Must genius be ‘mad’? A response to the Mail&Guardian

In a thoughtful reflection on the life and work of writer K. Sello Duiker ( ) M&G writer Rofhiwa Maneta alluded to – but did not fully interrogate – a trope frequently encountered in writings about talented artists: that ‘genius is akin to madness’. Several studies have claimed a connection (physiological, or even genetic) between creativity and ‘madness’. Creative artists “are more likely to have mental illness in their families (…) share certain features of brain chemistry [with people with schizophrenia]”. ( More addictions, mood disorders and suicidal behaviours have been documented in the creative professions. Sensationalist biographers have played up these connections; the yellow press – and now online skinner – has gleefully reinforced the stereotype. And finally, a (very) few opportunistic artists have played the public role of mad genius to win a get-out-of-jail-free card for bad behaviour such as ‘sex addiction’ (rape), or to exaggerate their marketing profile.

Jazz musicians  – Kippie Moeketsi here, for example, or Billie Holiday in the US – have often been written about in these terms. And many jazz musicians including those two have indeed experienced addiction, and received treatment for mental illness. (However,  the figures show it’s still only a minority of creatives who suffer these problems, and an even tinier minority of schizophrenics who exhibit signs of artistic creativity. Coincidences in brain physiology alone don’t explain much.)

Kippie Moeketsi: not ‘mad’

Yet there’s a massive contradiction here, because an even more overwhelming weight of studies suggests that involvement in creative activities is good for mental health, works effectively to fight depression, and can even mitigate some aspects of dementia. (see a general overview at ) So what’s going on here? It’s probably time to interrogate the ‘mad genius’ trope – and, along the way, also interrogate what a racist/colonialist/patriarchal society might mean by ‘madness’.

Mental illness is real, and is encountered everywhere – the World Health Organisation has estimated that one in four people worldwide may be affected by it ( ) – and so it is not surprising that it occurs among artists as well as among accountants: artists are simply people doing a certain type of (creative) work. Accountants, however – at least, in the pre-Zupta era – have not been so much in the public eye, so the ‘madness’ of artists inevitably appears more prominent.

But given that mental illness and the vulnerability to it exists among all populations, are there some special features of artists’ lives that might make them more likely to be battling mood disorders, addictions and despair?

Certainly – and those features infest the society around them, not the artists themselves.

Creative work is often isolated (frequently not by choice) and – except for a few ‘stars’ – poorly remunerated. That in turn creates enormous stresses around finding accommodation, travelling, buying instruments or raw materials, paying for healthcare or supporting a family. Find a ‘straight’ job to take care of those, and the time and mental energy for painting, writing or playing are eroded, setting up yet another destructive set of tensions.

In the music industry in particular, a shameful variant of the dop system often operated here, paying performers with “a case of the product”: many jazz musicians of the Cold Castle Festival era say they drank heavily to stave off exhaustion and hunger. Too many became alcoholics. That legacy persists in some dark corners of the industry worldwide, not just here: performers who remain ‘medicated’ into docility when not required to perform are far easier to manage and exploit. Even their eccentricities are often designed and policed: the clothing, hairstyles and stunts concocted by a publicist as marketing devices.

One of those veteran South African musicians was once upbraided that “Bra’ So & so, why do you drink so much? It doesn’t help your playing, you know.” And I heard him reply: “Do you really think I drink to help me play? No! Playing heals me. I drink because of what I have to deal with off the stage, not on it.”

Billie Holiday: not ‘mad’

What had to be dealt with was not only apartheid, savage though that was. Artists strive to express truths and create beauty freely: forming counter-waves of resistance by their very existence in societies that are hypocritical, philistine and interested only in commoditising and ‘branding’ creativity. (Think about that term ‘branding’ and what it meant in slave-owning societies before you embrace it.) For artists of colour and women artists (think of Billie Holiday: raped for the first time when still a child; often denied creative autonomy by the musical men around her) racism and patriarchy add more layers of othering. Artists often employ alternative epistemologies: constructing knowledge systems from dreams, ethics and spiritualities alongside experience. That’s one of the key reasons we need them.

Franz Fanon: analysed colonialist epistemology

All conformist cultures – from the police-state of apartheid to the mass-consuming sheep-herds of America – favour discourses that mark out the creative as ‘Other’, and conflate nonconformity with mental disorder. That way, artists can be corralled and contained. Colonialist societies have historically defined the epistemologies of those they invaded and enslaved as irrational and mentally disordered, something the revolutionary psychiatrist Franz Fanon began to explore in Black Skin White Masks ( ). “Sometimes” wrote Fanon, about this racist denial, “people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalise, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.”

So let us acknowledge that the conditions of capitalist society certainly can and do drive some creative artists towards despair and mental illness – but equally reject much of what capitalism dismisses as ‘madness’. That ‘madness’ actually represents an important contradiction: between hegemonic ideas and innovative creativity.  Unconventional behaviour more often represents the artist’s rejection of  exploitative ways of thinking. And those should make all of us mad as hell!

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