Bipolar Disorder and Creativity: Are Artists Crazy?

A lecture presented by Leo Segedin on February 11, 2015, at the Firehouse Restaurant in Evanston, Illinois

Leo Segedin   |   February 11, 2015 |   Print this essay

Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.
‘T is the majority
In this, as all, prevails.
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur, -you’re straight way dangerous
And handled with a chain.

-- Emily Dickinson


Artists have long been considered eccentric. They have been called ‘egocentric, temperamental, neurotic, rebellious, unreliable, licentious, extravagant, obsessed by their work and all together difficult to live with.’ They are also ‘contemplative, meditating, brooding, solitary, creative and alienated’. And, as if that weren’t enough, about 40 years ago, psychologists determined that, during all those years, they might also have been suffering from a mental illness. We are told that many artists are bipolar. According to clinical psychologist, Kay Jamison, in Touched With Fire, the bipolar temperament can be described as ‘mercurial, intemperate, volatile, brooding, troubled or stormy’. As she points out, such labels also describe the artistic temperament.

Bipolar disorder, originally called manic-depressive illness, is a mental disorder characterized by periods of elevated moods and periods of depression, resulting in often debilitating extremes of behavior. But, fortunately, this disorder has a positive side. According to Jamison, “mood, temperament, behavioral and cognitive factors associated with bipolar illness can, in some people, make them more creative by increasing the fluency and originality of their thinking. It increases risk-taking, ambition, energy, exuberance and a desire to create meaning from suffering and chaos”.

Recent studies have shown that there is a correlation between such bipolar disorders and artistic achievement and that highly creative people and their relatives are more likely to suffer from such disorders than the general population. But such studies raise many questions. Just what are we measuring when we measure artistic achievement, creativity and mental disorder? When does a behavioral variation become a disorder and an illness? How do we recognize deviant behavior? Deviation from the norm of what social criteria? Are bipolar disorders and creativity both forms of deviant behavior? To what extent might deviant behavior be biologically or culturally determined? How should we treat deviant behavior - with drugs, talk therapy, institutionalization, prayer? How did people in other cultures perceive creativity and deviant behavior? How do we know? How do we tell which artists in the past were bipolar?


Bipolar people are not necessarily creative and creative people are not necessarily bipolar. What they have in common is that they both break rules. Societies have always been based on the power of rules to maintain the status quo. Although bipolar disorder is treated as an illness and creativity is publicly admired, I will argue that they are both forms of deviant behavior which have been treated as threats to the status quo. Both bipolar and creative behavior challenge the rules of art and society. They have different, but overlapping histories and are based on different fundamental assumptions. Not only are descriptions of creative and bipolar behavior similar, but social responses to such behavior and the language describing such responses are also similar.

During most of its long history, painting did not challenge its rules or the rules of society. It was a craft, a skill, not a product of the imagination. The artist was a manual laborer who supported the status quo by producing useful objects. The idea that he was different because he used his creativity, or what was then called his imagination, did not become a dominant assumption until the beginning of the 19th century after painting had lost its traditional social functions. Artists challenged the status quo by creating new, and to some people, incomprehensible or dangerous rules. Not coincidently, the idea that artists were eccentric and alienated also goes back to this period. In other words, artists were not identified as being ‘eccentric’ until they became creative.

Nowadays, this eccentric behavior is deemed deviant because artists are assumed to behave differently than most people. They live by different rules. It is tolerated only in so far as it is identified with the long history of Art as a cultural value. All great cultures have had great art; its possession is a sign of high social status. It also can result in products which have psychological import and economic value. Some people in our society now see benefits to bipolar behavior among artists because it has sometimes been responsible for great works of art. But, although lip service is given to the importance of art, most people, even knowledgeable intellectuals, are visual illiterates for whom art has no personal value. Creativity is encouraged in children and recommended recreation and therapy for adults, but creating art is not encouraged as a normal activity. Parents discourage their children from becoming artists, not only because it is it difficult to make a living as an artist. They also consider the behavior – the ‘life style’ - of artists to be unconventional. Unlike doctors and lawyers - its practitioners don’t ‘fit in’.

Interpretations of deviant behavior such as in bipolar disorder, on the other hand, have a clinical bias. We now regard bipolar behavior to be a mental disorder and a treatable illness. Psychologists, after identifying the symptoms by which they characterize this illness, search for its presence by interviewing and testing artists, reading what they have written and considering the observations of friends and acquaintances. People in other cultures were also aware of such behavior, but interpreted it differently. Either they did not see it as deviant or they saw it as deviant to the behavioral expectations implicit in their own cultural beliefs. Their ‘normal’ was not ours. They distinguished different symptoms, gave the same symptoms different significance and identified them with different labels. Different labels caused different responses. If there was no label for what is now a bipolar disorder, people were not aware of it as an illness. In this sense, what is mentally ill in one culture is not in another. Its symptoms can even be attributed to what we now identify as another disorder. Not long ago, what are now bipolar symptoms were attributed to schizophrenia. Therefore, for us today, bipolar disorder is a retroactive illness.

