Requiem For a Scream

Edvard Munch turned his mental struggles into spectacular work. But do artists need to be tortured to achieve greatness?

Edvard Munch, Ashes, 1925; photo: courtesy the Munch Museum, Oslo.

Produced in Partnership with SFMOMA, where Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed is on view until October 9th, 2017.

Look out for the quiet kids who hide in the school library. They’re looking for answers — and if you’re not careful, they might find some. My school had a huge old library full of recesses where an enterprising reader could stay out of sight of the big kids. That’s where I went to work out my mad moods in the best tradition of pretentious teenagers everywhere. Like any fretful pubescent who ever had an anxiety disorder and more black eyeliners than friends, I felt alienated, ashamed — and utterly convinced that nobody in the history of the human race had felt quite the same way. Until I found the books that told me otherwise.

There’s sorcery in that sudden sense of kinship when you discover a piece of art or writing by a stranger from a different time who nonetheless knows exactly how you feel, especially when you’re at the age of accelerating into adulthood with the rickety thrill of a rollercoaster you can’t get off.

Crazy dead poets really got me. Or at least, I got them. They may not have known the indignities of having to wipe the spit off your hair after another morning on the school bus, but they knew what it was like to feel like your body did not belong to you, to be overwhelmed by nameless dread in the middle of a normal day, or to wonder if you were going bonkers.

So I read Sylvia Plath. I worshipped Francis Bacon and Arthur Rimbaud. I kept a postcard version of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” tucked into my school diary, next to my list of what to do when I thought I might be about to hyperventilate myself to death, including memorize three French verbs and find a novel dark and weird enough to hide inside.

The attraction was obvious, and it was ordinary: those tortured artists made the torture seem, well, rather artistic. I came away with the impression that mental illness was a necessary adjunct to genius. That it made you somehow special. That it was a little bit cool. The really serious writers I loved all seemed to have had bipolar disorder: I found myself wishing that maybe I could have it, too.

Shortly afterwards, I was diagnosed with an entirely different disorder, and ended up in hospital.

I never wished for mental illness again. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

It didn’t make me an artist. It didn’t give me special insight. It just made me very sick, and very sad, and came close to making me very dead.

Human beings have a habit of romanticizing the things we are reluctant to understand. Whether it’s love, or death, or women, anything that fundamentally frightens us eventually gets dressed up in ornate stories that obscure more than they reveal.

Munch, Eye in Eye, 1899–1900; photo: courtesy the Munch Museum, Oslo.

Art is one of those things; madness is another. And so the two tend to be romanticized together: the image of the mad artist is one of the most enduring in our culture. There are so many specific images we reach for to illustrate this obsessive romance, from van Gogh’s self-portrait to Plath’s poems. Perhaps most common of all, from PowerPoint presentations to dorm room walls and book jackets, is the same picture I had hidden in my school books: Edvard Munch’s iconic scream.

You have to go to Norway to see the original Scream paintings — Munch’s most famous work rarely travels — but staring at any version can be totally captivating and terrifying. Only recently, though, I realized I’d missed the whole point of that image. Maybe you have too.

Here’s what Munch wrote in his diary in 1891 about the moment that inspired it:

“I was walking along the road with two of my friends. Then the sun set. The sky suddenly turned into blood, and I felt something akin to a touch of melancholy…My friends went on and again I stood, frightened with an open wound in my breast I stood still, leaned against the railing, dead tired. Above the blue black fjord and city hung clouds of dripping, rippling blood. My friends went on and again I stood, frightened with an open wound in my breast. A great scream pierced through nature.”

This image of the tortured artist does not, despite popular misconception, depict somebody screaming. It is an image of somebody hearing a scream — a scream that nobody else can detect.

Munch’s Sketches for The Scream.

Munch heard the whole world howling, and it scared him half to death. And it is precisely our romantic association of madness and artistic genius means we fail to grasp exactly what’s going on here.

Perhaps there’s a reason for that. Perhaps a part of us would prefer not to understand. While we fixate on the simple story we’re told about madness and art, what might we be missing?

Psychobiography is an inexact science, but literary scholars and art historians are largely agreed that a good many of our greatest artists, writers, poets and musicians have struggled with their mental health.

Nearly 25 years ago, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison’s controversial book Touched with Fire made the case that there is a link between art and manic depression. But she didn’t stop there. She reeled off famous names — from Lord Byron to Edgar Allen Poe, from Ernest Hemingway to Virginia Woolf — to argue that the link is somehow sacrosanct.

