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Do You Have to be Crazy to be a Good Artist?

Do You Have to be Crazy to be a Good Artist?

Amy Wilson

July 13, 2010

I teach a class at SVA on the intersection of drugs, alcohol, mental illness, and creativity, and the life story of Johnston has all of these things in spades. The question I am constantly asked by people both in the art world and outside of it is one that I think none of us is very comfortable with, namely: Is there a connection between “insanity” and creativity; aka, Do you have to be crazy to be a good artist?

I have certainly struggled with my mental health issues over my life, so this is a question I personally come back to over and over. Here’s my latest thinking:

I don’t think that creativity and “craziness” (whether fueled by drugs, biology, trauma, whatever) are necessarily connected in the sense that one fuels the other. People who would not at all be considered “crazy” are creative all the time – our lives are filled with a million acts of creativity, whether they’re a choice of what to wear today or what to make for dinner, or the doodles we make on a scrap sheet of paper while on the phone.

But here’s where the connection does actually come in. I think that being in that “crazy” state is what fuels the kind of work ethic, ambition, and molotov cocktail of self-doubt and self-confidence needed to actually create, in a sustained sort of a way, an extensive body of work.

So for instance, in the film, we are shown that in his early years Johnston worked a crappy job at McDonald’s, basically washing tables. For most people, this would mean total demoralization. They would go home and cry, or try and take classes somewhere to get to a better place professionally, or dull their senses by watching hours upon hours of mindless television. Instead, Johnston goes home and makes music and records cassettes of it that he gives to people he likes at the McDonald’s. He can’t afford the kind of machine you need to dub tapes, so in order to have a steady supply of tapes to give away, he has to re-record his album over and over and over again.

That is totally crazy. Not writing the music, not being a stellar performer or a gifted pianist; the act of going home and not taking the hint that the world just wants you to curl up and go far away – that is the very definition of insanity. It’s also that sort of doggedness that has made Johnston so successful in many senses of the word.

People who have mental illness issues are used to doing this sort of thing. When I think about my own life, there are so many times that I’ve been so out of step with what everyone else is thinking or caring about, that after a certain point it doesn’t matter. You know, I’m used to people looking at me and telling me I’m crazy. And I am. And really, so what? So it means that I’m free to do something without fear of getting that label.

Today is an absolutely beautiful day, one of our first beautiful days in quite a while. I am spending it indoors, methodically scratching at a 4 × 6 copper plate with a sewing needle, making something that will eventually be an etching. The entire right side of my body hurts like hell, because I have spent the last two days (all day, hour upon hour) doing this same thing. But that’s okay, because honestly my body always hurts. It’s probably as much psychosomatic as it is muscle fatigue. And even though I know that there’s a good chance these etchings might not turn out at all (I’m a newbie and well, you never know) I can’t think of anything I would rather do with this beautiful Sunday than pour more hours into this project. A normal person would suggest to go slow – see how the first ones turn out, then proceed from there. But I’m not normal; I’m crazy. And as a result, I’m used to screwing up all the time. So if I screw this up – so what? Just another thing to pick myself up from. And maybe in the process, I’ll actually do something really good.


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