Long time ago I read an interview with the editor of a photo magazine. (I forgot who, which and where: sorry.) He was asked about the common trait of the greatest Photographers. His answer was obsession, a single minded determination to get a specific result. He said that this is in fact common for all arts and that great artist are usually not very happy people. But they can get a deep satisfaction from achieving results.
I forgot about this article. But I noticed that after photo hunting sessions I usually feel mentally, emotionally completely drained and exhausted. So I asked other people with interest and talent in some art about this and whether they feel producing arts relaxes them or makes them happy. The most common answer can be summarised as „Not at all, rather the contrary and I absolutely do not seek relaxation and happiness when I try to make art!“ Only very few felt relaxed or happy.
Now compare this with the common suggestion to make art to solve psychological problems or be more happy. Just try to google „Art+ Happiness“ and you will find millions of articles telling you that making art will make us happy. I do not doubt that painting or shooting photos can help many people. But if art is the goal, then art seems to be a sure way to unhappiness.
A while ago I recommended this article about the shadow muse. The article starts with this quote about Hemingway:
“One cannot but feel sympathy and even admiration for Hemingway in his lifelong struggle against crippling emotional shocks and scars, and be sustained and uplifted by the fact that out of that struggle, he created some of the most beautifully and powerfully written stories and novels of our time.” —Literature Online
Keith Johnstone has similar things to say about using the dark material of our mind when we want to be creative.
Yes, our vulnerability and our dark side give meaning and depth to art. Happiness and joy alone are shallow.
For myself I noticed that when I feel well and confident I must use this mental strength and give 100% of it to dig in my soul until I am completely exhausted to get good pictures.
When I hit a Low and feel horrible and have to face the demons in my mind, pictures come flying automatically. This is only true for feeling psychologically bad but not physically. If I am physically exhausted or sick I can not take good pictures. Not at all.
Now let’s go back to the question of art and mental health. How important is happiness after all? Many people strive to maximise happiness and see it it as one of the most important things in life. And I completely disagree. Happiness is just ONE emotion which is good in the right moment when there is a specific reason to be happy. The so called „ negative“ emotions anger, fear, shame etc are as important and very often more adequate than happiness if we want to live a whole and rich life. I would like to refer to an author who saved my life. Karla McLaren has a wonderful blog and great books about emotions.
And art can help us to learn to get comfortable with our dreaded „negative“ emotions and the darker and weaker parts of our mind and with this contribute to mental health.