Mental Illness Art: Expression or Idealisation?

Claire Fogarty is a first year English and Philosophy student interested in all modes of communicating and expressing thought. Outside of her degree she experiments with a range of creative arts, and loves exploring the intersections and boundaries between them. Though she often works in Fine and Visual Arts, her main passion is writing, which you can find on her blog at

For A-level Art, my coursework topic was ‘Madness’. I wanted something introspective and expressive, but with a large source base for inspiration. Luckily, the correlation between mental illness and creativity is not something I’ve been the first to notice, so finding work on the topic was easy.

From the link to almost all famous Art shows, to some lesser-known work on the fringe, I discovered incredible pieces. The more I delved, though, the more I also found that I wish I hadn’t. I surfed social media in search of unknown Art, the majority of which was mediocre, some of which was great, and some of which led me to the very darkest corners of the web.

Beyond the Tumblr stereotype of silhouettes sitting in doorways hugging their knees, and sketches of thin women looking at reflections of fat women, arose the question of not just what isn’t great Art, in terms of communication or originality, but what is harmful?

Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, at least, have developed tools that allow anything promoting self-harm or mental illness to be reported, and hashtags like ‘thinspo’ have (thankfully) been banned. What seems to slip through this filter, however, is mental-illness endorsing Art.

In a visit to a Bethlem museum ‘Outsider Art’ exhibition I discovered Kurelek’s ‘The maze’, a symbolic painting of the compartments of his mind, accompanied by a clear, though sad, explanation that allows insight into his illness. Sebastian Eriksson’s surrealist drawings are another great example of amateur, but effective mental illness Art, found on social media, where he communicates his feelings through illustration.

But what if some ideas expressed are damaging? The problem with platforming unhealthy perspectives, is that it may mean platforming ideals that are unhealthy, too. They do aid insight into the person’s mind, but should they be publicised if their nature is either explicitly or implicitly promotional?

Art on the theme of eating disorders seems to exemplify this problem the most. As mentioned, although specific ‘thinspo’ hashtags may have been taken down, it’s harder to limit sketches or paintings that seem, at least to me, to idealise illness. The majority of anorexia depictions, in at least Western Art, seem to centre around motifs of delicacy and beauty, intertwined with death to produce some absurd narrative of a ‘dance macabre’ nature. Rib cages trapping birds or decorated by vines of flowers; crying girls with butterfly wings, or symbols of weightlessness – balloons, feathers, levitation – come together to suggest that amongst death from undereating are traditionally feminine and beautiful things.

  The Maze  by Kurelek

The Maze by Kurelek

This is incorrect, and it can, of course, be irritating, no matter what the subject, when Art attempts to speak for someone’s community but by only expressing one viewpoint, doesn’t represent how everyone in that group thinks or feels. That, however, can be overcome by platforming numerous voices, and providing different responses to a subject (as is just the nature of Art). The real problem here is that the incorrect is also harmful.

What is there that can be done? It’s important to allow those with mental illness to express themselves and keep improving education. It also doesn’t seem right that we should disallow any Artist from expressing their personal of view, and there doesn’t seem to be a fair or legitimate way to do so.

How I personally think we should take this is how, to some extent, almost all Art can in some way be taken: a reflection of attitudes or beliefs within society. It’s scary that these ideas exist, and that they may influence and encourage others, but disallowing people to express them is not the answer. What we need to work on is the ideas themselves, which requires allowing them to be expressed.

Whilst we can’t stop such damaging work from being made, what we can at least do is analyse the messages it’s sending, and make others, and the artists themselves, aware of this, too. We can also be sure to platform any work which does capture the mental illness’s reality without implying its promoting.

Images from Creative Commons.