It shouldn’t surprise us that artists can struggle with mental health, because those struggles are a very common part of life for everyone. At least one in four human beings, whoever we are, whatever work we do, will experience mental ill health at some point. Mad artists, when the numbers are all crunched, are just as common as mad accountants and mad electricians. Perhaps Munch and others were just as likely as the rest of us to suffer. And yet the archetype persists.

Edvard Munch in his winter studio, 1938; photo: courtesy the Munch Museum, Oslo.

The cultural link between art and neurosis is compelling, but it is also treacherous, and almost always misunderstood. Correlation does not equal causation. We cannot know whether these or any other artists produced greatness because of their passionate, tempestuous moods, or in spite of them. We just don’t have the evidence — only the symbolic link. In fact, it could well be that what actually set Munch apart, along with all those other great artists and writers whom posterity has deemed insane, was not illness. It was the fact that he was able to carry on creating through those periods when he was unwell, setting down what he felt and saw. Lots of creative people aren’t so lucky.

I’m one of the fortunate ones. Long story short: I got better, got my degree, and in the end, I became a writer. I’d always wanted to do creative work, but when it came down to it, part of the reason I pursued freelance writing so very desperately was that I knew that I didn’t have the temperament to make a success of a nine-to-five office job.

I was in recovery. I had anxiety attacks and moments of dissociation. I still do, but I’m fortunate enough to have had good treatment early. I had learned to manage my moods in a way that takes a good many people far longer, whether or not they struggle with their mental health. Many of my closest friends, including some of the most objectively brilliant artists I’ve had the privilege to know, were never guided to that crucial care.

Some of them lived in countries where treatment was too expensive to access. Others lacked the understanding network of friends and family that makes all the difference for those of us with mental health difficulties. Others still had illnesses that were so severe that they were unable to manage their symptoms well enough to carry on working. Madness might have stopped them making full use of their talents, but it wasn’t the only obstacle. The far bigger barrier was something that critics generally hate to discuss: money.

Looking down the lists of historical cultural icons who were able to produce devastating and important art despite what modern doctors would call severe mood disorders, almost all of them have one other thing in common. They were independently wealthy.

Creating a painting that will travel the world after your death, or a poem that future generations of schoolchildren will memorize long before they’ve lived enough to need it, takes great talent, but it also takes great discipline. Those things are difficult to husband when you’re also unwell, and if you have to earn a wage on top of that, the process becomes all but impossible.

Munch is a case in point. His father, a doctor, brought up the family in a fashion that may not have been well-heeled, but was genteel. His mental illness was clear, and from early on — anxiety, depression, more. Today we might diagnose it as bipolar disorder, or psychosis, or both, with episodes of manic behavior, hallucinatory moments, and alcoholism. But although Munch was never rich, his financial situation — and the support of his family — allowed him to access support, therapy, and treatment that allowed him to continue working. The result was art alchemically wedded to the welter of emotion inside him; expressionism in its purest, most dramatic, and often bleakest form.

Munch, The Dance of Life, 1925; photo: courtesy the Munch Museum, Oslo.

Artists can’t just be tortured. You can’t dive deep into the heart of your own darkness armed with only a box of oils, or take up your pen and go to war with your demons, if you’re expected to keep your sane face on in front of your boss, or your kids. If Munch, or Byron, or Woolf, or van Gogh had led lives where they were under greater pressure to hide their symptoms, would they have been able to produce the work they did?

The people I have seen survive and make magnificent work have been those who have access to resources and help when they need it. The ones who fell to the side, more often than not, came from the sort of backgrounds where it was not safe to be that ill, where treatment and support were less easy to come by.

There’s another prosaic reason for the archetype of the mad artist: choosing to do creative work is itself a sort of madness. It’s a profoundly silly idea. It’s a life that is rarely easy, predictable or straightforward: The reason why so few parents are delighted to hear that their child plans to be a poet or portrait painter or musician — or, worse, to marry one.

This means the process of making intense, focused creative work can look a lot like insanity, even if you’re perfectly well. You have to be at least a little odd to truly believe that you’ve a chance at making a living from your frescoes or freestyle dance routines. You have to believe in some extremely fanciful things, like financial solvency after five years of experimental playwriting. You have to balance enormous bursts of irrational self-belief with the drive to work obsessively, relentlessly, and with no guarantee of reward. You might not be mad, but you’re going to have to act like it.

If you want to make a great painting, you’re going to have to stand in front of a piece of canvas scratching away with oils for hundreds of hours. If you want to write a decent novel, you’re going to have to shut yourself away with your pens and your keyboard talking largely to people you made up in your head. That sort of thing isn’t normal. That’s what Byron meant, I’m convinced, when he wrote that “we of the craft are all crazy.” Byron, let’s not forget, was also a hereditary Lord.