In 19th century Paris, people showing such behavior were idealized as inspired geniuses, but other societies saw them as witches possessed by demons. In Europe, for hundreds of years, rather than being glamorized, they were beaten, burned, ostracized, institutionalized and even executed. In fact, “the last two witches, tried and condemned by presumably quite sane judges, were beheaded in 1775 and 1782, the one in Germany, the other in Switzerland ”. The tendency to refer to such people as having a ‘mental illness’ did not occur until the early 20th century. Bipolar behavior was actually identified as a disorder as far back as the 1st century AD, but no one paid attention to that interpretation until recently, when it again became defined as a disorder. The connection between mental deviation and artistic creativity only goes back to the 1970s.

In order to determine what we would have considered bipolar in the past, we have to re-interpret descriptions of behavior which once would have had a different significance. Thus, we can ask, were shamans, prophets and seers bipolar? Do ancient myths and stories about the odd behavior of artists reflect bipolar disorder? Is bipolar disorder behind the Romantic notion of a link between genius and madness? Can we connect belief in God as divine inspirer or even the general notion of artist’s inspiration with the bipolar, manic phase? In ancient Greece, Socrates described experiencing what he called his ‘daemon’. Is a ‘daemon’ what psychologists today call a ‘command hallucination’, which occur in perhaps 50% of bipolar people? He also said, 'The best things we have come from madness, when it is given as a gift of the gods'. He called it a ‘divine madness’ and claimed that mania or divine inspiration helps the poet to transcend reason. Aristotle acknowledged melancholy as a mental condition and thanked it as the inspiration for the great artists of his time. The ancient Greeks and Romans were responsible for the terms “mania” and “melancholia”, which are now the modern day manic and depressive. During the Renaissance, the art historian, Giorgio Vasari, wrote about the unconventional behavior of well known artists. Following Socrates, great painters joined the poets and were now thought by some to be transported into that state of creative ecstasy which they also called ‘divine madness’. Could such ‘madness’ be a bipolar, manic state admired by artists like Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci?


Similar issues are raised in considering creativity. Creativity is an ambiguous term which can apply to general behavior, even everyday activities, the creation of functional objects and works of art. As we have seen, psychologists now identify mental disorders by interpreting symptoms of deviant behavior. Since all such studies are of subjective experiences, they require no product. But, although the process of creativity is subjective, creativity does require a physical or behavioral product. Physically, we recognize creativity by examing the created product. But since the determination of quality requires criteria which vary in different cultures, does creativity mean something different than a cultural norm? Or can it be recognized in the structures of the brain as a biological function which can be measured scientifically? Behaviorally, is it an exceptionally high degree of intelligence, which could be bred as any other genetic trait? Or is it something which can be trained as any other skill? Is it more of what everybody has or is it a unique characteristic of a particular personality type? Over the last 100 years, all these possibilities have been considered by Western psychologists.

Traditionally, creativity is defined in our society as a phenomenon whereby something new is created. Creativity is said to involve the “production of novel, useful products". It is "the process of producing something that is both original and worthwhile”. Since such objects solve a recognizable problem, their practicality is the criteria. The artist who created them is usually anonymous and, except in outstanding cases, his identity and personality are irrelevant. We recognize this kind of creativity in the designing of most buildings, tools, machinery and even business strategies. The early history of art also reflects this anonymity. This aspect of creativity can be objectively verified, but creativity is also "characterized by expressiveness and imagination”, which reflect the mental processes of the creator. How do you determine it in the creation of ‘expressive and imaginative’ works of art which have no practical function and in which the artist’s identity and personality have become of paramount importance?

We can discuss creativity as a psychological process – but – practically speaking – whatever its basis – it is a social construct. We might take for granted that we can recognize creativity in the function of practical objects, but we have never adequately defined what those characteristics are in art objects which have no practical function. Since there is no universal art premise or criteria in our society, artists have become famous primarily for introducing new premises on which to make art. We think of Impressionism and Monet, Picasso and Cubism. Each premise was creative in that it created new rules for seeing. Their followers were creative in exploring the implications of these rules. Art history became a history of changing rules, each change representing a reaction against the previous rules. In a sense, what was creative in one concept was deviant in the others. Pollock’s abstract expressionistic work might reflect deviant behavior to a realist like Wyeth. Historically, they were merely different.

Over the last 500 years, the premises underlying some of the rules and criteria for Western art were representational skill, aesthetic sensibility and spontaneous, expressive brushwork. Each of these concepts eventually determined what was taught in art schools. Tests for artistic ability demonstrated these differences. It also determined what we were expected to like in art works.

