Beyond the Romantic Mythos, What Life Is Really Like for Artists Living With Mental Illness

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in February 2016. We’ve selected it as one of the posts we’re republishing for our 10th anniversary celebrations in May 2017.

I was startled one day, several months ago, when a new security guard in the usually silent lobby of the Soho building that houses Flavorwire’s offices said, “Good morning.”

Over the next few days, I began to overdo my own greetings, almost as a challenge to my fears that I’d become disconnected by concentrating so hard on being busy. But from these compensatory platitudes came conversations, and conversation led to my finding out that our security guard is also an artist with a fascinating relationship to New York jazz clubs and some of the genre’s most iconic musicians. (He’s been written about in the New York Times due to this very relationship.)

He eventually invited me to the opening of a show that features his art. The exhibition is at the Fountain House Gallery, which describes itself as “the premier venue in New York City representing artists with mental illness.” Because of the obvious stigmas, it requires a certain openness to invite a relative stranger to a show mounted beneath that label; the label makes it both an invitation and a declaration.

The gallery is a nonprofit owned by the community-oriented organization, Fountain House, which helps rehabilitate and integrate people with mental illnesses into the workforce. If a Fountain House member is unable to work a shift because of their condition, the organization sends one of their own staffers to fill in. The clubhouse, which is home to the gallery, is run in part by Fountain House’s members — none of whom have to pay to participate.

Like the 60 artists whose work the gallery consistently exhibits, the organization faces the paradoxes of carving out a space for marginalized creators, while aiming to focus on their work itself, not just the stories about why the work is on display there. The artists often contend with the contradictions of being deemed “outsider” artists based on mental illness — and the need to brand oneself within the capitalist carnival of the New York art scene — while also trying to stabilize their lives.

Attending the exhibit raised some persistent personal questions for me. When I went on SSRIs, one of the biggest fears I’d had was that my ability to write in a style I considered “comfortably frantic” would be compromised. The mythical conflation of mental illness and creativity made me fear that making emotionally impactful art and being emotionally impacted — to the point of dysfunction — were inextricable.

Through the Fountain House Gallery and its artists, I went looking for answers about how artists with mental illness manage to function beyond the seductive but harmful mythos of heightened pain as the path to heightened art.

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'Celebrity Heaven 2,' by Martin Cohen
‘Celebrity Heaven 2,’ by Martin Cohen

Martin Cohen is a prolific artist who has been involved with the Fountain House Gallery since the mid-’90s, helping expand it from a blank space for an “Artist of the Month” on a wall in the clubhouse into an entire gallery. He had a breakdown while he was an undergrad at SUNY Purchase, and was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder as a result. As it’s described in a profile from 2007 in Schizophrenic Digest, he hallucinated his rock-star idols — whom he now often paints — “flying out of the sky, led by Peter Gabriel as the Antichrist.” Though he was hospitalized, he returned to school, and ultimately went on to get his MFA at Carnegie Mellon, where he studied with acclaimed abstract expressionist Sam Gilliam.

Cohen does link much of his work directly to the suffering implicit in his condition. He has explained that he’s “a mood-oriented artist” and that his “illness has informed [his] work and made [him] more willing to experiment.” His series of “satirical photomontages,” as Artspace dubbed them, sees the heads of celebrities, politicians, and porn stars superimposed on heaven/hellscape backgrounds by Renaissance painters, in particular Hieronymus Bosch; he tells me these came from a cynical state following a breakdown. But the desire isn’t for his art to keep him mired in those states — rather, he says the art itself is “therapeutic.” His adult life has been marked by enduring, varyingly successful attempts at stability through a “bumpy road” of shifts in medical treatment.

Flavorwire’s building’s security guard, Jonathan Glass, became an admirer — and a friend and mentee of sorts — of Cohen’s when, after years of counseling at the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health, his then-girlfriend brought him to Fountain House. Cohen, Glass says, has helped him “accept that being an artist is, itself, worthy of celebration.”

Jonathan Glass, in his apartment
Jonathan Glass, in his apartment

Like Cohen, Glass’ mental health issues arose in college, where he suffered a series of schizophrenic episodes, which, as he told Clinical Psychiatry News, saw him purchasing a tuxedo and running onstage at a New York fashion show with a marriage proposal. His diagnosis was depression and schizoaffective disorder.

