While the trope of an artist who struggles, not only in making a living but with living itself, is certainly not applicable to everyone who pursues creative endeavors, anyone with any experience of the artistic crowd will have a shrewd idea of where it comes from. Just like the stereotypical engineer is socially maladroit and the stereotypical lawyer cynical, there are enough examples of artists battling some form of inner demon to affect the reputation of the entire profession.
Depression, in its various guises, is a particularly common malady amongst musicians, writers and other kinds of creative people; what may be surprising is the kind of artists who suffer from it. You would probably be able to think of Leonard Cohen, Kurt Cobain, Edgar Allen Poe and Vincent van Gogh without any trouble. However, the same list would have to include Woody Allen, Douglas Adams, Stephen Fry and Hans Christian Anderson. This brings us to an apparent paradox: would those suffering from depression not tend to produce works which tend to make others depressed? Since paradoxes can only exist in politics, this one is also specious. For one thing, experiencing even the saddest artworks don’t necessarily lead to feelings of sadness in the audience.
One possible, but probably insufficient explanation is that people suffering from depression experience a greater range of emotions that is the norm. This can inform not only their work on melancholy subjects but also in much more lighthearted pieces, whether musical compositions, short stories or whatever genre the artist chose to apply himself to. The reason for this is that someone who is generally or even constantly cheerful will not be capable of recognizing that inner state as anything but a baseline, while a person who has some understanding of the opposite will be more apt to see it as something to be grateful for and celebrated. An artist who’s lived his whole life on emotional mountains might be able to do no better than describe the heights as “peak-ish”, while someone who regularly visits the valleys between has a much greater basis for comparison and therefore a better understanding of both.
Another factor which may come into play is that the creative acts they perform may serve as a kind of catharsis for their internal conflicts. As such, their work isn’t something they do with the same mindset as someone spending time in an office, nor for the benefit or praise of other people, but a calling in some deeper sense. One of the prerequisites for becoming good at anything from coding in Java to writing sonnets is simply doing a lot of it, and when self-expression and emotional release converge, a person would be that much more likely to keep practicing his art. This would affect the quality of what he produces not only while in the depths of depression but also in happier times.
One further thing to take into account is that depression is often of the “manic” variety, more properly called bipolar disorder now that it’s better understood. People afflicted with this disease experience periods of elation and extreme creativity, and of near-total hopelessness and despair. Those who view the beauty and power of something created in the former state will not necessarily even be aware of the depth of the depressions the artist might have endured before and after.
Finally, we should be careful of generalizing from a few cases of depressed artists who’ve made history. In the first place, there are and have been plenty of equally famous creative minds who’ve suffered no more than the usual amount of sadness humans face in life. Secondly, is it really justified to make a link between Jackson Pollock and every guy who paints on Sunday afternoons?
The bad news is that there does seem to be a significant link between creativity and mental illness, even without adding genius to the mix. Statistically (at least in Sweden) people working in creative fields – which, for this study, can mean anything from painting to dancing to photography – were significantly more likely to experience psychological problems ranging from anxiety to substance abuse (certain categories were, on average, actually healthier than the general population). Writers, for some reason, are the worst affected; being 121% more likely than average to suffer from bipolar disorder and fully 50% more prone to committing suicide. Somewhat frighteningly, numerous other studies have established the fact that both creativity and mental illness tend to run in the family, pointing to a possible genetic link between the two.
Now that we know that, though, we should also take a deep breath and recognize that psychology rarely deals in one-to-one, black and white correlations, and categories. You might be very capable artistically without being at all depressed or prone to anxiety. Even if this is not the case for you, there’s a wide range of existence between perfect mental health and anything that could be described as a psychic disorder, which are the two poles between which the vast majority of people find themselves. Drawing landscapes or diddling away on the piano does not really mean you’re likely to end your life the way Sylvia Plath did; depression is better understood and more easily treated now than ever before.