Stop Falling For the Tortured Artist Myth

Artists, great or not, get to be happy too.

Photo by Ari He on Unsplash

My face was a sweaty mess before the sun even rose. I was in a dance studio, critically looking in the mirror and practicing my pirouettes.

‘Again!’ I yelled at myself every time I twirled. It still wasn’t right- my arms weren’t in the right shape, or my toes weren’t fully pointed, or I couldn’t turn quite enough times in a row. Rehearsals weren’t going to start for another two hours, but I want to make the most of my practice time.

Lunch break arrived, and in spite of my stomach’s protesting, I opted out of food to stretch out my splits.

I got home late. Nighttime darkness had settled in. I was planning to go grocery shopping, but the store was already closed. Oh well, my thighs needed to slim down anyway. Instead of sleeping right away, I turned the TV to a documentary and started my ab workout.

I did not need sleep. I needed to be great.

All my inspirations- iconic musicians, great artists, and prima ballerinas, were miserable. Every time I read about them or watched a documentary, it was obvious.

They were great. They criticized themselves constantly. They worked hard. They sacrificed. They were unbelievably talented.

They were rarely happy, and never satisfied.

From my icons, I drew a conclusion. If I wanted to be great, I had to be miserable too.

It’s funny how you don’t notice you believe something until after you stop believing it.

Photo by Liel Anapolsky on Unsplash

I stumbled down some cobbled European city streets one Saturday night. Some other ballet dancers and artists had joined me to go out clubbing. But I couldn’t enjoy myself, a question was bugging me.

The question was relentless, even in my drunken-clubbing-high. I’d been thinking about it for weeks.

I used be sure of the answer, but now I didn’t know. I couldn’t stop wondering. So I asked my friends, stumbling down the street with me.

“Is it more important to be happy, or successful?”

(If you haven’t noticed, I can be a headache of a friend- I’m not a good conversationalist, always asking weird questions.)

There were two slightly different replies.

Two said that success was more important.

About three others agreed that success and happiness were the same thing. You couldn’t have one without the other. Why was I even asking them this?

My friends, coaches, and peers seemed to believe the same thing. Good artists suffer, and great artists are tormented. How could we possibly be wrong?

I didn’t know what the ‘Tortured Artist’ trope was. My environment was feeding me ideas, and I was believing them.

This isn’t a random trope. I’m not the first person or aspiring creative who had noticed it.

From my real world observation to actual data, there’s a weird link between creativity and mental health.

Researchers have long been trying to figure out if there’s any scientific evidence to support the legitimacy of the “tortured artist” or the “mad genius.” In 2017, Albany State University’s Christa L. Taylor released a systematic review of the research regarding mood disorders and creativity.

Taylor found that creative people did seem more likely to have a mood disorder than control subjects, and bipolar disorder was the condition most prominently found in the creative subjects. However, Taylor did not find evidence to show that subjects with mood disorders showed higher rates of creativity than neurotypical subjects. In the study’s conclusion, she writes that “Asking if creativity is related to mood disorder is too general to yield constructive answers and may lead to faulty or overgeneralized conclusions.”

-Debunking the Validity of the “Tortured Artist” Trope

It’s important to note that the ‘Tortured Artist’ relies on generalizations. Identifying statistical truths is challenging due to the nature of mental health and creativity. These are both broad and personal topics.

But, Taylor’s findings show that people pursuing creative careers are more likely to have a mood disorder. This is a link.

However, there is no evidence that mental illness improves their creativity. Compared to neurotypicals, artists with mood disorders don’t have increased creativity.

Maybe artists don’t have to be a victim, after all.

My friend Dylan is an actor. He told me that there is a similar belief in stand-up comedy. It can be attributed to the Sad Clown Paradox.

Dylan explained that in comedy, there’s a strong belief that you can’t be talented and funny without being sad. To be honest, it’s easy to understand why.

‘Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says “Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.” Man bursts into tears. Says “But, doctor… I am Pagliacci.’’ (from Watchmen)

The Sad Clown paradox explains a dichotomy that some comedians face. Certain kinds of humor can be attributed to a difficult childhood. Comedy is a way to cope with such situations and is usually the most effective. If you can laugh at your own traumatizing experiences, or at day-to-day euphemisms for them, then you aren’t a victim to them anymore. Humor is also used to cope with mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety.

“Trauma can lead to overcompensation through humor, intellectualization, or over-achievement in a number of ways,” says psychologist Dr. Nancy Irwin “Humor is actually one of the highest forms of defense mechanisms to cope with pain.”

But, that doesn’t mean you have to continue to be miserable to stay funny, or that being traumatized is going to automatically make you a more successful comedian. Not everyone who is sad is funny, and not every funny person is sad.

Periods of depression don’t improve your art- even great and tormented artists like Sylvia Plath and Van Goh couldn’t create during their low periods. They were too busy managing their own internal struggles. Only when their mental illnesses loosened their grip were they able to create great works.

Being creative takes a lot of energy. It’s not realistic to do so during depressive periods.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash

The way artists perceive the world happens to leave them more vulnerable to mental illness.

Creativity and mood disorders come from similar minds, but don’t cause one other.

Creativity doesn’t equate to a mood disorder. Being creative doesn’t make you more depressed. And being depressed won’t improve your art.

Creative people see the world in a different way. This is beautiful, and part of why they crave creativity. Yet, this way of seeing the world increases their vulnerability to mental challenges.

But artists don’t have to be a victim to this vulnerability. It isn’t fate.

Now you can be empowered. Staying educated on your shortcomings will help you avoid them.

I used to assume that my suffering was going to make me a more successful artist. That it would help kickstart my dance career. I’ve made enough mistakes to know that isn’t true. I’m not going to keep falling for that myth.

Here are two reminders that need to be more commonly recognized:

1. Artists can be happy.

2. Artists deserve to be fairly paid.

The tortured artist trope perpetuates the idea that the arts are supposed to be a thankless job. That you’re supposed to be tormented, and that artists can’t make a good living.

‘Put your head down, stop complaining, you’re supposed to be okay with suffering!’

But I reject this notion. Artists are allowed to be happy. Artists should be fairly compensated for their effort.

And you, whoever you are, maybe even another writer, deserve this too. You deserve to be happy. You deserve to be fairly paid.

How do I know this? Because nearly everyone deserves to be happy and fairly paid.

Life might not be fair- it rarely is. It might not offer these things to you easily. But I am here to remind you that you do deserve these things, and if you don’t have them yet, you deserve to fight until you do.

You deserve to fight, tooth and nail, to be happy and fairly paid. Don’t let anything make you think otherwise.

Thanks for reading. I’m a freelance writer who likes breaking boundaries. Fulfillment comes first. Connect with me on Twitter.

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Alessia Autumn

Alessia Autumn

Hey, we’re both tiny specks in a universe full of stars that happened to exist at the same time. Cool!