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Wolman, B.B. (1967). Creative Art and Psychopathology. Am. Imago, 24(1-2):140-150.

(1967). American Imago, 24(1-2):140-150

Creative Art and Psychopathology

Benjamin B. Wolman, Ph.D.

It is well known that many creative artists suffered from some sort of mental disorder, for example, Van Gogh, Hoelderlin, Dostoyevski, and Messerschmidt. Is there a causal connection between creative art and mental disorder? And, if so, what are the specifically significant elements that enter in here?

The leading exponent of the theory that links creative talent and mental disorder was the Italian scholar, C. Lombroso (1836-1909), who brought together an impressive array of cases in his book Genius and Insanity. This study stimulated a number of investigations, such as those of Audry (1924), Evenson (1926), Fay (1912), Jaspers (1926), Kraepelin (1909), Naecke (1913) and Prinzhorn (1922), which studied the art of mental patients and derangement processes in artists.

Expressionism, dadaism and surrealism contributed to the idea that art and insanity are closely related. Their emphasis on direct and uncontrolled expression in art resembled the modes of expression characteristic of mental patients. Thus, the question of the relationship between art and insanity became more complex. Is it true that a certain degree of abnormal behavior is a prerequisite for creative art? Is creativity conducive to abnormality and vice versa?

Students of creative talent have often assumed a causal relationsip between personality type and creative talent. For instance, Hammer (1961) believes that practically all creative men are endowed with “tolerance for suffering,” “retreat from people into an observer rather a participant role,” “rebelliousness,” and so on. All this is, however, not necessarily true. Genet had no tolerance for suffering. Paderewski, Gide, and Byron actively participated, respectively, in the Polish government, pro-communist activity and the Greek War of Independence. Raphael, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Pavlova were not particularly rebellious.

Certainly, artists are more inclined to “express “their feelings than average people (Barron, 1955), but so are psychotics.

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