Arts and depression

May 20, 2008
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Two books I’m in the midst of reading combine to raise questions about the future of art and audiences.

The first, “Against Happiness,” posits that our society’s increased emphasis on smoothing over the rough edges of life (through pharmaceuticals and other means) could ultimately kill our creative spirit.

To back up his claim, author Eric Wilson offers a litany of creations—from Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” to Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska”—that wouldn’t exist if its creators weren’t down in the dumps. And the list goes on: Beethoven. Plath. Van Gogh. Not a particularly happy lot.

Then there’s Daniel S. Burt’s “The Drama 100: A Ranking of the Greatest Plays of All Time,” which is bound to provoke argument or dismissal from theater lovers (How, for instance, do you decide where “Angels in America” stands in comparison to “A Raisin in the Sun” or “Glengarry Glen Ross”?)

But, that being said, let’s look at some of Burt’s top choices—“King Lear,” “Hamlet,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “Medea”… You’d be hard-pressed to find a smile in the bunch.

So do artistic greatness and depression go hand in hand?

More personally, when you go out for a night of theater, is it harder for you to get motivated to see something that isn’t likely to be fun?

And do you find yourself more resistant to depressing shows now than you did years ago?

Your thoughts?
  • I don't think people have to be depressed in order to create great art, but I do think they have to have the courage to feel whatever it is they are feeling.

    I also think that it is easier to label a depressing piece great art than a humorous piece because pain is pretty universal and humor is more personal, harder to agree on.

    When I go out for a night of theatre, sometimes I base my selection of show on my mood, but it is rare that I want something easy more than something cathartic. Depressing for the sake of being depressing? No. But an honest exploration of the human experience? Yes.

    I'll have to think some more about how my approach has changed over the years.

    More about this topic later, maybe...

    Hope Baugh
  • Hmmm...depression and art. Any profound (emotional) experience is often a catalyst for self-expression of some sort.

    It seems that the creative person (that would be all of us in one way or another) needs an outlet for unraveling a metamorphasis that he or she doesn't yet fully understand. To make beauty out of something that is terrifying, gratifying, get the picture...helps us move through, not around, the experience.

    Creativity is like sharing an intimate piece of yourself so that others get it too. It's life giving.

    Creating is more about the 'process' - it's like the layers of feeling/experience can be made a bit tangible through one's media of choice. When you let go, the work takes on a life of its own and whatever set you in motion has become more tame.

    I agree with Hope. I choose my entertainment be it a play, live music, film, television (do I dare put that here while discussing art - does Family Guy count?), an art gallery what I need to add that element of spice to my life. It's like fuel in my tank.

    Sometimes it is tragedy...but I'll have to say lately it's more likely comedy or satire that draws me. Guess I'm looking for levity and beauty.
  • Thank for your thoughts. Anyone else want to chime in?

    Both of you mentioned selecting based on mood. This does not bode well for arts companies selling season subscriptions...


    P.S. And, Deb, by all means mention Family Guy here. As often as you like.
  • Your previous post prompted me to buy tickets to Sweeney Todd for me and my daughter, not because I feel the need to be depressed or horrified, but because it's a high-caliber show she's interested in seeing, and I want to foster her interest.

    With artwork, I have to admit that I'm usually more intrigued by pieces that seems to come from a more visceral place within the artist, which often means depression or angst. I love intelligently, bitingly funny art, too, especially art that comments on society or politics.

    When it comes to movies and TV, I've found with age that I go to laugh or maybe be moved in a positive way. My days of getting depressed from watching Taps and Old Yeller are over.
  • I think mood plays a big part in it, but if something is good, really good, it's worth it. Though somethings can be so disturbing that you only need to see them once. My case in point would be Schindler's List. A great movie, but so disturbing and emotional for me that once is all I could sit through, and I still have vivid scenes from it stuck in my head.

    I have lots of friends in theater, so sometimes my mood doesn't matter as I go out to support them. I've seen some great plays that might not have been on my radar otherwise.

    I think all ranges of human emotion can create great art. I don't think depression should be singled out as the driving force. I think alot of great art has come from someone's pain, but at the same time we have great art from someone's joy or grief, or even boredom.

    I don't think anyone can say that some great art wouldn't exist if the modern medications we have now were available to them. It doesn't mean they would've chosen to take them. Some people are aware of the source of their creativity and might not want to lose that -even if for their own good. And who is to say that if they had taken meds and were shiny, happy people, that they wouldn't have produced something just as grand, albeit more uplifting in someway. In addition, I would add that human emotion is not the only inspiration for artists. Think of all the wonderful works inspired by nature.
  • Just a random thought
    I was diagnosed with depression 3 yrs ago. Since that time, I have been on medication (dual action to rebuild synaptic connections and reduce anxiety). Since the diagnosis, I have not had a desire to return to any artistic endeavours that I used to thrive on: crafting, artwork, playing music. I just don't have the drive/energy.

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