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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

On Being a Mad Artist

So, there are some disadvantages to being an artist that suffers from depression.

Besides the obvious, I mean.

I want to talk a little bit about madness and genius and how we've mythologized it in our culture--I'm doing the Roland Barthes mythmaking thing, in other words--but let me first give some background so you can understand where I'm coming from personally. It won't take too long, I promise.

I've suffered from depression for quite a while now, and boy does it ever suck eggs. It's difficult to quite describe what it's like to periodically become uncontrollably sad and panicked for no external, easily understood reason, so I think I'll just stick with the "suck eggs" thing as useful shorthand. You may find Hyperbole and a Half's explanation enlightening, however.

I can, however, describe what effect it has on my work: the anxiety paralyzes me completely. You know that stretch where I was posting once or twice a month for a while? Yeah, some of that stemmed from my brain not feeling well. When you're depressed (or at least when I'm depressed) even just washing dishes becomes either an act of staggering, astonishing ray of triumphant light that simply serves to magnify the shadows, or a symbol of utter futility that reinforces what an inept, useless bag of flesh and bile you are.

So now take that feeling and apply it to the act of writing a whole essay on Homestuck, then posting said article on the web for a bunch of strangers on Reddit to complain about--an act, in other words, several magnitudes of OH SHIT SCARY FEELINGS above washing dishes.

Ahuh. Yeah. I think perhaps one can approach an understanding of mental illness and art through this basic method. Just imagine a place where simple daily activities like getting out of bed turn your stomach into a seething pool of sentient acid that wants you to know just what a bad person you are, and then apply that sensation to an activity where you are exposing uncomfortably deep parts of your brain to public scrutiny.

So now, that's a picture of what depression and anxiety have meant for me and my art. Ok? We got that?


Add to that sensation the fact that culturally I am supposed to feel this way.

Let's go mythological here, folks.

The Mad Genius trope is pretty much omnipresent in our pop cultural discussions of great men and women in art, literature, and science. Our stories overflow with eccentric artists and mad scientists, and Suffering For Your Art is the mandated mode of operation if you work in a creative field. What's more, to be creative, or creatively insightful, or innovative, you must be a little crazy, because no one normal could come up with stuff like multiple levels of infinity or End of Evangelion or The Scream. I think we can sum up the basic components of this myth thusly:

  • Creativity is something innate; it cannot be learned, and only a small portion of the population can truly tap into these innate talents.
  • Since inspiration and creativity are innate, but only belong to some people, it only makes sense to consider those people abnormal.
  • In fact, let's take things a step further and say that great art can really only come from someone abnormally tormented internally. You can only get good art if you're a Frida Kahlo, a Vincent Van Gogh, or a Kurt Cobain.
  • Because artists are, by default, kinda crazy, any of their eccentricities can be explained as coming from their mental illness. They can thus be patronizingly indulged but ultimately dismissed as impossible for Normal People to relate to.
  • In fact, patronizing indulgence is the best response to even the most extreme signs of actual mental suffering, because if one were to treat a genius's mental illness, that genius would lose their innate creativity and revert to normal. Oh, and artists? Don't seek help--especially in the form of medication--because you'll lose what makes you special!
  • Just as virtuosity leads to antisocial behavior, so does antisocial behavior suggest latent virtuosity. Thus, there is a certain subset of the population that will view anyone with antisocial tendencies as an unappreciated genius-in-training. Call this the RomCom Principle.
There's kind of a lot to unpack here but I think this does a good job of giving an overview of the myth we're working with and some of its effects--most notably, the cutting off of help for creatives, the comfortable castration of eccentricities that threaten to challenge convention, and the restriction of creative potential to a limited, Othered group of people.

