No, Van Gogh Was *not* Crazy

No, Van Gogh Was *not* Crazy

Arts October 03, 2016 / By Dr. Judith Schlesinger
No, Van Gogh Was *not* Crazy

In September 2016, an expert symposium at the Van Gogh museum decides that the painter was not mentally ill.

Well, I'm back from the symposium at the Van Gogh Museum in glorious Amsterdam. After two days of intense small group debate and discussion, we determined that Vincent did *not *have a mental illness after all.

The 30 invited experts included 13 art historians, who were so familiar with Vincent's 903 letters that they essentially contributed his own voice to the proceedings; six psychiatrists; assorted medical specialists (neurologists, internists), and two psychologists: Kay Jamison, the most prolific proponent of the mad genius myth, and yours truly.  As readers of this column know, I'm all about debunking said myth; happily, the field of psychology is turning away from it, as shown in the state-of-the-art textbook, Creativity and Mental Illness (Cambridge University Press, 2014).  I'd like to think my own little book had something to do with this; The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the myth of the mad genius has definitely nudged the belief that great creativity and madness are necessarily connected.  It was certainly the reason I was invited to Amsterdam.  

The symposium was called On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and His Illness.  Clearly, something was up with Vincent, but for once, the one-size-fits-all-artist-pathology was firmly, collectively, and publicly discarded.  Perhaps it was because art historians planned the conference -- unlike many people who write about the "mad" genius, they actually know what a creative life looks like, even at its most extreme, without needing to slap a diagnosis on it.  These dedicated professionals were especially familiar with the struggles of Van Gogh, giving him and his work the kind of respectful attention that is usually withheld from the historical genius. 

For example, it was refreshing that nobody brought up “Starry Night” as “evidence” of his madness.  Last year’s “Touched with Fire” movie not only animated the stars in that famous picture, making them pulse and swirl with craziness, but also informed the public that Van Gogh could never have painted this work if he’d been on psychotropic medication for his "disease."  This is the same film that told us that “creativity is the beginning of illness.”  Fortunately, it went straight to video, despite its connections to Spike Lee and Katie Holmes. 

But at least in Amsterdam in September of 2016, things were clear and true.  The final expert verdict was this: Vincent was fiercely opinionated, stubborn, difficult, socially tone-deaf, impulsive, and self-absorbed.  His crushing and constant loneliness, poverty, malnutrition and chronic alcohol abuse contributed to his several brief psychotic episodes, all but the last one followed by a quick and full remission. Even if he ultimately suicided (at 37, after just 10 years of painting), he did not have an ongoing mental illness.  And he certainly did not show the symptoms of bipolar disorder.

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