the myth of the tortured artist

by     /    April 26, 2007   

Our culture holds onto a myth that artists need to be filled with grief, stress and turmoil in order to create great work. That work that made about depressing topics is “better” or more serious that work made by happy, well-adjusted artists. But I don’t buy it. There’s nothing inherently better about art made by “tortured artists” — it’s just that it is so easy to understand. People consider it Art-with-a-capital-A because they know how they are supposed to react to it (sad, shocked, whatever). The emotions are obvious and the themes are worn openly on their sleeves.

This style of art is quite fashionable though, and I think is often adopted by artists as a quick way to build street cred. A lot of the fine art photography you see in galleries and winning competitions is of the “depressed people in depressing rooms” genre. It bores me silly. I usually find that art made in this vein is rather bland and dimensionless. It all tends to look the same, feel the same. The artists are so focused on portraying turmoil (either their own or their subject’s), that I think it smothers their voice and blinds their vision. Nothing creative gets done in that emotional space — the stress is only worried over like a piece of spinach caught in your teeth.

Happy artists may seem boring, but only when they focus on the ‘happiness’ itself. Happiness is often an absence of strife, so it can feel a little empty on its own. It’s like talking about how good it feels to breath air. Nice, but not too compelling. But I don’t want to hear about people’s happiness per se — instead, I what see what people are capable of when they are happy. When artists are free of feeling like they have to play the part of the tortured artist, I think they are more open to creative possibilities. Instead of painting the world in the same shades of black and grey, they are able to discover a full range of emotions, subjects and themes. (Thanks Paula for bringing up this interesting subject!)

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Comments on 'the myth of the tortured artist'

paula  (April 26th, 2007):

good post dan, as always a well written one at that.

I couldn’t agree with you more about the tortured artist crap. I personally can’t even make art when I”m feeling tortured, and who wants to see pain and despair all the time. Yours last few lines in the last paragraph says it all. 🙂

Mark  (April 28th, 2007):

It is good to see someone writing about this. I think it puts a weight on some artists and self-doubt into their work – questioning if they have ‘suffered’ enough.

Daniel Sroka  (April 28th, 2007):

I believe the whole idea of the “tortured artist”, along with “starving artist”, is a marketing construct, designed to establish a brand identity and move product.

Mark  (April 28th, 2007):

I don’t know if I necessarily believe that because I know a lot of artists who do draw upon hardship within their lives and channel it out through their art as a way to cope. This is all in absence of some grand marketing ploy, or even representation. Their work may not even be for sale.

Daniel Sroka  (April 28th, 2007):

OK, you got me. I was exaggerating a bit for the sake of argument. 🙂 There are definitely artists who honestly draw on their own hardship as a source for their art. But I believe that our culture has created the idea that “tortured artists” are somehow better than other artists, and that many artists are convinced that they have to do this as well to be considered serious. Similarly, many artists struggle to make a living. Yet many people flip this, and believe that the only “true” artists are the ones who struggle. The struggle *can* be a part of art, but it is not a requirement.

Liz  (August 2nd, 2007):

I saw this site and just had to comment – it seems all art is about these days is poor tortured artists and blah blah and how their ‘tortured soul is supposed to shine through their canvas’ etc etc. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of fantastic pieces done by the artists who are tortured, depressed, drugged out etc but as Daniel says, it seems as tho to be a good artist you have to have some misery in ur life !!! I’m so over it!!!!!! Thanks for raising the subject

Biliana  (September 19th, 2007):

🙂

Your post made me smile:) I agree that the idea of suffering as a main inspiration is I guess a cliche . Its just that many people start drawing, writing, whatever when they dont feel so happy, when something is missing, when they are sad, heartbroken, haha..depressed…Unfortunatelly I cannot consider myself an artist but anyway if I have to give an example I can say that when I am happy I dont feel like doing anything else but living, when I am depressed – i tend to write or draw crazy pictures:) of course, it is different if one is an artist by profession or by vocation:)

I like your blog very much, thank God you dont seem to be a tortured artist at all :)))

Call Me Ishmael  (October 15th, 2007):

I think that the “well-adjusted artist” is a myth. While carefree people who have skated through life tend to make fabulous parents… they make lousy artists. True artists are deviants; they are by their very nature out of step with society. Their lives are not about mass-acceptance and smooth socialization.