When Glass went through a four-year phase of deep depression, he hardly drew whatsoever — with the exception of one sketchbook, which he would take with him to draw deliberately in the worst conditions New York had to offer: “I would draw in 20-degree weather, I would draw in fierce winds, I would paint in the rain and everything would be washed out, but I would still paint.” Perhaps due to the idolatry of the “suffering artist,” it was this sketchbook that sold for the highest amount he’s earned for his art to date: $6,000. Glass says he doesn’t question the motives of buyers, but rather tells himself to see any sale as a minor miracle. Here the weighty paradox emerges: his biggest sale came from a particularly difficult mental health period, but the work he sold was the only thing he’d made in four years.

Glass has moved past that phase, and he notes how even the lines of his portraits have become less lugubrious: “My illustration teacher said that you have to have life in order to give life, and that’s true with art.” Before coming to Fountain House, he participated in years of art therapy, whose aim is typically staunchly non-careerist; yet, based on his work, his art therapist encouraged it as a professional pursuit.

“It might help to have something to grapple with,” Glass says of the idea of psychological adversity inspiring art. “If you look at the history of art, in Greek sculpture you’ll see there’s a tension in those perfect bodies, between the motion and the stillness. They were going against the grain even though they were achieving perfection. And the Renaissance had to deal with the perfection of human nature in order to buoy themselves to do these incredibly realistic, high order art pieces. Sometimes Michelangelo would paint the Sistine Chapel three days and nights in a row. There’s always something artists have to work against, if it’s a rebellious thing or a creative impulse, that predisposes them to feel a certain way. But it doesn’t mean that your whole life is a struggle, it doesn’t mean you can’t make art when you’re happy. If you look at Matisse’s work, for example, it’s very joyous.”

For the last ten years, Glass has devoted his artistic time almost entirely to sketching jazz performers. His process is remarkable: he draws performers in the midst of concerts at jazz clubs (like New York’s Zinc Bar, Birdland, and Jazz Gallery), where he’s known to spread out across tables and sketch kinetically to the cues of the music.

Chucho Valdez with-Pedrito Martinez at the Rose Theater, by Jonathan Glass
Chucho Valdez with-Pedrito Martinez at the Rose Theater, by Jonathan Glass

He doesn’t restrict himself to the more capacious tables at clubs, though: if he’s going to a larger concert hall, he’ll often buy two tickets to shows so that he can make way for his behemoth pads across two of the cramped seats. (He has friends he can bring who aren’t too put off by having their laps used as easels.) Since childhood, Glass has been an avid collector of autographs, and his artwork is no exception. Frantically scrawled next to his fluid, expressionistic portraiture, you’ll often see the signatures of the jazz musicians portrayed — small, incidental, interpretive self-portraits commingling with Jonathan’s own interpretations of them. As such, the artists are aware of his presence at their shows. Some have become friends — Ravi Coltrane, for instance, who performed at one of Glass’ openings.

For Glass, often the biggest challenge is making art in a country that provides a noteworthy support system for neither artists nor the mentally ill. In order to be self-sufficient enough to create, he has to work two jobs. His drawings — especially when he’s depicting big band musicians — can take up to four sets to complete, and he often doesn’t get out of a show until 1am, though he has to be up by 5am to work. (On weekends, he also works as a gallery attendant in Long Island City.) Beyond the costs of attending jazz clubs, he’s needed to pay for his own medication for the last nine months: he describes how Obamacare’s equivocating version of universal healthcare has seen him in a back-and-forth with the Medicaid offices for almost a year.

Because of Jonathan’s unmistakably modernist style, he also feels disconnected from the contemporary art world’s self-reflexively capitalist drive. Like many, he cites Jeff Koons as the locus of his disdain for contemporary art. It interests him as little, he says, as “the Rococo period — which was about showing rich people doing fun things and lavishing in their richness — and there was a huge underbelly of poor people who didn’t get represented in art. I hate that, and we’re seeing it again in a different form, in a way that pokes fun at just poking fun.”