If you want a case study, look at the reaction to the accidental death of Heath Ledger. Wow, wasn't that a shit show? It wasn't too hard for the press and the public to draw a connection between Ledger's craft (in particular, his penultimate role as The Joker), his own mental (and physical) health problems, and his death, which was at first rumored to be a suicide. Looking back on the coverage, there's something decidedly ghoulish about it, something akin to the whole Ghost of Christmas Future sequence in A Christmas Carol. While any celebrity death draws out the ghouls en masse (how's that for zombie horror?) there was a particularly vile possibility put forth with Ledger, mostly in the form of insinuation:

Ledger was only able to become The Joker so fully because he was, himself, mentally unbalanced. That his performance came about because he was a mad artist, not because he was, you know, A FUCKING GOOD ACTOR. And what's more, it was the practicing of his craft that drove him to suicide/accidental death, not something else that was broken in his head.

His death, in that narrative, transformed from tragedy into the same kind of sad inevitability as the death of Cobain or Monroe or Hendrix. Ever heard one of the variations on the old saying that the brightest flames burn out more quickly? Yeah, there's our mythology right there.

If you really want to see the myth at work, though, look to the death of another luminary, Jim Henson. I think there are some rough, broad parallels we can draw between these two men. In particular, they seem to have been driven to overwork at the cost of their own health, and they both died because of some tragic, fatal error in judgment.

But the difference is that Ledger mixed the wrong coctail of drugs for his insomnia... and Henson failed to take his case of strep throat seriously.

One died because he made an error of judgment with regard to his brain, and one made an error of judgement with regard to his lungs.

And yes, I think an argument could be made that both men were able to accomplish so much, were able to create such brilliant work, because they drove themselves to the point of exhaustion. I suppose I can accept that, although such an argument seems to depend quite a bit on big What Ifs--mainly, What If they had been persuaded to relax a little--would The Dark Knight have inevitably suffered, or is that just the myth at work? But ultimately both of these men died due to an illness. The illnesses affected different organs, but they were ultimately illnesses. And by treating them differently--by treating Ledger as fundamentally wedded to his illness while treating Henson as a man who was struck down by an illness with no symbolic relationship to the rest of his life and work--we reinforce the idea that an artist MUST suffer, an artist MUST walk the tightrope of madness, and the occasional corpse is the price we pay for creativity.

In short, if you want to be good, you better be prepared to break yourself utterly. You will leave a beautiful body behind, and that's ultimately what we want. Goodbye Norma Jean, yeah?

So, that sucks.

I mean, I don't know how to say it any more plainly than that. It sucks that artists are born to suffer and die. It's a stupid, destructive, sick way of setting up a culture. It means that artists are discouraged from seeking the help they need for fear that when they do get their lives in order, they'll lose what makes them special. I mean, look at someone like Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. I have to wonder, how much longer did it take him to seek help for his drug problems because his problems were a part of the legend that had grown around him? Would Michael Jackson still be alive if... man, you know what, I could be here all day doing this. I think you catch my drift. It sucks.

There's another aspect to this, too, that is probably less rage-worthy than the meatgrinder of celebrity culture, but is still pretty infuriating to me. I was thinking about this today in the context of this analysis of the recent AP Style Guide change that admonishes reporters not to connect crime with mental illness unless there are strong, professionally-evaluated reasons for connecting the two. The author explains how mental illness does more than explain crime, it explains any kind of convention-flouting you can imagine:

It is comforting to believe that people who flout social norms, whether they’re as minor as wearing the wrong clothing or as severe as abusing and killing others, do so for individual reasons or personal failings of some sort. It’s comforting because it means that such transgressions are the acts of “abnormal” people, people we could never be. It means that there are no structural factors we might want to examine and try to change because they contribute to things like this, and it means that we don’t have to reconsider our condemnation of those behaviors.

This is what I mean by patronizing indulgence of difference. (Sidenote: I hate "tolerance." Fuck "tolerance." What a patronizing term!) I recall reading a story quite a few years ago about Einstein's eccentricities, where the author, seemingly at a loss to explain the great physicist's problems with marital fidelity, or some of his other occasional odd behaviors, simply shrugged and suggested that a genius shouldn't be expected to behave the same way as you or I.

