The Myth of the “Tortured Artist”. Throughout history, one common thread in the mystery and allure of the artist is the belief that their art and talent relies on mental illness, addiction, and the like. They are commonly referred to as the “tortured artist.”
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From Beethoven to Van Gogh to Franz Kafka, these unfortunate individuals have suffered greatly, hacking away at their art in spite of a world that doesn’t understand them.
Let’s start off with one thing: We need to do away with the myth of the tortured artist. Not only is it incredibly harmful, but also it is grossly untrue. Or, at least, exaggerated. The idea that in order to produce something of great magnitude requires suffering has done so much harm to creative types.
I can’t stress how crucial it is that we get away from this mindset. Artists don’t produce works because they are depressed or addicted. Any successful creative person will tell you, active suffering makes it impossible to work. Often, it’s a chore even to get out of bed and focus – let alone sit down to work on a project.
That said, many artists, writers, and musicians will add that their struggles can (and often do) provide them with inspiration and emotional depth, as well as the empathy to comprehend a mood or situation on a more genuine level. This comprehension is important for creating more well-rounded works. I can attest to that. Whenever I’m depressed, I consider it a delight when anything comes to me.
But the idea that one must be having a hard time to craft mind-blowing works? This is a false narrative, and it seems many folks believe it.
Especially kids. “Think of the children” arguments and appeals to emotion are typically false and used for relatively sinister purposes, but here it seems like they can actually be applied. Young, impressionable minds want to believe that because they make art and suffer, that they are by default super-talented. It’s not a bad thing to believe in yourself, but at the same time, it does lead to a false narrative that prevents you from improving.
It is possible it’s a coping method to think this way. I can relate to that. I used to be one of the types who rationalized it and bargained with myself in that way. But I was wrong, and at some point, I had to abandon it. It kept me firmly locked into a mode of thinking that was counterproductive, as I not only didn’t improve my art but also kept myself from improving when it came to my mental health. It’s a vicious cycle you can’t escape from.
It’s especially problematic when it comes to active addiction. I say active addiction rather than simply addiction in general because, when an individual is engaging in the use of substances such as alcohol, they’re active in their addiction (as opposed to in recovery). They become tethered to the inebriant and believe it is necessary to the creation of their art.
This forces them to continue imbibing, often for the mere sake of being productive. The individual becomes convinced that without their drug of choice (often alcohol or amphetamines), their work will be of low quality – or perhaps won’t even come about at all.
Yet when artists escape from the vicious cycle and get the monkey off their back, many – if not most- find their output isn’t diminished. Sure, early on, work is slow and often of poor quality, to them at least. But then, over time, their talent shows itself again.
I can attest to this. When I quit drinking, I wasn’t sure if I would ever create again. So I gave myself time, went easy on myself, and at some point, I was able to create again – and, arguably, now my work is of a better, more sensible quality. It flows easier and with more comprehension. My mind is not lost and my writing isn’t as unintelligible as before.
So here we are. My ultimate belief is that, while there are some reasons to believe in the idea of the tortured artist as the superior creator, largely, it just isn’t accurate. It’s more harmful than anything else, leading many to accept it without question, selling their souls to a myth.
I abandoned the idea for a great deal of my creative life. As someone who bought into the concept, I strongly urge people to give up on it, to not blindly accept it as fact. Mental health is a serious issue in this country, and we can’t do anything proactive or take the reins on our personal lives if we continue to believe in falsehoods. Our creative endeavours should be no different when it all comes down to it.
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Stephanie Knarr recently moved to Pittsburgh, PA from the Harrisburg, PA area. Her writing appears in Harrisburg’s local magazine, The Burg, and her work will soon appear in Unwinnable and Five:2: One. Her favourite drink is RC Cola, and her favourite band is probably Animal Collective.