Debunking The Myth Of The Tortured Artist


Being miserable will not improve your work. The idealized glamour of a "tortured artist” is a dangerous myth that gives creative people permission to ignore their mental and physical health.  It also results in a culture in which artists accept unhealthy working environments and bad treatment from others.

Instead of being a tortured artist, become a stronger artist.  One who is able to sit with intense feelings, and work through them. One who is able to have healthy, collaborative relationships with others. One who is able to set limits and expect to be paid for their time and work. One who is able to structure a life a career that is sustainable. 

If you hold any of these beliefs about your mental health and well being as an artist, I would consider challenging and exploring why you believe them. 

If I get better I’ll lose my edge and make boring work
Ok, maybe a few people do interesting work when they're depressed, drunk or manic, but generally, people produce good work when they are in sync with themselves in the world.  You don’t hear as much about it, because for the most part, no one is telling camp fire stories about how intensely well-adjusted a writer was when they wrote their best-selling novel. 

The thing is, overall, you want the work itself to be the mind blowing, incandescent thing- not your tragic demise.  I promise you, there are many genuinely interesting, cutting edge artists who have improved their well being and mental health and still make amazing work.  Think David Lynch or Tom Waits. 

If I’m too happy, I won’t feel motivated to work.”
If you imagine spending your time lazing about, gazing benevolently at kittens and babies, to smug and well-adjusted to bother with your work, seems unlikely. First off, putting a little effort into your wellness is unlikely to result in this state of Nirvana. Secondly, from a position of well being you  are more likely to make more considered, thoughtful work and build healthier collaborative relationships that promote your work and career.     

Hero-worship of Brilliant, tragic artists or hard-drinking, hard-living artists.
Matisse lived to be an old man, and as he went blind, overcame this artistically by using brightly colored cut-outs to create what many consider his best work.  Not only are his cutouts incredibly beautiful, they serve as inspiration to artists who are struggling with the physical limitation that impact their work. 

I wish Amy Winehouse got sober and recorded more albums- I’m sure they would have been incredible, and she would have been a symbol of hope to people struggling with addiction and alcoholism.

I wish Kurt Cobain hadn’t killed himself, made more music, saw his daughter grow up and could speak to surviving suicidal ideation. 

This list could go on and on, heartbreaking story after heartbreaking story. But these people are, for the most part, exceptions to the rule, not the rule.  If you use their painful life stories as permission to be miserable, there is probably more going on in that for you to think about.  

Creating art could help you express your demons, understand your emotions, work through your pain. If being an artist, for a variety of reason, has become the source of OR excuse for a life of misery, it’s really important to start working towards changing that, for yourself, for the people who love and care about you and for your work. 

If you’re a tortured artists and sick of it, feel free to reach out!