Check out this essay by Mandolin!
“Unlocking the Garret” by Rachel Swirsky
It’s in the stereotype. The artist of tempestuous temperament who drinks to excess as he stumbles, lean and tuberculotic, up the winding steps to his garret. Van Gogh cut off his ear. Plath put her head in the oven. The artist is passionate; the artist is mercurial; the artist is mad.
Sometimes stereotypes do hold a shard of truth.
I don’t know why there’s a connection between creativity and madness. One could provoke the other; both could be caused by another factor. It could be inherent. It could be cultural. Whatever the why, there’s a high frequency of mental illness among artists.
Despite this, we rarely talk about how mental illness affects the work. Taboos about discussing personal experiences with mental illness remain, promoted by shame and ignorance. In this toxic fog, the stereotype of the mad artist looms large, discouraging some from even seeking treatment because they believe creativity can only persist in the garret.
I have bipolar disorder—the second type, the one that lacks extremely high mood. I’ve been in treatment for ten years or so, and I’m lucky in that medications work for me. They don’t work for everybody, and for some people, they come with unbearable side effects. Still, disability remains something I have to navigate daily, and it probably always will be.
My contact with the arts in a participatory fashion is in vocal music with people academically trained in classical, musicals and opera. I observed that while over half of the men were gay (and no, not just the tenors) none of the women were lesbians. I’ve asked around and have been told that this is common. I wonder why? Seriously.
No, I don’t see homosexuality as a mental disease. But looking at the relationship between the mind and the arts more broadly there is certainly a mental aspect to it (after all, if sexuality was purely determined by phenotype there’d be no homosexuals).
My guess would be historical reasons? Traditionally gay men have gone into musical theater, at least, and gay women are stereotypically behind the scenes… I would be fascinated by statistics on it.
Also, most theater groups I was in did involve a lot more gay men than lesbians — but a lot of the women were bi, and that can pass unnoticed sometimes.
Oddly enough, RonF, a good friend of mine just joined an all queer ladies choir. :) I have noticed that about choirs I’ve been in, though–a much higher percentage of non-heterosexual people among the men than among the women. If I were to armchair-sociologist the reasons why, I suspect it’s something to do with societal scripts about hobbies. Men are typically portrayed as having certain kinds of hobbies which are generally not creative/artistic and, IME, when they have creative hobbies, they tend to be pressured to have creative hobbies that can be monetized. (Your experience may be different, of course–this is just what I have observed among people I know.) But that kind of pressure doesn’t work as well on queer people, since we’ve already violated one of the big social norms. Also, singing in a choir isn’t counter to societal scripts about women’s hobbies, so you don’t get the differential pressure on straight and non-straight women. In other words, I assume the distribution is caused by an absence of straight men (who might, in another society, very much like singing in a choir), not the presence of unusual numbers of gay men. But I don’t really know, of course.
EDIT: and as Mandolin’s comment points out, some of this may be historical artifacts from the time when creative pursuits were less hostile to queer people than other areas of society, and so people pushed out of other trades tended to gather there…
Thanks for the essay, Mandolin. One of the things I find for myself is that writing is a kind of self-care: I feel better when I do it. But it’s also harder to do the worse my mental health gets.
Good luck with your issues, Mandolin. Hope you find a good lock on your mental GPS to get you through.
Nicely done, Mandolin!