the myth of the tortured artist

April 26, 2007  in  Art as a profession       Related posts:      

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!)