Monday, November 19, 2007

The Van Gogh Effect

On Saturday night I went to a reading that Patrick Durgin's wonderful Kenning Editions put on as a tribute for the poet Hannah Weiner. The reading was very well done with some very interesting reflections on Weiner and her work. One of the things about Weiner that has bothered me for a long time is what I like to call the "Van Gogh Effect". Weiner had obvious issues with drugs and mental illness. How do we address these issues as human beings?

When I was an undergrad I had a girlfriend who eventually became the noted psychologist Dr. J Krones and she and I had a running argument/disagreement about he Van Gogh effect. JK argued that it was inhumane and cruel to facilitate the art no matter how creative of mentally ill people. I argued that it is the mental illness that makes them great artists and that to medicate them would destroy their personalities. I am not so sure that I believe this anymore but I think about it allot.

Many creative people are mentally ill and many creative people use illegal drugs as ways to salve their mental illness. The moral question is do we ignore destructive behaviour because the art is so fabulous? Are we being cruel and inhumane by facilitating mental illness?

This argument could be expanded to include others who use mental illness for fabulous ends. It has been argued that St Francis for example suffered from Mental Illness and this is where so much of his power came from. In fact the Stigmata and the Poetry were borne from Mental Illness and that prayer and privation caused his Ecstasy. On the other hand Jackson Pollock was more productive when he was sober and not very productive when he was drunk. Picasso and Matisse it appears did not suffer from mental illness; but many other artists did.

So getting back the Van Gogh effect is it morally correct to facilitate destructive behaviours? Would Hannah Weiner's work have been so important if she had been under a doctor's care for her mental illness? Would the work have been so clear and clean? Would Van Gogh have created his paintings if he had been on Prozac? Was his mental illness the price for greatness?
Or is mental illness, anguish and stress needed to create great art? I simply do not know the answer to this question but I ask it all the time. It is obvious that many creative people have some sort of mental illness. Where is the line between creative/innovative mindset and destruction? Where does this lay?