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Neurotic and Artist--Opposite Sides of the Same Coin

Updated on September 2, 2013
Otto Rank Bestseller
Otto Rank Bestseller

See Otto Rank from 7:13 - 8:13 of this Video

Otto Rank (April 22, 1884 - October 31, 1939) was a leading Austrian psychoanalyst and close colleague of Sigmund Freud for twenty years. He once theorized that a neurotic is an artist who cannot create. What did he mean by this?

In order to answer this question, one must define the concepts of neurotic and artist. At the risk of oversimplification, this writer ventures to say that the neurotic and the artist are opposite sides of the same coin (an analogy commonly used to thinly differentiate between the genius and the idiot).The neurotic and the artist are synonymous in that they are both dissatisfied entities--i. e., they suffer from a lack of tolerance of their environment and, as is often the case, a rather low self-image. Herein, however, the similarities end.

The neurotic is a closed system. He is characterized by an incomplete insight into himself; constant social, emotional, and psychological conflicts; anxiety attacks; and partial impairment of personality. An underlying trait of the neurotic is his frustration with ambivalence. He neglects or is unable to recognize his innate potential to cope with the environment. Life's novel situations pose great threats to the neurotic. As Fritz Perls would say, "He mobilizes not his own resources, but his means of manipulating the environment--helplessness, flattery, stupidity, and other more or less subtle controls--in order to get support." (Frederick S. Perls, "Group vs. Individual Therapy," Gestalt Is, Moab, Utah: Real People Press, 1975, p. 11.) Some of the general manifestations of his inability to be self-supportive are psychosomatic trauma, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and hysteria.

In contrast, the artist is an open system. He does not balk at an impasse (as would the neurotic) but transcends frustration by expressing himself. The dissatisfaction he experiences with life and his self-image is purged by his creativity. Whereas the neurotic fails to mobilize his own resources in coping with life, the artist thrives on innovation. His artistic process involves the pulling together of fragmented stimuli from his environment in a way which is creative. Consequently, he comes to an understanding of these stimuli in a novel way. Inevitably, the artist recreates his self-image by bringing together disconnected material in an innovative way. Unlike the neurotic, the artist is not afraid to experiment, take risks, go against convention, and thus grow.

In summation, the neurotic and the artist are similar in that they bear a common frustration and dissatisfaction with life and with their self-concepts. The neurotic, however, is so preoccupied with his self-image that he fails to check out his environment. Instead of becoming aware of and using his own potential for coping with life, he resorts to manipulative, self-defeating measures which reinforce his immaturity. The artist, on the other hand, deals with life quite differently. Rather than resort to infantile behavior as the neurotic would, the artist chooses to experience the pain of working through each impasse. He is a participant, not a spectator, in life, and his creative process is one that serves as a catharsis for his anguish. In his own unique way, the artist wrestles with his environment and, in the process of coming to terms with that environment, innovates his self-image.


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  • hawaiianodysseus profile image

    Hawaiian Odysseus 5 years ago from Southeast Washington state


    You raise some interesting points. Thank you for reading this article and even more so for your thoughtful commentary.

    As I read your words just now, artists like Van Gogh and Michelangelo come to mind. They each struggled mightily with that proverbial grain of sand that the oyster/artist can neither ignore nor eliminate. The difference, I think, is that Michelangelo may have finally found some peace after painting the Sistine Chapel (thus, as you eloquently put it, glorifying the creator). Van Gogh may not have experienced such a catharsis through his art.

    Nice to hear from you again! Have a memorable Labor Day Weekend!

  • zionsphere profile image

    zionsphere 5 years ago from Oregon

    Oooohh! What wonderful food for thought! I can honestly say that I am using my writing as an artistic outlet, and it is finally helping me return from a long stint of neuroticism. I completely agree that the neurotic is lacking coping skills for dealing with his environment.

    Maybe it isn't so much that he CAN'T create, but more that he hasn't yet found his proper medium. Before figuring out that I could write, the stresses of life certainly drove me to a neurotic state!

    I have to disagree that artists are innately dissatisfied. Perhaps the artist who tries to recreate his environment could be... if that is the artist's purpose, then no amount of creativity will ever suffice. The dissatisfying outside world would always remain as a painful reminder that life is not in the hands of the artist.

    However, once an artist discovers how to make peace with their creator, and appreciate the creator's creation... The new purpose of glorifying the creator through his work evolves, and satisfaction is finally attainable.

  • hawaiianodysseus profile image

    Hawaiian Odysseus 5 years ago from Southeast Washington state

    Clever comment, wetnosedogs, and I think you've hit on something there. This was a different kind of article for me to write, and yet as I did the research, I found I could remember moments when I teeter-tottered (and still do, occasionally) between "going nuts" (and I mean that more playfully than seriously, although the jury's still out on that) and breaking through that writer's impasse. In a way, a writer's block is a more socially acceptable way to label a concept that has a lot of creative people flirting with mental illness. A person who comes to mind is Robin Williams...a brilliant comedian, especially when he's left to his own devices on an empty stage, but if one were to look at him from a therapeutic perspective, you might just wonder, is he funny because he's accepting of his own truth and thus not afraid to be crazy? Is he funny because he's telling it like it is and thus reminding me that I'm basically just as lost as he is? Hey, I'm rambling, and we both have things to do. Always a pleasure to hear from you and see what you've got to share! Kona, my cat, sends a MEOW out to your dogs!

  • wetnosedogs profile image

    wetnosedogs 5 years ago from Alabama

    Interesting article. I don't want to say I'm neurotic. Artistic sounds more becoming. What I really am, I don't know. Or did I give myself away with this comment-LOL.