Who is the tortured artist?
They might smoke or drink, sometimes in excess. They might have unhealthy relationships. They might have demons to exorcise. They may have some kind of mental illness, or a tragic family history.
But, most importantly, they make art. Not art. Art. It’s different. And better because of their suffering. It’s a way for the artist to express themselves and work through or talk about their issues.
Except I’m not actually convinced that there’s “art,” and then there’s “art.” Lately, I’ve been thinking about how the words “tortured” and “artist” seem to go together a little too well. It’s almost like mental illnesses, suffering, and even untimely deaths for creative types are … romanticized by society (/sarcasm/).
I wrote a lot of songs in college. I remember talking about writing with another student a few years ago. This other student was an education major, but he also enjoyed writing on occasion (and was pretty darn good at it, too). He asked me how I made time for writing on top of all the other demands college makes on students’ time. My answer? It’s just a matter of prioritizing.
After he walked away, another writing student who was standing near us when we were talking made a comment that stuck with me.
Paraphrase: When he asked about how people find time and inspiration to write, I was just thinking ‘a life of suffering.’
Art and suffering
Some artists themselves are terrible about promoting this stereotype. Marilyn Manson thinks that “it’s the pain and suffering that drive you to become an artist.” Kanye West said that “great art comes from pain.”
And yeah, there are times when I’ve made things to express negative feelings or to work through something. But there’s also been a lot of great things in my life that are equally worthy of talking about through art.
When we subscribe to the idea that we can only create good art when we are in pain, we set ourselves up to choose between our own well-being and our creativity. What happens as a result?
Suffering is worn like a badge of honor. Self-destruction becomes a competition and an art form all at once. We forgo sleep, healthy food, other interests, a good social life, and happiness.
Now, happiness is not entirely a choice. You cannot always choose to be happy, especially if you are struggling mentally or physically. Plenty of things can keep happiness from you, at least temporarily, whether it’s mental illness, unhealthy relationships, or other problems.
You can, however, always choose to be unhappy. Especially if you’re convinced that you can’t make good art and be happy at the same time.
Highs and lows
I choose both. Some of the best songs I’ve ever written have been at the lowest points in my life. I have spent evenings scrawling ideas and lines into a notebook and fumbling through chord progressions and melodies on my guitar while anxious and down about a million things.
Some of the best songs I’ve ever written have been at the highest points in my life. I have spent mornings sitting in my room with my guitar and jotting down lines while humming melodies, excited to be awake and happy to be writing.
But I’ve also written some pretty good songs at very neutral times in my life. Which is good, because as much as life is full of ups and downs, there’s also a lot in the middle. I’ve spent moments between classes or before work writing and rewriting lines, humming out loud (when I forget that I’m in public) to work out melodies, and chilling out on the floor with my guitar while I figure out the right chord progression.
And yeah, demons are a part of it. But I’m not sure how many I’ve exorcised through songs. Maybe for me, songwriting is more about screaming back at demons to drown them out for a little bit. Creativity is not a cure for problems; it’s just a band-aid.
‘Heavy’ does not equal ‘art’
I also think it’s silly to judge someone as a creative person based on how ‘heavy’ their work is, or how much they seem to have suffered in their personal life. Some people prefer to write heavy content. Others prefer lighter topics. You can write songs about lost love and tragedies, or you can write about Boris the Spider. Or both.
More importantly, people have different ways of dealing with things. For one, writing about a heavy topic might pull them towards a darker, unhealthy mindset. For another, it might help them work through things. It’s no one else’s place to tell either person that they’re being creative in the wrong way.
It’s also no one else’s place to say that someone shouldn’t be an artist because they don’t suffer enough. Or, at least, don’t suffer publicly enough. Artists, like anyone, need to take care of themselves. You do not have to suffer to create good art.
The tortured artist stereotype exists for a reason. Many people are drawn to different forms of creativity because of the demons they face. Sometimes, spending a lot of time writing about or around those demons can be exhausting and can even pull you down further.
But if you find yourself moving from a tortured artist to more of just … well, an artist, there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, that’s a great thing. Take care of yourself, take time for yourself, and enjoy the art you create. It’s important, but secondary to your health and happiness.
Cross-posted on Medium.