But--and as I am not a biographer of Einstein, this is ENTIRELY speculative, I really want to stress that--what if Einstein was simply strongly inclined towards polyamory? Why should our response to that be to dismiss it as an eccentricity that could never be applicable to normal people? Why should we not respond by thinking, wait, if this is good enough for Einstein, perhaps I should consider whether it works for me too? As the brilliant metalhead Devin Townsend (who, incidentally, also suffers from bipolar disorder) once sang: "I'm not insane, I'm not insane, I'm just smarter than you."

The myth of the mad artist allows us culturally to enjoy the product of artistic labor while devaluing its potential insights, and the potential insights of its creators. It allows us to avoid interpretation, to waive our responsibility to think about the artistic or ideological products we consume. The Othering of artists allows us to be pleasured by art without having to consider the ramifications of that art on our daily lives. It's a really handy way, too, of objectifying creatives--after all, if they aren't like us, we can be entertained by their crazy antics in a pretty free and uncritical way.

In fact, to get at this idea, let's talk about the Ur-Mad Artist.

Let's talk about Vincent Van Gogh.

It's hard to think of a figure that has been more mythologized in our culture than Vincent. He is, like I said, the Ur-Mad Artist, the guy who was able to paint so many cool things because he was, well, cracked.

Except that... Vincent didn't paint when he was at his lowest points. He was at his most prolific when he was actually doing better. And his death wasn't just an inevitable result of the mental illness he suffered, it came about because he had the bad luck to hook up with a quack doctor that was feeding him drugs that (as far as I recall) either didn't work at all or actually made his condition worse. Some of this sounding familiar given our discussion of Ledger earlier?

Let's talk, though, specifically about the ear cutting thing. Everyone knows the story--crazy Vincent looses his shit, cuts off his ear, and mails it to a prostitute. Wow, what a zany guy, LOL!

I bet you didn't know about the fight he had with Gauguin before he cut his ear, though.

Oh yeah. See, Vincent had this vision: he fell in love with Arles, France, and he dreamed of creating an artist commune there, a group of people that would support each other, and push the boundaries of art that the Impressionists had already started to explore. Except no one else was interested, and finally Theo, Vincent's brother, managed to persuade the Fauvist Gauguin to join Vincent. Vincent was overjoyed for a while at finally having another artist to keep him company in a town of backward farmers and suspicious villagers.

Except Gauguin was a gigantic prick. He apparently spent most of the time badgering Vincent to produce art HIS way, and Vincent grew to hate it. Eventually the two got into a blazing row in which Vincent threatened his one-time companion with a knife.

Now, here's where things get a bit speculative.

I studied art history with an early modernist scholar, and he had this theory about the events that followed. See, there was (and perhaps still is, I don't know) a tradition in bullfighting that the matador who slew the bull would cut off the bull's ear and present it to his lover.

After the fight with Gauguin, Vincent cut a piece off his ear and presented it to a prostitute.

He was declaring that Gauguin had slain him as a matador slays a bull, and the prize went not to a virginal bride but a prostitute.


Now, this isn't rational behavior; I'm not suggesting that. What I AM suggestion, though, is that this reading of Vincent's actions is MUCH more in line with the man who experimented extensively and deliberately with form and perspective and color, the man who wrote beautiful, poetic letters to his brother that I cannot read without weeping, the man who was, by every account, extremely intelligent. Vincent, in this reconstruction, is no longer some zany artist. He's a sensitive and brilliant man who suffered unnecessarily at the hands of a disease that wasn't properly understood, and at the hands of a belligerent asshole that skipped out on his wife to go fuck teenage girls in Polynesia.

Is it clear yet that I really, really don't like Gauguin?