For most of Western art history, talent, not creativity, was the criteria. Talent was the ability to represent appearances and was indicated by skill at drawing. Thus, unless we define skill as creation, what we have called creativity would have interfered with the accuracy of the representation. Variations from accuracy would be considered odd, incompetent, crude, untrained - or the product of an irrational mind. At best, such deviations would be described as a personal ‘style”.

At the beginning of the 20th century, under the influence of the geometric, abstract art then popular in the art world, the notion of ‘significant form’, of aesthetic awareness and taste became the norm and the ability to arrange abstract shapes and to recognize aesthetic, tasteful arrangements became the criteria. One result was the decorative, abstract paintings found in furniture stores and hotel rooms.

On the other hand, during the 1950’s, when abstract expressionism dominated the art world, free, expressive, spontaneous brushwork indicated art ability. Response to the quality of brushstrokes rather than the arrangement of shapes became a dominant criterion. Finger painting in kindergartens became popular. Today, the ability to present original, conceptual ideas, in any medium is the criterion.


How societies have perceived the concept of creativity has changed throughout history, as has the term itself. The idea that a human being could create anything at all did not appear until the Renaissance and did not take on its present meaning until after the Enlightenment. For the ancient Greeks, Chinese and Indians, creativity was not invention, but rather a form of discovery. Plato did not believe in art as a form of creation. Asked in The Republic, “Will we say, of a painter, that he makes something?” he answers, “Certainly not, he merely imitates”. Imagination could only mimic the appearance of things, unable to move towards abstract ideas through which alone truth may be approached. Even the Classic notion of divine inspiration is limited. The Muses may have been seen as mediating inspiration from the Gods in the areas of inspired poetry, music and dance, but not painting, which was still treated as a manual skill still left outside. Creativity then is rejected because it is deviant behavior which leads away from the truth. It can teach us nothing about what is true and real.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, creativity was the sole province of God, who created out of nothing. Humans did not have the ability to create something new except as an expression of God's work. Acts of human creativity, such as the Tower of Babel, are punished by God.

As God said, as he watched them build the Tower:
Behold the people, how nothing will be restrained from them, from what they have imagined to do -- Genesis, II, 6
Human beings must not trespass on powers that properly belong to God. Even the making of images encroaches on God’s prerogatives and therefore could be considered idolatry.

Toward the end of the Middle Ages, it became acceptable that the imagination could be useful if it carried the mind towards God, but had to be kept firmly under the control of reason, meaning the rules of the Church, or it will more likely lead toward heresy. Although painting still followed the rules of art, the Church was divided as to whether an image was a sacrilegious idol, a substitute for God or a conduit to holy truths. Creativity could be a threat because it could lead to deviation from proper religious beliefs. By the Renaissance in 16th century Italy, creativity was no longer seen as a threat. It was no longer an attribute of the divine, but rather was found in the abilities of what they called, “great men”, that is, the powerful merchants and princes who, along with God and saints, were glorified by images. Art thus idealized the status quo. It was still restricted to rules, but individual artists developed their personal styles.

By the 18th century, the imagination was extended to all human thinking among Western intellectuals, but this sense of creativity was not taken seriously. It was equated with ‘fancy’ – “a kind of idle, frothy, mind wandering Entertainment”. According to Edmund Burke in 1757, “… (T)his power of the imagination is incapable of producing anything absolutely new; it can only vary the disposition of those ideas which it has received from the senses.” The Romantics reversed this conception of creativity and gave it primary importance. They maintained that the imaginative artist could help us to reach truth and reality. Beauty, as Keats put it, is Truth. It was not until the end of the 19th century that art was identified as the primary creative activity. The intellectual focus had moved from the created object to the creator; creativity became a subject for psychological study. The first Creative Art Departments in universities did not appear until the middle of the 20th century.

Generally speaking, even today, creativity is viewed differently in different countries. In Scandinavian countries, for example, creativity is seen as an individual attitude which helps in coping with life's challenges, while in Germany, creativity is seen more as a process that can be applied to help solve problems. Westerners view creativity more in terms of the individual attributes of a creative person, such as their aesthetic taste, while Chinese people view creativity more in terms of the social influence of creative people, e.g. what they can contribute to society. In Africa, 27 languages had no word which directly translated to ‘creativity’, the exception being Arabic.