Art produced as a result of pain is not necessarily joyless or depressing, however. This is another myth. Many of history’s most breathtakingly beautiful works have come from artists in the depth of addiction, failure, despair and madness.

Brian  (February 3rd, 2009):

I think that the most beautiful art comes after the moments of despair. It is at that time that that the artist has achieved better self-actualization and is in a better place. He or she can then appreciate the beauty and joy of life more because of the previous depression or inner-turmoil. Also, the artist is better able to understand the many facets of the human psyche and condition because he has experienced such a broad range of emotions. John Frusciante of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame is a good example of that. He is spiritually at peace despite years of depression and drug abuse and is making, in my opinion, the best music of his career.

Andre Taylor  (April 6th, 2009):

Not every tortured artist sees things in black and gray. Some of the things the people are saying on here are very cruel. You are supposed to be artists? I think you all are focusing on the wrong thing. Isnt art supposed to be your focus? Every piece of art I have created has come from pain….and DURING pain. Have a little compassion for your fellow artists that see things differently. I would never say anything about a so called “Happy Artist”. What would that make me look like talking about another artist in that way? In no way is a tortured artist better than other artists. A tortured artist is just all raw emotion. So dont be mad if you cant scream at the canvas. Thank you. :o)

Duck  (May 1st, 2009):

Now I’ll propose a completely new way of looking at the matter. The artist should not call himself an artist; all ideas of “artist”, happy or tortured, are mental projections. Still, it is very difficult to detach ourselves from such projection, we need it if only to have an objective in our lives. But it is possible to be artists without calling yourself such: actually, it happens a lot.

As for tortured or happy: the artist and the human being in general should be none and both. He or she shouldn’t focus on being either tortured nor happy, but accept that both sides are inside of him. Self-destruction doesn’t allow you to create good art (it does allow you to become a myth, sometimes). You kill yourself and you don’t create anymore. That is not art by itself. That is creating a product of yourself. Some are called artist this way not because of their work, but because of their life. It’s a sort of narcissistic act. Yes, artists are sensitive people prone to self-destruction. That’s why many self-destroyed. But definitely not all. Many found their way through the burdens of life. Life is hard, it’s supposed to be. Recognizing it and accepting it is the beginning of a path of healing for any self-destructive person who is far from the opposite myth of the “happy artist”. Conclusion: tortured and happy, are both illusions. One must stay neutral.

I like what Brian says: after having experienced a wide range of experiences and emotions, the artist can both appreciate and communicate more of life. That is when many men, if they USE their pain, they can transform it into great accomplishment – works of art, or anything else.

In the end, the self-destructive artist only wants to create and affirm life. He just buys into the demons that tell him to exceed on the dark side – wich is scary, dark and difficult if one is being drawn into it. It can blind you. But being too optimistic, is an illusion as well. One must find a third path of moderation, as Goethe said: a genius must only practise moderation to be happy. He as a great artist. The true myth here is that an artist can’t be moderated, that he is excessive and can’t change this. No. An artist is a human being with his demons that he must learn to tame through overcoming his challenges. This is the heroic journey of any artist and great accomplisher.

William  (July 18th, 2009):

Hi. I would call myself an artist. Although at times I’m not tortured, I feel as though I am. I convey that sometimes through music but not always… Listen, Mozart, being one of the greatest composers of his time, wrote the happiest songs. When I hear his works I think of bright colours and flowers in bloom.. He wasn’t tortured, infact he was quite happy, as his art shows, and the people adored him for that. Bob Marley wasn’t always tortured his music is in close association with “good happy vibes” and people adore his music… even his sad music. I don’t try to be happy or sad I just try to find the beauty in the depth of life and show that to the people around me who fail to see, but it tortures me when they fail to hear that beauty and I feel that’s what a tortured artist really is. A person who tries to show other people beauty through art and are tortured and starving because the people will not look beyond the surface…..I hope you understand

William  (July 18th, 2009):

By the way I was observing some of your art work. Beautiful