MAD, BAD AND DANGEROUS TO KNOW
(A very brief, subjective history of romanticising artists’ mental illness, self-harm, and self-medication)
“Mad, bad and dangerous to know” was Lady Caroline Lamb’s comment shortly after meeting the poet Lord George Byron. Both were aristocratic writers. He was a bisexual literary and social superstar, but usually short of money. Caroline’s behaviour also did not conform to what was expected of a respectable, upper class lady. She was married but had a brief relationship with Byron after she wrote him a fan letter. Initially, she intensely disliked him in person and came up with the “mad, bad…” catchphrase disparagingly. She abused laudanum and alcohol, leading to her death in 1828.
At this time Romanticism was coalescing in the arts and culture as an outgrowth of and reaction against Enlightenment rationalism and industrialisation. The painter Caspar David Friedrich later summed it up as “The artist’s feeling is his law.”
Byron was part of a nexus of influential figures, including daughter Ada Lovelace, friends Percy and Mary Shelley, and Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. All of whom burned out in one way or another. And so, the “mad, bad” template and the notion that a turbulent and chaotic life was “artistic” quickly became hugely influential in the arts and remains so.
The link between the suffering of artists and the monetisation of their pain was really locked in by the beginning of the 19th century. Edvard Munch: “For several years I was almost mad… You know my picture, 'The Scream?' I was stretched to the limit—nature was screaming in my blood… After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again.” He also wrote “Can only have been painted by a madman” on one canvas of it. The last time a version of this painting was sold at auction, it went for £73.9 million.
Romanticism was also intimately tied - often by artists themselves - to the idea that being untutored, child-like (or an actual child), “savage”, or even “mad” might be preferable to and more “authentic” than being adult, educated, “civilised” and acculturated. The outsider (but still middle class) artist Louis Wain is now famous for his psychedelic cat paintings inspired by his mental illness. Another outsider, Vincent Van Gogh, has been intensely mythologised, particularly in the mutilation of his own ear while suffering from a psychotic episode.
You could also make yourself “mad” and “savage” with drugs if you weren’t lucky enough to be organically mad or marginalised already. Outsider, folk or indigenous art and art brut continue to be lucrative, thriving markets and popular with the public, mainly after the artists’ deaths.
Then, as now, the high barriers to entry and low pay limited genuine opportunities for advancement in such prestige occupations and most artists, musicians and authors worked in other jobs, earning only a minority of their income from their art. Yet many of the now iconic artists- including Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Picasso, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Manet, Gauguin, Wilde, Woolf and hundreds of others- were supported by family wealth. Most did not advertise this. Those who lived in poverty and degradation chose to and could usually reclaim their privilege whenever they wanted. Despite widespread poverty cosplay, lower middle-class artists (let alone working-class artists) were virtually unknown from the Enlightenment until the mid-20th century and are still rare.
We can draw a clear line from Romanticism to Dada’s rejection of the supposed order and perfection of capitalism– especially the polite, inoffensive art and dead artists it prefers– in favour of the irrational, the random, the destructive and the offensive. Though in a slightly different way, they also reveled in being thought mad and having their work labelled as bad, just as their predecessors did. The presence of genuinely disabled, mentally ill and/or chronically ill yet functional artists as full and equal art world participants, or even as subjects of art, has only really happened in the past few decades.
Alistair Gentry is an artist and writer. He makes live art, performance lectures, interventions, participatory experiences and live role-playing games, often focusing on communities and audiences outside of conventional gallery or performance spaces. alistairgentry.net