He may not have a considerable urge to participate in this aspect of the contemporary art sphere, but he’s seen a surge of productivity over the last five years, following a seeming attempt on the part of the Fountain House Gallery to ease him out of relying on them for solo shows.

“A lot of the [Fountain House] artists are ambitious, but it’s really hard for anybody to navigate the New York City art world and what it means,” says Ariel Willmott, Fountain House Gallery’s director, who emphasizes that the space is in many ways supposed to help artists transition beyond its confines. “Especially with individuals who are coming with a lack of connections. A lot of our artists are older and farther away from school. Being in the art world is all about connection. We foster connection through the gallery, but then the artists have to be able to go out there themselves. Many artists don’t necessarily want to be pinned as an ‘outsider’ artist living with mental illness. But in a lot of ways that’s the one door that’s been opened to them.”

Like Glass, Cohen doesn’t particularly fit the “outsider artist” description — he too is highly trained, and has seen some traditional success within the New York art scene, with various solo shows and a smattering of corporate buyers. But “representing himself has not always been easy for [Cohen],” Jonathan tells me. “That’s his grey area — we all have something we’re contending with, but for Marty, I think he worries more about success than failure.”

Willmott explains that there’s a balance between “promoting your work and navigating that world of sob stories and feeling objectified by the desire for [those stories].” She notes that although courting exposure through the “outsider art” label seems necessary, it can also lead to awkward moments with buyers: if a piece looks too skilled or reminds them of an artist who’s found mainstream acceptance, they might question its “outsider” status. “‘Well, I could tell you the sob story about his life and how he struggles and was isolated and institutionalized,'” she says, describing how those conversations tend to go. “People seem scared that someone will sneak in that’s had some kind of arts education — like God forbid that person wasn’t just totally isolated their whole life and only suffered. It’s really bizarre.”

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The greatest recent conflation of artistry and mental illness helped define the very foundations of 20th-century artistic expression. Modernist ideals of mental illness “occurred precisely when the distinctly modern disciplines of psychology, psychiatry, and psychoanalysis began to establish their scientific ‘foundations’ and to achieve the intellectual, institutional, and professional forms in which we largely know them today,” writes Mark S. Micale in his 2003 book, The Mind of Modernism

Paul Klee's 'Angelus Novus,' which Hal Foster links to Hans Prinzhorn's collection of art from a psychiatric clinic
Paul Klee’s ‘Angelus Novus,’ which Hal Foster links to Hans Prinzhorn’s collection of art from a psychiatric clinic

In 1922, German art historian-turned-psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn published a book that would have widespread influence on modernism. Artistry of the Mentally Ill, which featured the works of ten schizophrenia patients from the Heidelberg Psychiatric Clinic, was published only a decade after the word “schizophrenia” was brought into existence by Eugen Bleuler: the surge of psychiatric diagnoses was accompanied by a swell of mimetic art that would overturn the most basic conceptions of what art had always been.

The book caught the eyes of modern artists like Alfred Kubin, Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Salvador Dali, and Jean Dubuffet, and a cursory glance at it could easily lead to the assumption that it is, itself, a catalog of a modern art exhibit, rather than a clinical collection. Dubuffet was so influenced by Artistry of the Mentally Ill that he later coined the term “Art Brut,” which propagated the idea that art was only valid if it was a projection of its creator’s purest essences, and idealized the unfiltered work of the mentally ill as epitomizing this idea. “Art Brut” encompassed a body of work by people beyond the margins of art world norms: namely, psychiatric patients and children. Dubuffet rhapsodized about “those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses” — a notion linked specifically to the manic stages of bipolar, and perhaps more incorrectly to schizophrenia.

In “Blinded Insights: On the Modernist Reception of the Art of the Mentally Ill,” Hal Foster examines various modernist “projections that use the art of the mentally ill to propose a metaphysical essence of art.” These interpretations, he suggests, “obscure more than reveal the import of the art of the mentally ill.”

Interestingly, Foster notes, modernist affiliations with the art of sufferers of mental illness were so deeply entrenched that the 1937 Nazi exhibition Degenerate Art — which accidentally became a major showcase for the artistic zeitgeist it scorned — “attacked modernists like Klee, and… drew on images from the Prinzhorn collection in doing so.” The difference, of course, was that while these artists’ works were being stigmatized, hundreds of thousands of sufferers of mental illness were being systematically sterilized, and a few years later, transported to euthanasia centers.

