Saturday, 21 April 2018

Does Bipolarity Foster Artistic Genius?
Poor old Vincent Van Gogh (1853–1890), forever to be known as the tragic tortured artist who never sold a painting and cut off his own ear. Of course now, his vivid paintings sell in the tens of millions at art auctions worldwide, but in his lifetime, only his sympathetic brother bought his work while simultaneously supporting him financially.Night (pictured above) mounted on my wall. His vision of how he saw the world just seemed fundamentally different from everyone else's. Who the heck looks up at the night sky and sees a swirling, fiery mass of stars, clouds, the moon and darkness, all churning together in a brilliant maelstrom of color? For him, the night was alive with heavenly energy. Maybe it was all that absinthe, who knows?

Yet like so many of the poor starving bastards I end up profiling here on my blog, Vincent Van Gogh lived a difficult, troubled life. Since not selling a painting rarely puts food on the table, Van Gogh lived the cliched existence of the "starving artist" in late 19th Century France. Friends with such other artistic luminaries as Paul Gauguin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in Paris, Van Gogh became a prolific artist, but his money troubles, absinthe drinking and mental health soon began to destroy his quality of life.

He moved to the South of France, while although this became one of his most artistically inspirational periods, Van Gogh eventually suffered a complete mental breakdown. Fearing his friend Paul Gauguin was going to "abandon him", Van Gogh chased him down in the street with a straight razor. When Gauguin escaped, Van Gogh severed his ear and then sent it wrapped in paper to a woman at a brothel where he and Gauguin used to frequent. Van Gogh was sent by the authorities to a local asylum, but was eventually released. Soon after, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest; unknown, penniless and undiscovered.
Another genius and tragic artist was the 70's jazz bass player, Jaco Pastorius (1951-1987). Unlike Vincent Van Gogh, he did actually achieve some measure of commercial success (at least for a jazz musician), playing for some of the biggest musical groups of his day to international acclaim. His style of playing was unmatched and truly innovative, pioneering the use of the fretless electric bass, harmonics and elevating the role of the bass player as musical virtuoso. Even modern day Bass Gods like Flea of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and Robert Trujillo of Metallica, acknowledge him as their musical hero. Check out this video of Jaco soloing here:

Sadly, Pastorius also suffered from poor mental health that only deteriorated over time. He went from playing sold out stadiums with the biggest Jazz Fusion group of the 1970's, Weather Report, to, as Joni Mitchell reported in an interview, sitting on the sidewalk in New York playing for loose change.

He eventually made his way back to his native Florida, where he ended up sleeping rough in a public park. Increasingly self-destructive and unstable, Pastorius got into a physical confrontation with a nightclub bouncer who had refused him entry. The altercation ended with Pastorius in a coma in hospital and eventually passing away at the young age of 35.
What do these two great artists have in common- besides talent and tragedy? It's known that Pastorius suffered from Bipolar disorder, while modern day psychologists now view Van Gogh as also being afflicted. Sadly, the link between "madness and creativity" has often been romanticized and distorted throughout the years. If you've ever seen a homeless person muttering to themselves on the streets of any large urban center, its not anything worth being romanticized in any way shape or form... I'll take a sane mind over creative genius any day of the week.
And yes, some creative artists have suffered from mental illness, but plenty of other great geniuses lived perfectly happy, healthy lives (Dizzy Gillespie and Claude Monet for example). Conversely, there are plenty of sufferers of Bipolarity who are not particularly creative at all. So, I think the jury is still out there on this one.
But there sure are plenty of examples in history of artistic types whose lives were filled with addiction, pain and ended tragically. I'm certainly not a psychologist, so I guess can't say that I'm qualified to make a judgment either way. But my heart goes out to people who suffer from mental illness, and I at least hope that their painting, poetry and music helps keep their demons at bay. Lord knows it does for me.
What about you: does being creative ease your soul?Do you think the link between "madness and creativity" is overblown?

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