Are the Best Artists All Crazy?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Some artists, whether painters, writers or musicians, suffer from being labeled crazy artists. There is compelling evidence that some of the best artists do deserve the title, except the term "crazy" is generally more politely replaced with "mentally ill." There are many examples of artists who were called crazy, however, which does point to a large share of artists suffering from some form of mental illness.

Writer Charles Dickens was considered "crazy.".
Writer Charles Dickens was considered "crazy.".

Mental illness may create a number of factors that contribute to some individuals' artistic tendencies. The first of these is the polarizing effect on the artist. The person who sees him or herself as "outside" of the general public because of a mental illness is likely to have a take on humanity quite different from the "inside" man or woman. In fact, being outside can allow an individual to observe society as someone else might observe a society of birds, for example. Core truths of the society can be exposed and, therefore, resonate with or irritate the public.

Mozart was thought to be "crazy.".
Mozart was thought to be "crazy.".

Additionally "crazy artists" have access, probably that they don’t want, to the excessive emotional content of their lives. This is very true of those with bipolar disorder or depression. Some cannot filter out the deep and foreboding emotions, causing great mental disturbance. Exposure to consistent emotional content can also touch others listening to, observing, or reading the art.

Beethoven was thought to be "crazy.".
Beethoven was thought to be "crazy.".

A few writers who could be termed "crazy" include Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Leo Tolstoy, John Keats, Sylvia Plath, and Tennessee Williams. Many of these artists fought tremendous battles with depression. Some, like Plath, committed suicide. Others who are potential candidates as "crazy artists" include the alcoholics and drug addicts, since it is now shown that many who have drug dependence are medicating to mask a mental disorder. These include writers like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wilkie Collins, and Edgar Allan Poe.

Marilyn Monroe is believed to have struggled with mental illness.
Marilyn Monroe is believed to have struggled with mental illness.

It is generally assumed that a number of well known visual artists suffered from depression. This is certainly the case with Vincent Van Gogh, the poster child of the "crazy artist." Michelangelo may also have been suffering from deep depression. Paul Gauguin suffered a mid-life crisis, battling alcoholism and relocating to Tahiti to paint during the last few years of his life.

The author of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Samuel Taylor Coleride, might have suffered from mental illness.
The author of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Samuel Taylor Coleride, might have suffered from mental illness.

A number of great filmmakers have also been considered crazy, battling various forms of mental illnesses. Their ranks include Francis Ford Coppola and Rod Steiger. Further, actors and actresses have recently "come out" to discuss their struggles with mental illness. Patty Duke has been particularly effective in her advocacy for those with depression and bipolar disorder. Actresses like Vivien Leigh and Marilyn Monroe battled mental illness as well.

Michelangelo, who painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, might have had severe depression.
Michelangelo, who painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, might have had severe depression.

Music would not be the same without its contributing crazy artists. These names include Mozart, Schubert, Rossini, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven. Modern musicians like James Taylor have been relatively public about battling mental illness and drug addiction.

Perhaps the most illuminating work on the subject is the book The Dynamics of Creation by Anthony Storr. He refutes the idea that art springs from insanity, but suggests that it is instead a force of consolation to the artist. Another interesting take on the subject is the book The Key to Genius: Manic Depression and the Creative Life written by D. Jablow Hershman and Julian Lieb. This work analyzes how the manic depressive artist may achieve more recognition because, in his or her manic states, production level increases dramatically.

Some worry, however, that insanity is a prerequisite of great art. This is clearly not the case, and there are many fabulous artists who were quite sane. Further, insanity does not translate to great art. Interesting analyses have been made of art produced by people who are institutionalized, however.

John Keats was a notable Romantic poet who could be termed "crazy."
John Keats was a notable Romantic poet who could be termed "crazy."
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


Actually it helps. Normality sucks up your time to an absurd extent. Everybody wants to steal some of your time for their own convenience. Artist is a word we use for someone who crawls deeply into technique, so much so that the skills hard won by devotion to practise enable one to begin to make statements that are new and interesting. Appearing a bit mad tends to deter people from stealing your time; but not so much as to make them lock you up in which they steal all your time! Moderation in all things, even madness.