The modern psychiatric concept of what we call bipolar disorder today had its origins in the nineteenth century and its association with creativity first appeared in scientific literature in the 1970s, but, as we have said, such mental states were perceived long before that. Without assumptions of a physical base, however, eccentric behavior was often dangerous and attributed to malevolent causes. Some people believed that it was caused by the mind being occupied by unnatural forces. The devil, demons, evil spirits or genies caused strange behavior. It could be caused by sorcery or witchcraft. It could be the result of moral corruption, a test of faith or punishment for sin, bad behavior or disrespect for gods or teachers. It could be the result of bad living, improper diet, too much alcohol, even overwork and grief. Depending on such assumed causes, treatment might be herbs and ointments, charms and prayers, diet and massage, bloodletting, drugs, exorcism, incantations and amulets, trephining, forced vomiting, whipping, stoning and beating.

In the 19th century, women who were suffering from depression or bipolar disorder were said to be have the vapors. Such ailments were thought to be caused by tight corsets squeezing their internal organs causing internal emanations.

Even if the physical base of such behavior was known, social values still determined its perception and treatment. As late as the mid 20th century, lobotomies and insulin shock therapy were still being used. Even today, if people believe that such behavior was a symptom of a physiological aberration, they might treat it with drugs or sterilization. The turn of the 20th century saw the development of psychoanalysis, leading to treatment of the disorder as an experiential problem. Referring to people as having a ‘mental illness’ dates from this period’. In 1952, an article appeared in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disorders, analyzing the genetics behind the disorder and revealing the likelihood that manic - depression ran in families. Throughout much of the 1960’s, many with this disorder were institutionalized. Only in the early 1970’s were laws enacted and standards established for those afflicted. The term ‘bipolar’ first appeared in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in its third revision in 1980. It was that revision that did away with the term mania to avoid calling patients ‘maniacs’. For similar reasons, the term ‘bipolar disorder’ also replaced manic-depressive disorder as a diagnostic term.

During the last 40 years, drugs have become the primary treatment for deviant behavior. Since the 1990s, antidepressants such as Prozac, Zoloff and Paxil have become among the most widely prescribed drugs in the world. Lithium and Valium are now basic medications in the treatment of bipolar disorder. However, the prescription of drugs for psychological purposes creates problems. According to one report, generally speaking, drugs are only 50% effective. The effects of these antidepressants on bipolar disorder are unpredictable. When used to treat the depressive phase, they can sometimes cause dangerous leaps into the manic phase. Questions ariseƊabout over or inappropriate medication and undesirable combinations of drugs. Also, it is sometimes hard to tell how effective some of these drugs are because the financial concerns of drug companies limits access to data in professional journals. Trials for which results were unfavorable are less likely to be published.


The present concept of bipolar disorder as a controllable ailment and creativity as a desirable social value in our society has also created dilemmas and contradictions. Would our society be better off if the bipolar disorder was suppressed? Antidepressant drugs are intended to make people ‘normal’, which mean that they would become conventional and conforming. But, as a result, it also means that they would be less likely to be creative. Bipolar lows can be almost intolerable, sometimes resulting in suicide. For example, Rothko, Van Gogh, Pollock, Gorky, Kirchner and Pascin committed suicide. (Among the many writers and poets who committed suicide are Berryman, Celan, Chatterton, Jarrell, Lindsay, Plath, Sexton, Gary, Hemmingway, Inge and Woolf) Gauguin, Rossetti and Innes attempted suicide. Van Gogh, Kirchner, Munch, O’Keefe, Guston and Pollock were, at some time in their lives, institutionalized with the disorder. But the result of their disorder was some great art. If Michelangelo, Van Gogh and Munch had been treated with Lithium, we would not have had his murals in the Sistine Chapel, Van Gogh’s, ‘Starry Night’ and Munch’s, ‘The Scream’. Michelangelo, Eakins, Gericault, Lear and Martin are assumed to have been bipolar, but, if they were, they tolerated their ‘disorder’. From a cultural point of view then, if an artist can tolerate the lows, are not the results of the highs compensation?

Also, there is hypocrisy in contemporary attitudes toward creativity in our society. The qualities we attribute to creativity, qualities we admire in the behavior of professional artists, poets and writers, as well as certain professions - originality, spontaneity, imagination - have become public values in our society. At least, they appear to. We claim to encourage them in children. Creativity is the claimed objective of elementary schools and schools of higher education. It is lauded in the scholarly, theoretical literature. We use it as therapy. However, the hypocrisy is that it is usually rejected in practice. Because the results of creativity are often unpredictable and outside the normal, creativity can be threatening to the status quo. In a sense, it represents a “quest for a radical autonomy apart from the constraints of social responsibility”. In other words, by encouraging creativity, we are encouraging a departure from society's existing norms and values. Expectation of conformity runs contrary to the spirit of creativity. According to some people, the current education system is "educating people out of their creativity”. In practice - creative art programs are treated as if they are superficial to basic social needs - and are the first to be eliminated in budget cuts. We ought to practice what we preach. A society without the creativity of people with and without bipolar disorder would be a much diminished society.

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