Saturday, July 24, 2010

Torturing the Artist

I have a confession to make. I’m not scribbling away manically on yellowing pages, cramped in a dim-lighted room, starved of food and human interaction or weaving tragic verses about the harrowing ruins of life and humanity. Also, I have showered. It would seem then that there is very little room for me beneath the frothy definition of an ‘artist’. Award-winning painter LeslieAnn Butler observed, “It seems that one has to be sick, depressed, weird or tortured to be thought of as an outstanding artist”, and looking at the continuing prevalence of this gloomy cultural myth, she might be right.

The devastatingly romantic idea of the ‘tortured artist’ will either make you swoon or cringe. It is wildly seductive and fantastically inspiring and at the same time, nauseatingly cliché and downright pretentious. The construct of the troubled genius lamenting the supposed ignorance and superficiality of the rest of the world can understandably become a little irritating, and the self-destructive tendencies associated with all of it – alcoholism, drug addiction and self-mutilation (not to mention a blatant disregard for personal hygiene) – is certainly unsettling. Still, many hold onto the grim understanding that writers, painters and musicians must be hopelessly tormented by grief, frustration and turmoil to create great pieces of work. So what is it about a person blowing out their brains or slicing off an ear in the spirit of artistic suffering that immediately grants them the divine title of tortured artist?

The exhausting list of brilliant though miserable artists undoubtedly contributes to the twisted glorification of the ‘tortured-artist syndrome’. Franz Kafka, Oscar Wilde, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolfe, Frida Kahlo, Beethoven, Hemingway, Van Gogh, and Poe were all known to have endured all sorts of tragic circumstances, and – as the story goes – were thereby compelled to throw themselves completely into music, painting or prose to create all of the wonderfully tragic masterpieces we adore today.

Even now, the romantic idea that creative people must suffer for their art is a frequent theme in popular culture. The media love to focus on high-profile individuals who fit the tortured artist stereotype, hailing the likes of Kurt Cobain, John Lennon and Michael Jackson as tormented musical geniuses. Even actors like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Heath Ledger are painted with the same deliberation, glamorising the early deaths of troubled performers as some sort of tragically poetic discourse and of course, promptly immortalising them to the status of iconography. Such attitudes become highly problematic for some very obvious reasons. While we make fierce attempts to combat drug and alcohol abuse, it is simultaneously glorified everywhere else we turn. Depression, suicide and mental illness, all rapidly growing problems in Australia and the Western world, are romanticised as a poignant necessity for aspiring artists. Recklessness, instability, self-loathing and even poverty are the jewels that crown a true artist, and there is simply no room for happiness. But is pain an absolute necessity for good art, and do artists really suffer any more than the rest of humanity? Can one work on deadlines and self-discipline in the comfort of their living rooms, or must they work only on whims and inspiration, soaked in a pool of alcohol and urine?

Distancing ourselves from Romantic idealism, the strictly clinical answer would be ‘no’. It has been concluded time after time that there is really no evidence that the most accomplished artists are mentally unstable or derive from unstable backgrounds. Also, to be extra drab and clinical and begin summoning statistics, it is estimated that 80% of people between the ages of 17 and 22 will undergo a significant mental health episode, creatives and non-creatives alike. Modern researchers on the topic collectively argue that there is just as much art derived from joy and happiness as there is from despair and torture, but that the expression of misery and madness is easier to identity and to understand. There seems to be a greater demand amongst art dealers and aficionados for works of rage and anguish, and people tend to be more drawn to and fascinated by all things macabre.

The distorted idea that all great artists work through pain is constructed by a chronic fixation on the personal lives of the ones who had openly suffered, because these individuals were far more interesting. The image of the mad genius and tortured artist therefore becomes very convenient for an aspiring creative, and definitely seems to lend them the necessary street cred required to be taken seriously in the art world. The catastrophic behaviour and habits that supposedly come with the image are furiously exciting and certainly sells, but how far should reality imitate art?

There are many perks to pursuing the tortured lifestyle in the name of art, but surely the detrimental side effects are hardly worth it. As long as the sombre myth continues, capturing the hearts of young and sensitive hopefuls, the havoc of self-destruction will remain a noble celebration of artistic heroism.

*Published in Trespass Magazine, 24 July 2010


  1. I get pretty tired of pretentious turds I know putting on this role to hide insecurities. The fascinating artists I know are the pleasant, socially proficient people who deliver dark, messed up stuff -- "Now where did THAT come from?!

  2. Bi-polar people are supposedly more creative, which might explain why a lot of artists are moody buggers. But Picasso seemed have a happy life with all his mistresses and hanky panky.

  3. I do agree to the claim that "..there's just as much art derived from joy and happiness as there is from despair and torture". However, in reality, pain, misery, madness - seem,unfortunately, to appeal more to people and..sell better.

  4. Interesting that you mentioned John Lennon, Kurt Cobain and Michael Jackson. I just finished this book, Cornflakes with John Lennon, written by a music journalist who spent a lot of time with these guys- and many others. Anyhow, it gives a pretty interesting peek into the lives of these artists. I highly recommend it.