Mark Vonnegut on art and mental illness

Mark Vonnegut, son of novelist Kurt, wrote a book a couple years ago about his bipolar disorder. An excerpt, from which I’ve taken some cuts below, is here.

If my great-grandfather Bernard Vonnegut hadn’t started crying while doing inventory at Vonnegut Hardware and hadn’t told his parents that he wanted to be an artist instead of selling nails and if his parents hadn’t figured out how to help him make that happen, there are many buildings in and around Indianapolis that wouldn’t have gotten built. Kurt senior wouldn’t have created paintings or furniture or carvings or stained glass. And Kurt junior, if he existed at all, would have been just another guy with PTSD–no stories, no novels, no paintings. And I, if I existed at all, would have been just another broken young man without a clue how to get up off the floor.

Art is lunging forward without certainty about where you are going or how to get there, being open to and dependent on what luck, the paint, the typo, the dissonance, give you. Without art you’re stuck with yourself as you are and life as you think life is.

I like this definition of art. I also liked this:

It’s the agitation and the need to do something about the voices that get you into trouble. If you could just lie there and watch it all go by like a movie, there would be no problem. My mother, who was radiant, young, and beautiful even as she lay dying, heard voices and saw visions, but she always managed to make friends with them and was much too charming to hospitalize even at her craziest.

If you don’t have flights of ideas, why bother to think at all? I don’t see how people without loose associations and flights of ideas get much done.

The reason creativity and craziness go together is that if you’re just plain crazy without being able to sing or dance or write good poems, no one is going to want to have babies with you. Your genes will fall by the wayside. Who but a brazen crazy person would go one- on-one with blank paper or canvas armed with nothing but ideas?

To be clear, in the excerpt, Vonnegut does not seem to be saying that artists first need to be mentally ill, but if one finds oneself mentally ill, that art can perhaps be a help. Or maybe he’s saying that art and illness simply coincide in some people. But mental illness is not requisite to being an artist, and seems (in my limited observations) to quite get in the way of making art.

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