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The Plight of the Tortured Artist

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

The myth of the ”tortured artist” is a label that not only appends suffering to the artistic process but becomes it.


The Passion of creation by Leonid Pasternak. img src. wikipedia.org


The “tortured artist” stereotype has been ubiquitous for centuries, initially popularized with the Greek myth of Philoctetes, a story in which an individual shunned by society, was exiled to an island and worked tirelessly to invent the bow and arrow—a desperate attempt to earn his place in society. This story propagates the idea that suffering is an essential part of the creative process, and determines artistic and personal value. This is simply untrue, yet as the idea only gains popularity, however subconscious, this ultimately harms creatives up to a corporate level.


According to the Inspire Wellbeing charity and Ulster University in a study of employees in creative industries, 60% of participants reported being suicidal. A rising trend in creative fields is the pervasion of depression and mental illness in artists’ lives as they struggle with irregular opportunities for projects, long hours, low wages, and separation of recreational and work art. Isolation as a byproduct of the pandemic also pressures artists to create to feel productive, inevitably forcing them to face their struggles as material.



The Myth of the Tortured Artist #3 by MargeMakesComics. img src. artsatmichigan.umich.edu


Pain in art has been romanticized and encouraged by society as a means of producing content. The excerpt "Van Gogh painted “The Starry Night” while battling anxiety and addiction; Sylvia Plath died by suicide by putting her head in a gas oven... Frida Kahlo obsessively painted her pain, physical and emotional." from Yashi Banymadhub's article "The tortured artist is a dangerous myth. It's the way creative workers are treated that causes breakdown," perfectly exemplifies the basis of which many iconic artists are remembered: their suffering.


One critical aspect of the "tortured artist" mentality, as described by Dayton Cotton's article "How The Tortured Artist Myth Will Hold You Back From Happiness," is the trap of creating solely from misery. When used to pain, an individual may find it challenging, perhaps even impossible, to derive creativity from happiness. "Rarely, did I celebrate the happier, more positive moments? It was always diving back into the negativity — it’s like I didn’t know how to live without it." The dichotomy of creating for oneself and creating for others also becomes a crutch, as audiences desire relatability--often latching onto difficult experiences for a sense of comfort or solidarity. This demand for channeled pain forces artists to question the sake of their work, to question whether creating is worth the hefty mental toll.


The Myth of the Tortured Artist by u/Sketch_Study. img src. reddit.com


An artist's suffering should never become them, nor should it become their process. Creating from a place of pain can serve as a coping mechanism, yes, but never should one's work rely on a constant influx of trauma. Eliminating the tortured artist myth is necessary for artists to change perceptions of themselves, and in turn, alter society's expectations for creatives in all lines of work. Icons of the past, present, and future should be defined by their successes, in all aspects; creatives deserve the joy they have given to humanity for ages, now and forever.




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