Well, who is it to determine what sanity or insanity is? People walk around thinking they are perfect, better than others in order to "fix" their inferiority complex. I am a musician, and I grew up around lots of creative people. My dad was one of the best musicians you ever want to listen to, but he also worked a blue collar job for over 30 years to take care of his family. Maybe that was crazy, to forgo a life of fame and fortune to take care of your kids and a wife who really didn't appreciate you. Love you dad, miss you and appreciate all you did for us.

And who the heck is sitting around doing the research? Must be some crazy psychologists/scientists. Everyone has some semblance of mental imbalance; it's the only way to cope with the uncertainty of this life here on earth. Just as long and you're not out killing people, hurting others or yourself, creating art, cooking, playing music or whatever, be you!


I have a daughter who is schizoaffective, and I can understand your frustration. Thank for your post. You're closer to being normal in some ways. But you should know you're not likely to return back to where you were. But I think you've got more on the ball even though you're still confused.


I am proud of being different. Normal is overrated. I have always been an artist and wore the label many times. My art is not the standard. I may paint a tree that looks like a tree, or my mind may dream up a tree that looks nothing like a tree, but to me and my way of thinking is still a tree.

I think of artists as unique snowflakes. Art is my everything, and sometimes I become what someone may think is crazy, staying up all night because the creative juices are flowing like a light I can't turn off. I have painted for days before without sleeping. I have even been told that's crazy but I wear that label proudly.


It's not about being 'crazy,' but being able to see clearly! CNN, the mainstream media and the politicians all lie, as well as the 'world' in general. It's release, but art. Let us create a construct completely free! Wherever we want to go. we go and we attempt to take others with us in the imagery.


There is a problem here with the definition of "best," I would have thought! How many people could agree on the best artist in any genre in the first place?

And 'crazy'? what does that mean? Charles Dickens was immensely successful, a shrewd political commentator and was a philanthropist who committed himself to many causes!


When I read your articles and posts before, I was a little, how should I say -- put out.

I live with some depression and other mental illnesses that carry with them a stigma by society. I think I took what you were saying, in the wrong context.

Now I've been thinking more deeply on the subject. I had a good friend ask me once if my art came from a deep place in my mind, or if my depression helped me create some of my work, so I don't think it is far off base and your intention was not to say were crazy.

I get it now and sorry if I came off negative before, and yes, my mind takes me into deep and yet upbeat places as well. I do know it has been my personal savior in many ways.

I've had therapy and more, and I get in frenzied states and that moment is when I feel I create my best work. I have sleepless nights, and even lonely days and quiet evenings.


@Anon270582: Your post is very interesting and I believe that many people can relate to your experience with art materials and the process of making art in a similar way. Whether people are diagnosed with schizophrenia, PTSD, ADD, depression, etc., there is something about becoming wrapped up in the moment of touching the paint, and mixing the colors that is indescribable.

Best of luck to everyone reading this post, and may art continue to heal and tell our stories to the people we love.


I was a behavioral science specialist, mainly investigating and working with domestic violence cases. I eventually had a major breakdown and spent the last six months of my almost eight years of my Army "career" in a military psychiatric ward.

I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, caused mainly by the stress of the job. I was retired from the Army after I was stabilized.(I do get a pension and benefits as an Army retiree.) I had no desire to be an artist, but I have found that words do not describe what I experience mentally. At times I can not focus on anything, my thoughts disappear and yet at times, other thoughts appear that are not from me. I feel "people" touching me as well as watching me at times and I become very confused as to who I am and where I am at.

To make a long story short, I now paint because I do not have the words to say what I need to say. I remember things were different before, but I really don't know how to return to the pre-breakdown life. I want to express my fear, my confusion, my desire to return to how I once was at some time, and other thoughts to other people but no one understands me. Colors, textures, and shapes have the same meaning to me as words do. That is why I became an "artist" -- not because I am creative, but because I need to speak my thoughts. I can understand some paintings as being like a paragraph in a story, but many are just random images. (My main income is from being a security guard as a civilian as I can't focus on anything long enough, or take high levels of stress anymore like I used to be able to.) Also, I cannot paint during my episodes, and could not possibly write like this during them. But then at times I can, as I am doing now. It comes in cycles.