Anyway, the ZaNy ViNcEnT vAn GoGh myth means that we don't have to address the possibility that his death and suffering in life were totally presentable tragedies. It means we don't have to view him as a complex, thoughtful individual who, yes, behaved in a self destructive way. It means we don't have to see his actions as anything other than random craziness. You can see this in more minor forms all throughout our culture: look at the way people dismiss Lady Gaga videos as just random weirdness, or Andrew Hussie's creations as just crazy gags with no logic behind them, or even the failure to hold Chris Sims Dave Sim (Ha, whoops, good catch Jon) accountable for the misogynist screeds in Cerebus, because he just kinda lost it, you know? By conflating genius with madness, we write ourselves a Get Out Of Critical Thought Free card.

And that also really sucks.

There's one last idea I'd like to touch on, and that's the Rom Com principle that I mentioned early. Deep inside, the messed up dude is a creative and imaginative individual. This is actually probably the most dangerous aspect of our conflation of madness and genius, because it encourages the tolerance of destructive  behaviors in people that are just, well, actually crazy.

I ran into this recently with a longtime poster on the Magic: The Gathering forums. Now, this is a person that posts a lot of card designs in the forums, which is fine. But there's a few problems with this guy. For one thing, he's convinced that the head of Magic R&D is stealing all his cards. So, that's kinda weird. What's more, he has this bizarre cosmology that exists entirely within his own head that--I think, maybe--shows how Magic is some sort of true expression of the mythological origins of the universe in the struggle between good and evil gods and... fuck, I can't explain it. And he frequently argues with other people about his bizarre made-up religion. Alright. Worst of all, though, he creepily stalks, patronizes, and hits on every single female member of the boards. Seriously, the guy is like the Magic nerd version of Taxi Driver.

Now, it seems clear to me that, given that the Wizards forums are NOT a mental health clinic, and given that having female players hit on and then verbally abused when they rebuff unwanted advances is a poor way of supporting gender inclusivity, it seems obvious to me that this individual is fundamentally toxic and needs to be removed from the forums (he has been behaving in this way for six years, incidentally). So, I pointed this out.

The response I got from another user was that he should be kept around because even though he's clearly off his rocker, there's potential for genius there.


This is the problem with the Rom Com Principle in a nutshell. Any flagrant abuses can be ignored because someone that is mentally unbalanced might be creative. Within each manic pixie dream girl or weird, creepy dude is a unique artistic flower.


This is just a really gross attitude, especially because of the gendered element at work here. It's just really fucking easy to look the other way and downplay abusive or deeply dysfunctional behavior if the target of that behavior is a woman. After all, if madness and genius go together, women just have to make a sacrifice for the rest of us, right? And boy, it sure does make it easy for geeks to behave as though their maladjusted bullshit should just be accepted by everyone else. Why grow when your dysfunctions are a part of what makes you special?

So, I suppose if I can summarize my main point here, it's this: the Mad Genius myth hurts everyone. It hurts artists, it doubly hurts artists with mental illnesses, it hurts regular people with mental illness, and it hurts people affected by people with mental illnesses.

I'm sorry to leave on such a downer note, but this is kind of a downer subject. Dealing with depression is already hard enough. Culturally, we've collectively decided to make it harder. That really has to stop. So, my plea is essentially this: like the AP style guide urges, do not conflate things with mental illness unless you have a really, really good reason for doing so. Don't feed into the mad artist myth. Because as long as we keep feeding this myth, we also keep feeding it our artists.

And that sucks.

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  1. Wow. Absolutely fantastic post.

    Yeah, I've seen this before. The van Gogh example, obviously, but a whole bunch of things that I guess I hadn't put together as a trend before. I recall having a discussion with someone about Evangelion; to my friend, hearing that the creator of the series suffered from depression was a perfect explanation for the catastrophic downer ending. What else needs to be said, right? Except, much like the van Gogh example, Evangelion was made during and after Anno getting treatment for mental problems, not while he was a complete mess.

    I wonder how much this conflation of crippling neurological and psychological disease and artistic brilliance is an American phenomenon. Seems like it would be worth looking into.

