A short history of mental illness in art
Art has led the way in seeing mental illness not as alien or contemptible but part of the human condition – even as a positive and useful experience. Modern art has even celebrated mental suffering as a creative adventure. This psychiatric modernism started with the “madness” of Vincent van Gogh and led to work by patients being discovered as a new kind of art. Yet it has much deeper historical roots. Albrecht Durer portrayed genius as melancholic as early as the Renaissance and Romantic painters identified with the “mad”.
Perhaps it is not hard to see why artists often show empathy for what society calls illness: all creativity is an irrational voyage. The idea of going outside yourself to see things afresh is probably as old as the torchlit visions of cave artists and was expressed by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato when he wrote that poetic ecstasy is the only source of divine truth. “Madness is a gift from the gods”, as Plato put it.