Anxiety, absinthe and art: Considering the significance of the Tortured Artist Archetype

“Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?” – John Keats

Plagued by hallucinations, nightmares and intense anxiety, Van Gogh created the achingly beautiful Starry Night. Similarly afflicted by melancholy and an oppressive sense of his own mortality, John Keats composed the exquisite and impassioned Ode to a Nightingale. From the eerie atonality and floating chords of Debussy’s Etudes to the psychological turmoil of Poe’s short stories, the tortured artist archetype has amassed a cult following, generating endless commentary over the centuries. I believe it is wise however to consider the value of this trope; is suffering and pain necessary to create great art?

The archetype of the ‘tortured artist’, a genius who creates great art despite suffering great pain has been part of Western culture for thousands of years, from the passionate idolisation of the “mad, bad and dangerous” Lord Byron to the rabid curiosity surrounding various members of the ‘27 Club’. There has long existed a connection between ‘madness’ and ‘genius’; according to Plato, “Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings.” This association gained strength in the popular imagination, particularly when embraced by the flamboyant Lord Byron and other Romantic artists. In his study of 40 American jazz musicians, Geoffrey Wills found that there was a notable connection between creativity and mental illness, especially concerning substance abuse. The psychologist J. Philippe Rushton also found a strong correlation between creativity, intelligence and psychoticism. Indeed, creativity and psychopathology share many common traits, including accelerated thoughts, a tendency to think “outside the square” and a heightened perception of auditory, visual and somatic stimuli.

How conducive therefore is pain and suffering to the creation of art? We would do well to consider the emotional depth and keen insight of the renowned author Charles Dickens. Dickens’ childhood was relatively idyllic until the age of twelve when significant debt thrust his family into the Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison. Forced into harsh working conditions, Dickens pasted labels on pots of boot blacking twelve hours a day, after which he would trudge home to his lodgings and swallow a meagre evening meal of bread and cheese. The strain and shame occasioned from such circumstances made a lasting impression on Dickens; he later wrote: “…the sense I had of being utterly neglected and hopeless, of the shame I felt in my position…cannot be written.”  A fierce critic of the poverty and social stratification of Victorian society, the squalid conditions and hunger of Dickens’ childhood manifest themselves in his poignant treatment of characters such as Oliver Twist and Little Dorrit.  In my opinion, without his own painful experiences of poverty and hardship, Dickens never could have succeeded in painting so touchingly the sad humanity of the poor.

Similarly, Vincent Van Gogh’s life was marked by tragedy, pain and misunderstanding. After a particularly tumultuous altercation with the artist Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh sliced off his own ear in a fit of self-loathing. Following this incident, Van Gogh suffered greatly from periodic seizures and depressions, and was confined in various psychiatric institutions. During the interstices however he painted with great vigour, imbuing his landscapes with an intensely passionate glow. Yet within a year, Van Gogh had committed suicide, fulfilling the Romantic vision of the anguished, tormented artist. This alienated and impoverished man however possessed a deep sensitivity for love, nature and beauty that manifested itself in the raw, rich strokes and colours of his paintings.

As evident from these examples and countless others, mental illness does not detract in the slightest from art. The coexistence of mental illness and creativity within an artist should be celebrated, as should the use of psychopathology to develop one’s creative potential. The human spirit can rise above all forms of adversity, and in particular, the mentally ill can produce great art that communicates meaningfully with the rest of the world. Arguably, those who refuse to accept the established associations between creativity and psychopathology actually perpetuate the stigma of mental illness. In their rejection of this relationship, they imply that it is somehow “bad” to be diagnosed with a mental illness, leading to the implication that the artist is in somehow responsible for being sick.

On the other hand, the tortured artist archetype is dangerous in that it tends to romanticise mental illnesses, poverty, addiction and depression, implying that the mentally ill should not seek help because their issues produce better art. The pretentious suffering artist routine upheld by many of today’s ‘misunderstood youth’ only serves to depreciate the real emotional turmoil experienced by some artists. Suffering and pain should not be a prerequisite for the production of art, and I believe it is reductive to believe that great artists secretly wallowed in their misery as a means of inspiration. Moreover, not everyone who suffers produces great art. This emphasis on the association between pain and creativity begs the question; what is the point of suffering if it does not produce great art? I have battled with anxiety in the past, and in times of low spirits, I cannot bring myself to create anything. When I am happy and well-adjusted however, my creativity knows no bounds. According to Gertrude Stein, the purpose of the artist was to find “an anti-dote to the emptiness of existence”. Romanticising or reducing a creative being to a mere ‘tortured artist’ belittles the struggle of trying to come to terms with existence, isolation, inner demons and the desire to be understood; in short, what it means to be human.

Ultimately, humans are incredibly complex beings; pain is not, and cannot be celebrated as the sole source of art. Vulnerability, courage, empathy, and cultural significance all inform art. I believe however that art produced from great emotion, whether it is suffering or joy, is likely to be more profound than that produced from a lack of emotion. Artists, writers and musicians have access to a creative and communicative way of life that can sustain them through pain and suffering. Fundamentally, the brilliance of the artistic process lies in its ability to transform the complexities of human emotion into works of great imagination and epic beauty.