    (One note: the author of Cerebus is Dave Sim, not Chris Sims. Chris Sims is a writer at Comics Alliance who, as far as I know, doesn't feel that the male light is being devoured by the female void or whatever the fuck. C=)

    1. I thought about including Eva, actually, since it's a great example of a work that really reflects the creator's issues, but at the same time is obviously not just a random expression of those issues, if that makes sense. Like, it's clear that Anno is trying to express his experiences, but it's not just an outpouring of angst, it's a conscious attempt to use symbolism and character to make a clear argument about how one can work through psychological problems. Also there is forehead vagina. Wheeee Evangelion.

      Whoops, time to edit my dumb mistake!

  2. Interesting analysis. But I do think that the best artists offer us a different way of looking at reality, and that's why you see the Mad Genius trope, because it's "easier" to show a different side of reality, when reality looks different to you. I know my brother's writing would be totally different (I'm not saying worse, or better) if his mind worked like "regular" people's.

    And you've already touched on this, but this is indeed something that pops up very often when it comes to crime. Which is interesting, because people with mental illness are statistically less likely to commit violent crime. It's just a way of "othering" what you don't understand or see as deviant.

    1. However, this also doesn't justify it. The Dadaists, the Surrealists, Brion Gysin, Brian Eno, and a number of less famous people and groups (the Lettrists, I guess) pioneered semi-automatic mechanisms for scrambling ideas, specifically so that you can produce really incisive genius-from-mars style art without actually being crazy or on drugs. Instead of semantically scrambling stuff in your head, you semantically scramble stuff on paper and then use your head on it until it makes more sense.

      When you read William S Burroughs, some large portion of his style post-Naked Lunch is informed by Gysin's cut-up technique; Burroughs and Gysin wrote a book with and about this technique called the Third Mind, and that title is probably pretty representative of how they thought of it (although Burroughs also thought that the cut-up technique gave him messages from the future -- neither one was *entirely* sane). When you take the reasonably rational output of two minds and cut it up, and then take the result and interpret it with the assumption that there's meaning in the randomness, you get something that looks like a third, very crazy, mind is replying to you. Through mental effort, you decode the messages (which, in reality, means that by mental effort you create new messages based on essentially arbitrary constraints, since you are constructing a possible meaning for something that can have no intended meaning), and the result is that a sane and sober person with a pair of scissors and some scotch tape produces writing that sounds like a paranoid schizophrenic on heroic quantities of acid.

      Likewise, surrealism. Even with the surrealist worship of Freud and Dali's showmanship (and the obvious fact that they seemed to all buy into the myth 100%), Dali's strangest works didn't come from dreams or drugs or repressed pathos. They came out of his paranoiac-critical method, wherein he assumed that the random impurities on a canvas or paper were the beginning of a picture and he merely completed the picture. With this, he took advantage of his ability to see patterns in noise, and the canvas became the crazy 'third mind' he collaborated with.

      The Dadaists, of course, came up with exquisite corpse. In this case, the source of the randomness is not some kind of mutation of existing text (as with cut-ups) nor is it something inherently random (as in the paranoiac-critical method), but it's instead the ambiguity of language. Each party extends the story based on the very last step (like a first-order markov chain, which is what many people today use instead of cut-ups because markov chains keep the semantics slightly more well-preserved than cutups), and because each step is potentially ambiguous, you quickly end up with the kind of tangent a schizophrenic graphomaniac or a heavy amphetamine user might produce.

      Brian Eno used all these methods at different times (in addition to automatic writing, which I don't really consider to be the same thing), but he most notably came up with Oblique Strategies. In this, we abuse the same mechanics as tarot or bibliomancy to produce (instead of original work) advice on how to change something that's already been started. The randomization of advice means that the advice isn't tied heavily to context, and so creative paths that otherwise would not be attempted will be taken.

      All these methods demonstrate that, even if you need craziness for good art, you can outsource the craziness to a machine (or some paper, or some cards) and be just as creative.


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