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The Problem With Romanticizing Depression in Art

Depression and art - Pyragraph
Photo by Unsplash

Try to be an artist of any shape or kind for longer than approximately 11 minutes, and someone will tell you how to be an artist. It’s simply a rule of the universe we find ourselves in. After those (approximate and figurative) 11 minutes, you should prepare yourself to live within this new reality of being instructed.

Sometimes, this advice can be demonstratively useful. Other times, not so much.

1. “You just need to channel how you feel into your art!”

In my experience, the worst, most damaging type of advice comes in the form of generalized statements about how to use emotions in art. This bothers me so much for a couple reasons. The first is that it generalizes art in a very specific way. It says that art is created through the same process for everyone, which simply is not true. The most effective thing for one artist may be a completely ineffective process for another.

Next, it calls into question the legitimacy of any art that is created outside of these specific criteria. Art does not have to be inherently autobiographical to be effective, truthful, or poignant. Sometimes, the best view we get of a situation in our lives is actually from the outside, not in the midst of it. It can give the perspective necessary to have a better grasp on how to best use it in art.

The biggest problem I have with this kind of artistic emotional prescriptivism, however, is how it tends to romanticize things like depression and mental illness without discussing the need to care for these issues. Channeling strong emotions can be an incredibly powerful tool in art. This does not mean, however, that this is the only way to create art, or that doing this should be done at the expense of an artist’s mental health.

Romanticizing the trope of the haunted artist also furthers the problem of stigmas associated with mental health by suggesting that getting help may lessen an artist’s creativity—that the emotions are the primary catalyst for creative output. What this ignores, though, are the ways in which mental health can sabotage creativity. Even if depression has the potential to bring forth beautiful and powerful things creatively, these things can also be completely counteracted by how emotionally and physically crippling depression can be.

2. “It’ll take time, that’s fact.”

For me, one of the most compelling recent examples of how to channel powerful emotions in a way that promotes better mental health comes from the band Modern Baseball, and the mental health journey of their co-lead singer, Brendan Lukens. On the short documentary about Modern Baseball, Tripping in the Dark, Lukens talks quite vulnerably about his struggles with mental illness, and how it affected his artistic abilities.

What Lukens says about his journey is probably one of the most important lessons for us artists to learn about channeling our personal emotions into art. Though it may feel like the only way to access these powerful feelings is to dive straight into them, frequently this actually can get in our way of both our personal well-being and mental health, as well as more fruitful places to go creatively. In his words:

“It’s not a joke to play around with depression or mental illness. It’s not wrong to seek help, or receive help.

“The last few months have been a lot, and it definitely has changed the way I can kind of look at myself, and dive in, and write, and everything like that, and I just feel like I’ve been the most honest I’ve ever been.”

As Lukens says, seeking help and treating mental illness and depression does not mean you will suddenly be unable to channel these emotions in your art. In fact, it will likely make it more possible for you to look at these issues honestly and channel them in a more powerful way. That is because emotions do not necessarily replace each other. It is completely normal and healthy to feel a multitude of emotions, so treating the harmful effects of one does not mean it is no longer accessible. According to Bradley University, while emotions like happiness and depression are linked, they are not necessarily connected directly.

“However, whereas the concepts of happiness and depression are related, they are far from antonyms. Decreasing depression does not necessarily equate to increasing happiness.”

Frequently people believe that the resulting creative product of channeling depression should alleviate the pain felt by the artist. However, the connection between a person’s actions or their success, and their mental well-being is not direct. Bradley University continues to say that things like success are not nearly as important a factor toward a person’s happiness as their personal outlook.

“Happiness is elusive and multifaceted, and it cannot be simply deduced to be a consequence of one’s actions. If wishing to change were all there were to it, everyone would simply wish their less than desirable feelings away. However, attitude plays a large role. The survey found that people’s dispositions toward their jobs, wealth and income were more influential than those factors in and of themselves.”

In the verses of “Just Another Face,” the final song of their 2016 album, Holy Ghost, Lukens sings about his mental health issues in a defeated and brutally honest way.

I’m a waste of time and space
Drifting through my selfish ways
I don’t know how I got here
Travel light endlessly
Distort all reality
I can’t say how I got here

What makes this song so impactful, however, is that it does not simply dwell in these moments. Instead, with the pre-chorus and chorus, it looks forward toward the promise of better times in Brendan’s life. Here, we see how Lukens is feeling contrasted with the love and support his loved ones have for him, and it’s incredibly powerful.

Still, I can feel the need to change me from the inside
But I can’t let anyone know just yet

If it’s all the same it’s time to confront this face to face
I’ll be with you the whole way
It’ll take time, that’s fact
I’m not just another face, I’m not just another name
Even if you can’t see it now
We’re proud of; what is to come, and you

When people are prescriptive about how to channel emotions, or worse, struggles with mental health, into art, it is problematic on numerous levels. Firstly, it oversimplifies the creative process to something that can be repeated across the board for different people, which it simply is not.

More importantly, however, it ignores the fact that mental health and well-being should always be valued more highly than artistic output, regardless of how great the art being created is.

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