Cri­tiquing The Myth of the Tor­tured Artist

The McGill Daily - - Contents - NA­DIA EL- SHERIF & PANAYOT GAIDOV

The theme of suf­fer­ing is com­mon across the arts: from the mor­bid mus­ings of writ­ers like Edgar Al­lan Poe, to the themes of loneliness and strug­gle un­der­ly­ing much of Frida Kahlo and Vin­cent van Gogh’s work, the cre­ative field has been marred by an­guish for cen­turies. Pain and loneliness are uni­ver­sal and in­te­gral to be­ing hu­man, and we, as mass con­sumers, cel­e­brate artists when they turn the ugly side of hu­man­ity into some­thing beau­ti­ful. Yet, rarely do we ask our­selves at what price this is done. The price of an art­work con­sists of much more than a time com­mit­ment; the emo­tional in­vest­ment of­ten con­sumes artists in ways that other types of work do not.

The myth of the tor­tured artist – the mys­te­ri­ous cre­ative ge­nius who suf­fers but cre­ates beau­ti­ful work – is a trou­blingly se­duc­tive story to be­lieve in, in­so­far as it im­plies that pain is ben­e­fi­cial if it is pro­duc­tive. How­ever, it is an ac­tively harm­ful stereo­type to those who cre­ate and con­sume art. The ro­man­ti­ciza­tion of men­tal ill­ness and the way in which an artist’s men­tal health is seen as col­lat­eral dam­age in the warpath to cre­at­ing “good” art is ex­tremely com­mon; strug­gling is of­ten seen as a nec­es­sary step to achiev­ing great­ness in the cre­ative field.

Have we, and do we still, con­done the de­struc­tive be­hav­ior of artists who strug­gle with men­tal ill­ness? Do the rose- tinted lenses through which we view art play a part in doom­ing artists to seek and tol­er­ate pain in or­der to be pro­duc­tive?

Vin­cent van Gogh is, among other things, known for his love for the colour yel­low. He is be­lieved to have con­sumed the toxic paint in what was al­legedly an at­tempt to poi­son him­self, but the cult be­lief still re­mains that he ate the paint be­cause yel­low was a ‘happy colour,’ and he wanted to ‘feel happy, too.’ His de­struc­tive and dan­ger­ous be­hav­iour is mis­con­strued by the pub­lic to fit the myth of artists who ‘suf­fer for their work.’

Other artists, how­ever, have chan­nelled their strug­gles in ways that show­case their artis­tic mas­tery and deft­ness. Frida Kahlo suf­fered from de­pres­sion through­out her adult life. She also strug­gled with var­i­ous se­vere phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties. One of her most pop­u­lar paint­ings, “The Two Fri­das,” shows two de­pic­tions of her­self hold­ing hands; both have vis­i­ble hearts on their ch­ests, one of them bro­ken. She has said, “my paint­ing car­ries with it the mes­sage of pain.”

Sim­i­larly, part of the self­ag­gran­diz­ing mis­sion of the Ro­man­tics was to es­tab­lish the artist as a greater be­ing and to at­tach a sense of hero­ism and divin­ity to all things which were deemed po­etic. Soli­tude and isolation were seen as nec­es­sary fea­tures of mak­ing artists good at their craft; self- de­struc­tive at­ti­tudes were seen as em­pow­er­ing. The open­ing lines to Poe’s story “Eleonora” proudly de­clare mad­ness as be­ing the “lofti­est in­tel­li­gence,” and that “all that is pro­found spring[s] from the dis­ease of thought.” Ro­man­tic artists, such as Poe, them­selves per­pet­u­ated the myth that hav­ing a men­tal ill­ness equals a greater cre­ative out­put. They did so to cope with prob­lems like ad­dic­tion and de­pres­sion as well as to ad­vance the mis­sion of Ro­man­ti­cism of por­tray­ing artists as tran­scen­dent su­per­hu­mans. How­ever, the val­ues at­tached to be­ing “po­etic” are preva­lent in con­tem­po­rary so­ci­ety, too. We ra­tio­nal­ize suf­fer­ing be­cause it fur­thers our no­tion of the tor­tured artist, which puts pres­sure on artists them­selves to self- de­struct in or­der to cre­ate.

In a more mod­ern ex­am­ple, Amy Wine­house also chan­nels her ex­pe­ri­ences into her art. She strug­gled with ad­dic­tion and men­tal health is­sues. In one of her most pop­u­lar songs, “Re­hab,” Wine­house sings about her ex­pe­ri­ences with re­hab and con­flicts she had about the value of re­hab for her well­be­ing. The con­cepts of ad­dic­tion and re­hab that she sings about are com­monly ro­man­ti­cized and dis­as­so­ci­ated from their painful con­texts in re­al­ity. Much like other artists, her per­sonal trauma led to her ma­te­rial suc­cess and while she strug­gled openly, the me­dia still ro­man­ti­cized her ex­pe­ri­ences and pub­lic per­sona. At the time of her death, an al­bum of her most pop­u­lar songs was re­leased – show­ing that even in death, her ex­pe­ri­ences were ex­ploited un­der the guise of ap­pre­ci­at­ing her art. This has been a con­tin­u­ous trend when valu­ing the work of artists with men­tal ill­nesses – the pub­lic has cap­i­tal­ized on their pain and strug­gles dur­ing their lives and af­ter their deaths.

Per­haps this is the rea­son the myth of the tor­tured artist is con­tin­u­ously up­held – be­cause of the great art suf­fer­ing is be­lieved to have pro­duced. Van Gogh, Kahlo, Poe, and Wine­house are all artists whose work has out­lived them. In that sense, as the le­ga­cies of great artists come to have a life of their own, the artists them­selves be­come de­hu­man­ized. While this has no di­rect reper­cus­sions for artists who have al­ready died, it does have an ef­fect on the ones ac­tively striv­ing to leave a legacy. Of­ten­times, we con­sume art in an un­crit­i­cal way, and we de­tach the artist from the art piece. This, in turn, plays into the con­tin­ued dis­re­gard for the men­tal health of artists and the ro­man­ti­ciza­tion of their ill­nesses.

In de­tach­ing the art from the artist and sim­ply ap­pre­ci­at­ing the lat­ter, we are ac­cept­ing – and in the eyes of those strug­gling with men­tal ill­ness, even wel­com­ing – Poe’s al­co­holism and the de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of his men­tal health as nec­es­sary casualties to his work. In do­ing so, we are plac­ing more value on his work than on his life. When we fail to rec­og­nize the cir­cum­stances un­der which the art was cre­ated, we are com­plicit in plac­ing the work of the artist be­fore their well­be­ing. Artists de­serve treat­ment for their men­tal ill­nesses whether or not they are able to ar­tic­u­late their pain through their work. The myth of the tor­tured artist be­comes most dan­ger­ous when it iden­ti­fies a per­son’s pain as a source of cre­ativ­ity, rather than ac­knowl­edg­ing it as harm­ful. Turn­ing an artist’s pain into mar­ketable art is not a con­so­la­tion prize for strug­gling with un­treated men­tal ill­ness.

The ro­man­ti­ciza­tion of men­tal ill­ness is ex­tremely com­mon; strug­gling is of­ten seen as a nec­es­sary step to achiev­ing great­ness in the cre­ative field. When we fail to rec­og­nize the cir­cum­stances un­der which the art was cre­ated, we are com­plicit in plac­ing the work of the artist be­fore their well­be­ing.

Nelly Wat | The Mcgill Daily

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