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  • Writer's pictureAlex Brûlée

The 'Tortured Artist' Myth

A tortured artist, whether a stock character or a real-life stereotype is simple. You’ve probably seen it before more times than you even realize: the brilliant and radical composer, poet, writer, or painter, plagued by their own unrelenting demons. Its the badge of romanticism, the story behind the Starry Night, and a token trope of any good biopic. The danger of the ‘tortured artist’ comes in, however, when we address its underlying assumption: to be great, we must also be in pain.

Conversely, it introduces the idea that since pain is temporary, or at least undulating, therefore our skill is temporary too.

This idea in some form or another isn’t new. In fact, it can be traced all the way back to the classical era. The Greek myth of Philoctetes tells the story of a man who as a result of a wound, is exiled on an island, and during that time he invents the bow and arrow from scraps of material he finds in a cave. His invention becomes an important weapon used by the Greeks in their battles, and Philoctetes survives as the first tortured artist: he is a figure who exists in the margins, much like all artists. His wound, a symbol of his emotional suffering, is the reason he is excluded from society but also seen as the facilitator for his invention, which in turn fulfills his deep longing for social acceptance.

The pain that we see transposed in the 21st century, however, is more than likely not physical like Philoctetes but rather an emotional pain. Depression, anxiety, mood and personality disorders are all tools to the artist just as a paintbrush. And artists, or at least anyone who has a tendency towards the creative, are more likely to be “tortured” too. Dr. Kári Stefánsson, a neurologist and CEO of a biological research company called deCODE Genetics, studied genetic data from more than 80,000 people in Iceland looking for genetic variants that increase the risk of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. They then looked for those variants in 1000 “creative” people and found these people were 17 percent more likely to carry the variants for mental illness than noncreative types and that mental disorders overall were 25% more likely in creative people, despite them being less likely to actually treat their problems.

And this is the caveat that ‘the tortured artist’ trope creates. Creative people are more likely to have mental disorders but are less likely to report them, thinking its what makes them creative. This is the classic problem of correlation v. causation, and as common as this misunderstanding may be, it has real consequences.

Students who are higher performing are less likely to report symptoms of anxiety and depression, thinking it will make them work harder. Creative people who do have a diagnosis for depression are less likely to strictly follow their medication regime, thinking its better to go off of their prescriptions for the sake of their own artistic purposes.

And even worse, it can have real consequences for those who are recovering from depressive episodes and periods of mania. Thinking that you’re less creative or less inventive after an episode can cause regression, for the simple fact of the matter that many people place their self worth in what they can do, rather than who they are as a person.

Art, at its base, is a way to communicate. And sometimes, when we’re sad, that means it needs to be communicated through what we can create. But that also means art can change. Just as you are happy and sad, art can be happy or sad. No emotion is every constant, and no art has one constant emotion that needs to be considered one of the greats.

Art is a part of us.

Below are some examples of art that uses euphoria or joyful expression. Are they still great?

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