed The Great Train Robbery showed a great sense of ingenuity which is a key component of creativity. And, I guess, if one is on the margins of society, or is challenging the conventions and morality of society, one is more likely to be distrustful. And for some highly creative individuals perhaps there is a sense of going against the crowd which could lead one to become more eccentric, criminal or even pathological. The allure of darkness may even manifest in an attraction to Satanism or occult practices. Robert Mapplethorpe, for example, is well know to have dabbled in Satanism and the occult. When interviewed for a documentary about Mapplethorpe, his former lover, Jack Fritscher, said, ‘Not to put Mapplethorpe down, but Satan, to him, was not this evil monster. Satan was like a convivial playmate.’ Then there are other artists or writers like Ted Hughes, Crowley or H P Lovecraft who were similarly interested in the occult.

My own opinion is that nothing is inherently good or bad, light or dark. It is our intentions or how we use things that matters. Mankind has shown immense ingenuity and creativity in the field of technology. We have the invention of the World Wide Web and nuclear power for example. Then there is the GTS satellite system that has given rise to App culture. But whether this technology is harnessed for the power of good or bad depends on the intention of politicians or other groups in society that would make use of such technology. Whether creativity is used for good or bad also depends on one’s beliefs and core values, Creativity does not exisit in a moral vacuum or beyond a historical or cultural context. I would also argue that artists do have a role to play in exposing injustice, inequality and habitual ways of seeing the world. However, perhaps past creativity can block future creative projects. As an artist, after some time and with a conventional degree of success, perhaps it is easy to fall into the trap of being formulaic and therefore conventional! And perhaps it is also easy to fall into the trap of creating from the ego rather than the Self. There is a lot to be said for getting out of the way of oneself before one creates…

Next week’s blog post will be an update on my forthcoming memoir.

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