Some artists, whether painters, writers or musicians, suffer from being labeled crazy artists. There is compelling evidence that some of the best artists do deserve the title, except the term "crazy" is generally more politely replaced with "mentally ill." There are many examples of artists who were called crazy, however, which does point to a large share of artists suffering from some form of mental illness.
Mental illness may create a number of factors that contribute to some individuals' artistic tendencies. The first of these is the polarizing effect on the artist. The person who sees him or herself as "outside" of the general public because of a mental illness is likely to have a take on humanity quite different from the "inside" man or woman. In fact, being outside can allow an individual to observe society as someone else might observe a society of birds, for example. Core truths of the society can be exposed and, therefore, resonate with or irritate the public.
Additionally "crazy artists" have access, probably that they don’t want, to the excessive emotional content of their lives. This is very true of those with bipolar disorder or depression. Some cannot filter out the deep and foreboding emotions, causing great mental disturbance. Exposure to consistent emotional content can also touch others listening to, observing, or reading the art.
A few writers who could be termed "crazy" include Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Leo Tolstoy, John Keats, Sylvia Plath, and Tennessee Williams. Many of these artists fought tremendous battles with depression. Some, like Plath, committed suicide. Others who are potential candidates as "crazy artists" include the alcoholics and drug addicts, since it is now shown that many who have drug dependence are medicating to mask a mental disorder. These include writers like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wilkie Collins, and Edgar Allan Poe.
It is generally assumed that a number of well known visual artists suffered from depression. This is certainly the case with Vincent Van Gogh, the poster child of the "crazy artist." Michelangelo may also have been suffering from deep depression. Paul Gauguin suffered a mid-life crisis, battling alcoholism and relocating to Tahiti to paint during the last few years of his life.
A number of great filmmakers have also been considered crazy, battling various forms of mental illnesses. Their ranks include Francis Ford Coppola and Rod Steiger. Further, actors and actresses have recently "come out" to discuss their struggles with mental illness. Patty Duke has been particularly effective in her advocacy for those with depression and bipolar disorder. Actresses like Vivien Leigh and Marilyn Monroe battled mental illness as well.
Music would not be the same without its contributing crazy artists. These names include Mozart, Schubert, Rossini, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven. Modern musicians like James Taylor have been relatively public about battling mental illness and drug addiction.
Perhaps the most illuminating work on the subject is the book The Dynamics of Creation by Anthony Storr. He refutes the idea that art springs from insanity, but suggests that it is instead a force of consolation to the artist. Another interesting take on the subject is the book The Key to Genius: Manic Depression and the Creative Life written by D. Jablow Hershman and Julian Lieb. This work analyzes how the manic depressive artist may achieve more recognition because, in his or her manic states, production level increases dramatically.
Some worry, however, that insanity is a prerequisite of great art. This is clearly not the case, and there are many fabulous artists who were quite sane. Further, insanity does not translate to great art. Interesting analyses have been made of art produced by people who are institutionalized, however.