Seneca: “There is no great genius without a tincture of madness.”
I’m taking a different approach to the Artist of the Week column and choosing to honor–well more so, postulate about–the anonymous and unrecognized artists that attune themselves to the goings-on of the world. By this, I mean artists who are capable of seeing the thread of continuity that runs throughout the seemingly disparate events of the world. These men and women reach into the undercurrent of world events and rip out the darkness, the light, the past, and the future and offer their findings for our perusal to take or leave as we choose.
It is now believed that creativity is akin to schizophrenia. The practical similarities between creative individuals and schizophrenics are that they have the ability to form very unconventional connections between seemingly unrelated thoughts and concepts. The ability to find the extraordinary in ordinary things is the artist’s calling card as is the ability to synthesize tremendous amount of stimuli.
In addition to creating, most of the great artists do a tremendous amount of thinking and reading. As the stories and news articles of the day pass through their hands, connections are made that would otherwise be unmade and many of these connections find their way into their artistic products. Granted, many of the connections may prove to be unwarranted or false, yet there are throughout history examples of artwork that provided insightful commentary about world events. I don’t think that Surrealism’s rise during one of the most irrational periods in world history was an isolated coincidence. By daring to postulate crazy ideas, artists from time-to-time stumble upon the direction in which the world is headed.
Perhaps the connection between creativity and schizophrenia continues to affirm the myth of the “mad genius” in art which somehow is rooted in and perpetuated by stories about artists and writers like van Gogh, Munch, Picasso, Rothko, Hemingway, Plath, and so forth who all seemed to conjoin great creativity with great suffering. Furthering this questionably credible theory is Nietzsche who contributed the notion of the Apollonian and Dionysian as dichotomous components of the collective and individual psyches. The balance (or imbalance) between the rational and irrational fuels a sturm and drang in which new ideas are born and baptized by fire.
I do not dispute that the irrational is a significant component of the creative process as I have had ideas for my own artwork originate from “places” and processes that I could never adequately explain. Witness Coleridge’s Kubla Khan which was said to be born of an opiate dream for a particularly extreme and typically Romantic example. The connection between artists and irrational behavior has a long tradition within the Artist mythos and no doubt this will continue to be the case simply because of the human desire for great stories–and what makes for great stories if not artists and their rampages, drunken shenanigans, and the surprising beauty they create despite their self-destructive tendencies?
So, what does this irrational element contribute to anything? Is it the impetus, the philosopher’s stone, if you will, that allows creative individuals to transmute chaos into beauty, disorder into order? The perception of the irrational is that it is a vehicle by which the muses impart flashes of inspiration from which the artist can direct their creative endeavors. It is always a glimpse beyond the veil–or a whisper overheard, broken and incomplete. By discarding the trappings of order and convention, the Artist with a capital “a” can brave the gates of the underworld and bring back to the surface a glimpse into something terrible and beautiful.
Chances are that as we discover the biological underpinnings of the creative process, the mythos of the Artist will slowly expire–but not quietly. Further, it is an important and often forgotten fact (particularly within our schools) that some of the greatest and most brilliant of ideas come from the unconventional and the irrational. So, as we go about our day-to-day activities let us not forget from time to time to stop and celebrate the irrational for we never know where it might lead us.