This site now acts as an archive only. For the latest news, opinion, blogs and listings on disability arts and culture visit

Disability Arts Online

Mad Genius? / 7 October 2014

painting of a young man with long flowing hair, bare chested, holds a stringed instrument in his left hand, while looking way to the left with a soulful expression

Orpheus, the hero of the opera, with a violin, by Cesare Gennari. Image reproduced via Wikimedia Commons

Zoom in to this image and read text description

The Basement in Brighton who produce the SICK! Festival are putting on a series of events, debates, forums and performance to mark World Mental Health Day.

I've been asked to be part of a panel discussion on the concept of the Mad Genius, so I thought I'd post a precis of what's been going through my mind.

The dictionary definition of ‘genius’ is “an exceptional natural capacity of intellect, especially as shown in creative and original work in science, art, music, etc. By definition a genius is someone who thinks about and understands the world in a way that is different and can often be oppositional to the consensus. Copernicus and Galileo are classic examples of scientists who understood a truth about the relationship of the Earth to the Sun that was in opposition to the all-powerful Church of the 16th century.

There are a number of ways that the world can drive you mad; and being placed in opposition to a consensus is one of them. Antonin Artaud wrote of Van Gogh that he was “suicided by society” – that he was placed on a pedestal in order to be shot down. Van Gogh’s art wasn’t ‘mad’.

His style of perspective and mark-making were developed from a study of Japanese art and years of hard work developing his craft. When you look at how his style with the use of intense patterning and flat perspective is consistently interpreted as the expression of a deranged mind you can see the truth of what Artaud says.

In turn I think it underlies the problem with the stereotype of the ‘mad genius’. It is so often a romanticisation of an individuals’ suffering that is the direct result of having been rejected by society. And the mad genius stereotype becomes a way of covering up that rejection by deeming us as 'other'. The artist isn’t the agent of their creativity. It is said to be the result of a ‘divine intervention’ or a ‘spiritual imperative’, rather than as in Van Gogh’s case, the study of Japanese art.

Susan Sontag's excellent essay Illness as a Metaphor explores in particular the history of perceptions of TB and cancer. She analyses texts throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, which illustrate unhelpful mythologies. In the process of uncovering and comparing myths about illness, she argues that 19th century romantic notions that surrounded TB have been transferred to 'madness': "In the twentieth century the repellent, harrowing disease that is made the index of a superior sensitivity, the vehicle of 'spiritual' feelings and 'critical' discontent, is insanity."

I think madness is often a sane response to living in an insane society. We’re brought up to believe in values of cooperation, fairness and truthfulness and then we’re thrust into a competitive, dog eat dog world in which values of selfishness, greed and competition are the norm. Anyone with an empathic nature within their genes is likely to become victim to that massive contradiction between the moral imperative and the harsh reality.

More than anything it’s that ‘spiritual’ association with being mad, that goes with the idea of ‘genius’, that sets people apart and becomes a barrier. Antonin Artaud wrote an eloquent angry essay called Shit to the Spirit – attacking the stereotype of the mad, spiritually-gifted genius. That was written in 1943. Since then little has changed regarding the sterotype although the definitions awarded by The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has widened the scope of human behavior that is clinically regarded as mental illness by psychiatry.

Mad equals creative is a myth that is ripe for subversion. Few have challenged it. The work of liberal thinkers and social reformers has often only served to reinforce it. As Artaud put it: “It is as if it were understood for life that the body is this filthy stuff the spirit takes its footbaths in.




15 October 2014

Antonin Artaud wrote of Van Gogh that he was “suicided by society” .....etc....excellent insight/hindsight/foresight because society still plays us.

I think madness is often a sane response to living in an insane society.......etc..totally agree. Being a good person can be regarded as mad, being truthful can be regarded as mad, being kind can be regarded as mad. Being a shifter/mover/shaker/shafter seems to be rewarded!

10 October 2014

Great article ....I couldn't agree more. It's time someone wrote a book on the number of mad genius plumbers, dentists, bakers and traffic wardens cluttering up physiatric hospitals and making unremarkable paintings in art therapy sessions. However, I cant see a publishers going for it....'mad genius traffic warden' just doesn't have the ring of 'mad genius artist'. Also it might be a tad dull (oh dear, now I'm stereotyping Traffic wardens) and unlikely to make the cut for BBC Radio 4s A Good Read.

Good luck with the panel discussion in Brighton. Should be an interesting night.