Even if we weren’t unsettled to begin with, the practical difference dissolves over time as we delve inside ourselves to create art. Most people don’t have the energy or the constitution for the actual work that creation requires — and it is the actual work of art that remains invisible whenever we talk about creativity and mental health.

It’s a hard, weird, and often deeply boring job — and it only looks romantic when you aren’t the one doing it, or putting up with it happening in your house.

Perhaps the myth of the tortured artist is self-fulfilling. The myth of the anxious, wracked genius can be a peculiar kind of poison — the kind that controls our actions precisely because we buy into it, because we believe in this pre-determined link. I’ve watched so many people refuse the treatments that modern science makes available precisely because they worry that medication, or sobriety, or simply not-rocketing-from-breakdown-to-mania-and-back-again will somehow destroy their ability to create the work that gives their lives meaning.

Most of those people have not gone on to great renown, or even finished their important projects. They just hit a wall. The link between artistry and internal struggle may be only symbolic, but it carries enough power to ruin lives.

Munch, Moonlight, 1893; photo: courtesy the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Olso.

In the end, romanticizing the figure of the mad artist doesn’t enhance our understanding of either mental health or art. It puts a lot of pressure on those of us who have to wrestle with brains that don’t always behave.

Most people who have significant mental health problems don’t also get to be world-renowned geniuses. Most of us are doing well to get through the day with our bills paid and our trousers on the right way round, and surely that should be enough without also being expected to produce a great novel or gallery show to justify our temperamental oddities.

The tortured artist myth obscures the work of creative production, and it glamorizes what can be extremely serious illness. Munch knew that his anguish was part of what made him — “Without fear and illness, I could never have accomplished all I have,” he wrote later in life — but he also chose a path that tried to balance his anxiety with productivity, eventually living an ascetic existence as a form of self-medication, instead of drinking.

Personally, I’ve always tried to keep my creative work as separate as possible from the chronic mental health problems that have dogged me since childhood. In my grayest, wonkiest periods of anxious depression, I often have a huge number of what seem like darkly brilliant ideas, but I rarely have the energy to get them down on paper. When I’m consistently terrified, my writing takes on a terrifying clarity — but only when I finally crawl out from under the bed and open my laptop.

Take this essay as an example. Don’t be fooled by the fancy format, or the fact that I’ve dignified this slurry of thoughts scraped off the surface of my brain by calling it an essay. I’ve been trying to prize this out of myself for days, because whenever I tried to start writing about art and mental illness an inconvenient nest of rats suddenly started trying to gnaw their way our of my ribcage.

Victorian painters might have deemed this a fit of the vapors; my doctor would identify it as an anxiety attack.

This sort of thing is deeply frustrating, and I resent it. It gets in the way of the work. And making art is real work, whether or not we want to acknowledge it as such.

Munch, The Artist and His Model, 1919–21; photo: courtesy the Munch Museum, Oslo.

When we talk about mental illness today, we often speak about it as the functional opposite of employment. In fact, in several diagnostic manuals, the ability to hold down a steady job is a definition of good mental health. The association of art and mental ill health is just one more reason to deny that making art is an actual job, a job that deserves to be paid and supported. That’s not a romantic idea. It’s rather a dull one. It’s also rather important.

Ultimately, it’s far easier and much more interesting to deal with mad art than it is to deal with mad people. Real mental illness can be boring and exhausting, despite the dreadful knack poets and painters have for making it seem glamorous.

The reason we know about artists and writers, especially the famous ones, is that they’re pretty good at expressing themselves — paradigmatically so. Of course poets can cut to the core of mental illness. Of course they can take any everyday human experience and pare it down to its jewel-like essence. That’s their job.

Munch, Self-Portrait with Hand Under Cheek, 1911; photo: courtesy the Munch Museum, Oslo.

Psychotic poets write psychedelic sonnets. Depressed writers write about depression. Terrified painters paint terrifying pictures. The lucky ones will have the support and care necessary to master their moods well enough to create works that stand the test of time, work that can communicate the experience of mental illness to those of us who are willing and able to understand, those of who can stay with a work until we comprehend the difference between — for example — a person who screams, and a person who is hearing a great scream out of nature, and can’t shut it out.

Great art is fascinating and frightening. Great madness is terrifying and confusing. They are both common to the human condition, both worthy of our care and attention. And getting sentimental about either of them does a great disservice to art, to artists, and to those of us who are invested in both.

Art by Edvard Munch, on view at SFMOMA in the exhibition Between the Clock and the Bed open until October 9, 2017. The Scream is not featured in the show.