Though the trendiest trends within contemporary visual art have evolved past centralizing the artist — or even the viewer — as the subject, patrons of the various arts still tend to lionize pain as an expression of authenticity. The way people treat the music of Daniel Johnston, for example, often comes with an air of fetishism for the “devils” he’s experienced through his bipolar. Even for artists who’ve not publicly suffered with mental health issues, personal tragedy often results in augmented interest: David Bowie’s Blackstar skyrocketed in sales when people realized the album was written as Bowie was confronting imminent death, as opposed to abstractly meditating on mortality. The capacity to bolster an empathic culture is one of art’s great potentials. But the value of pain also clearly has its complications. For mentally ill artists, it can make for another quandary to navigate and overcome.

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Neither psychopharmacology nor art therapy really existed until the middle of the 20th century. Prior to that, the mentally ill had been brushed under the Victorian institutional rug, emerging only for theatricalized portraits by the likes of Charcot, and while modernism’s projections of ideas about authenticity onto the mentally ill certainly increased mental illness’ visibility, it didn’t help patients so much as provide a subject of fascination for more mentally stable artists and patrons.

By the middle of the century, though, deinstitutionalization movements in the US and Europe, along with the advent of art therapy in the 1940s and the psychopharmacological boom of the 1950s, meant that people with mental illness were seeing a wider range of actual avenues toward stability. In a world where such avenues exist, romantic notions of the supposedly heightened, hyper-connected feelings that arise from mental illness seem more detrimental than liberating.

The advent of psychiatric medicine coincided with the advent of postmodernism. Postmodern ideas about the “death of the author” and the fluidity of the self certainly aren’t at odds with the use of psychiatric medicine — if the self isn’t seen as inalienable, the idea of somehow polluting one’s access to it loses potency. Art has largely moved beyond modern notions of the self, and the mentally ill artist has thus — with advances in therapy and the increasing destigmatization of psychiatric medicine — moved beyond the institution.

But the legacy of the tortured-artist myth remains potent, perhaps because it’s one of the foundations on which a movement as immense as modernism was based. This continues to lead artists grappling with mental illness to question whether to give in to dysfunction or find a stable way out of it.

“With our advances in psychiatric treatment, I must acknowledge the tension that exists between our culture’s attitude toward creativity, which is always extraordinarily positive, and our more ambivalent assessment of psychiatric treatment, which has both risks and benefits,” writes psychiatrist and poet Richard M. Berlin in his introduction to Poets on Prozac, a collection of essays from poets on the effects of psychiatric medicine on their work, addressing both preliminary fears about medication and the writers’ ultimate experiences on meds.

Berlin discusses how “an entire generation of poets, including Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, and Dylan Thomas… became famous for the dramatic excesses of their often ineffectively treated psychiatric disorders and substance abuse.” He questions “if our current treatment options would have altered the lives of these poets and enhanced their work, or if some poets may have avoided psychiatric treatment, fearing that treatment might have deleterious effects on their creativity.”

In an email to me, Berlin writes: “The main common factor in highly creative people is motivation. It’s the Thomas Edison ‘1% inspiration, 99% perspiration’ [factor]. It’s tough to be creative when you are having symptoms of mental illness, and the poets in my book were almost unanimous in their experience of medications being helpful for their creativity, mainly by not being so impaired by depression, anxiety, etc.” He notes that, of course, medication is individualized and needs to be “fine tuned” and monitored “to avoid side effects that can make a person dull.” In his book, he quotes Plath, espousing a sentiment that was echoed throughout all of my interviews: “When you are insane, you are busy being insane — all the time… When I was crazy, that’s all I was.”

Willmott says she knows that artists with whom she works “struggle with that myth and the romanticism of being off their meds.” Some, she suggests, “take it as a strength — maybe their mania, for example. And it’s very dangerous.” She explains that she’s experienced bipolar disorder firsthand in her family, and is herself “really familiar with feeling manic. Maybe at that moment you’re going to be more ‘productive,’ but if you use all that energy, it’s coming from somewhere. You can’t just create energy out of nothing, and to recover from that, you can lose months and months.”