Photographic Futures: Dissertation Proposal

The road to creativity passes so close to the madhouse and often detours and ends there‘ – Ernest Becker (The Denial of Death)

The artist as strange, the artist as crazy. The artist in the eye of the public. Not to generalise, but it seems true that the artist is seen as an oddity, dancing around outside the common everyday taunting conformists with their non-conformity. Okay, okay… I may be exaggerating matters slightly to prove a point, but the point still stands. Artists are frequently painted strange, at the very least, crazy at the very best and are deemed to dance to a music most cannot hear. It reminds me of one of my favourite quotes by Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘and those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music‘.

My interest in the artist’s mental state does not, however, lie within the realms of the crazy, of the psychotic. I instead look to explore this strangeness as a product of neuroticism and the role neurosis plays within the creative process. Within my dissertation I look to investigate the following areas:

– The characteristics of neuroticism – Overthinking, anxiety, depression etc.

– Neuroticism and the artist: historic/prominent cases – Da Vinci(?), general prevalence, studies etc.

– Neuroticism and the creative process – possible links (drawing on what has been established in research on the characteristics of neuroticism), fostering or inhibiting(?), neurotic perfectionism etc.

– Psychology of creativity – Frank Barron

– The nature of creativity

– Neurosis and the artist’s work – The prevalence of neuroticism as subject

– The difference between the neurotic and the artist – The courage to create

– Conclusion – coincidence or causality(?)

I am unsure of what questions/arguments my dissertation will pose, a possible title could be:

Why the artist’s work is never done: Investigating the importance, function and prevalence of neuroticism within the creative process.

Through research taken out over the Summer, I hope to narrow the subject of my investigation and find a suitable topic of which will form the foundation of my enquiry. A preliminary argument, and I’m writing this as it comes into the my mind so excuse it’s unrefined nature, could be arguing that the artist’s creativity isn’t merely a product of their neuroticism, but in fact the product of their ability to overcome, embrace and ultimately leverage their neuroticism in the production of art. A damn sight more eloquent comprehension of the notion I’m currently struggling to verbalise comes, once again, from the great mind of Ernest Becker, ‘We might say that both the artist and the neurotic bite off more than they can chew, but the artist spews it back out again and chews it over in an objectified way, as an external, active, work project…‘. Such a process can be seen as the courage to create and the difference between the artist and the neurotic, the difference between being defined by an inability to conquer neuroticism (the neurotic) and the ability to (the artist).

So, I’m going to leave what I wrote before as to evidence my active working out/through of my proposal and I shall continue – now, a possible title for such an investigation could be:

The key to art: Greater than neuroticism

– Investigating the links between neuroticism and creativity and arguing that art is not merely the agent of neuroticism, but the ability and courage (of the artist) to conquer and overcome neuroticism by, and I paraphrase Becker here, ‘chewing it over in an objectified way, as an external, active, work project…

I’m not quite happy with the wording here (of the title) and it will most certainly change, but as aforementioned, I am thinking ‘aloud’.

Possible areas of investigation and case studies for my latter title include:

– The nature of neuroticism.

– The nature of creativity.

– Drawing affinities between the two – traits that could foster or inhibit creativity.

– The work of artists such as Gregory Crewdson, Francesca Woodman, Leonardo Da Vinci etc. Crewdson, for example, is infamous for the painstaking process (both in time, attention to detail and working out) he executes in the creation of his work and has admitted that in creating his images, he is trying to understand his personal struggles with neurosis. The painstaking nature of his work, evidence of what Becker has described as ‘chewing it (neurosis) over’. Also, the richly descriptive writings of James Agee.

– Pre-existing studies/surveys into/of neuroticism within artists/creatives as well as studies providing evidence of possible links between neurosis and creativity in general.

– Carry out my own survey/questionnaire

– Artists whose work took/take on a therapeutic role for themselves (Anne Charlotte Robertson’s, ‘Five year diary’ springs to mind) – can again be seen to provide key evidence of this process of overcoming, of ‘chewing’.

Core reading – synopsises:

The Denial of Death – Ernest Becker (insights into the nature of neuroticism/function of creation)

A culmination of the late, great anthropologist’s life work, ‘The denial of death‘ provided a fresh and unique approach to the basic nature of human existence. An existence that Becker argues fundamentally seeks, ‘to transcend a sense of mortality‘, the ultimate goal and fundamental function of human civilisation. Becker argues that heroism is the result of this desire, and thus heroic acts form a fundamental fact of human nature. These heroic acts/solutions are coined by Becker to be, ‘immortality projects’, and one such project he outlines is that of, ‘the creative solution’ – an area of natural interest for my research (the nature of creativity, the function of creation). Becker’s, ‘The Denial of Death’, will also be of great aid in defining the nature of neuroticism (as the result of death anxiety).

The Nature of Creativity – Robert J. Sternberg

Again a culmination, ‘The Nature of Creativity’, by Robert J. Sternberg is a body of work that, ‘provides sixteen chapters by acknowledged experts on the richness and diversity of psychological approaches to the study of creativity’. I have yet to read any of the writings, as I have simply not had the time, so I am unable to comment on what any of the differing psychological approaches propose, other than of course, that the nature of creativity isn’t clear-cut. I will look to focus on any generally held consensus and draw any affinities between the nature of creativity and the nature of neuroticism.


Becker, E. (2011). The Denial of Death. 1st ed. London: Souvenir Press.

Sternberg, R. (1988). The Nature of Creativity. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Horney, K. (1992). Our inner conflicts. 1st ed. New York: Norton.

Freud, S., Strachey, J., Breur, J. and Richards, A. (2001). The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud. 1st ed. London: Vintage.

Csilkszentmihalyi, M. (n.d.). Creativity. 1st ed.

Bohm, D. (2012). On Creativity. 1st ed. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.

Arnheim, R. (2010). Toward a psychology of art. 1st ed. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.