Anyway, for what it is worth, that is why I became an artist.


I can understand how this is true. Usually mentally ill people have a different perspective on things and in many ways, that can contribute to their creativity.


There's a very fine line between insanity and genius. My favorite of the latter is the Australian Generation X Artist James DeWeaver, and the former would be Salvador Dali!


@anon231410 -- I totally get what you're saying, and you're right in that calling any group of people a derogatory name is bigoted and wrong.

I don't think that that is the intention of the article though -- if you notice, the term "crazy" is put in quotes throughout, so I don't think that the author was intending to be bigoted, but rather to just answer the stereotype of the "crazy artist".


I'm highly insulted by the term "crazy" when it is loosely thrown around in reference to a group of people oppressed biologically and by the community, especially when we are capable of great inspiration for the group as a whole. It's nothing less less than bigotry in a different form and is indicative of a lack of sophistication, education, and sensitivity.


it's more that great artists were depressed before becoming artists, not that artists become depressed. not for all artists, but many people who create or write great stuff were able to do so because they are not like the average person.

their mind is usually in a place deeper than the average person and their is such an intensity in their feelings about a certain topic that their mind takes them to a place that the average citizen cannot go to.

the crazy thoughts they think are stuff that an average person wouldn't have an inkling about, is when they come back down from that manic state that they can write such great stuff because their mind works so differently from the average person.


Maybe society in general may feel threatened by an artist's expressive outlet. This can lead to attacks by those in politics, religion, or the media. These attacks can alienate an artist into thinking they have a mental disorder.

If more people thought for themselves instead of having the media think for them, there could be a problem in controlling them. Why is it OK to watch movies on war and killing, but when one individual person reacts to it in his or her art, they are looked at like they are not right. Art can be looked at as a danger to a group that dosen't agree with a piece of art. These attacks can lead to depression or paranoid feelings.

It's too easy to say that these artists are crazy. They just respond and perceive things differently. And that can be a big problem to those who feel it is a threat to the good of society. Is it better to hurt someone or to paint a picture of your emotions so you can get past it.

I think the world would be better if everyone was trained in expressing themselves. But maybe not showing the public their art. For some art can have a negative influence on people and should be carefully selected. Maybe the ones who go about the day and watch t.v, go on the computer, play video games, tweet, twitter, and facebook are the ones with a mental disorder. It's all in how you perceive the world around you. But please don't be so quick to judge the good ones as crazy.


The sculptor Killian Skarr is probably the best example of an artist being "completely out of his (bleep) skull" when engaged in the process of making art. And it shows.


"crazy artist" makes for a convenient story.

However, as an artist with a mental illness, i do find that certain temporary states of the brain are conducive to producing better art - endurance and concentration along with the continued (dopamine) reward of new ideas developing.


Those truly insane could not produce great art. To produce great art takes an enormous amount of work and concentration. Likewise, depression and addiction do not constitute crazy.

Andre Gonzalez

Max Beamus of Say Anything and Two Tongues has a history of bipolar/schizophrenia and depression. Had to opt out of a tour too, because of it.

Great singer/songwriter too


Thank you. I recently acquired the label crazy because of a music based film I did. The critic was cruel and just didn't get the story or art of the film, while others appreciated my bravery.


Some more scientifically based analysis of "the crazy artist" has suggested that people that because people who suffer from mental illness have abnormal brain chemistry, literal perception of the world is altered. However, a strictly scientific analysis of this tendency does not explain why people with mental illness are often drawn towards the arts. There really is no other explanation for this other than the fact that people who feel alienated actively seek outlets for strong and debilitating emotional problems. Even art that is negative in nature seems to serve as a method of escape or self-help for the artist.

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