What about Sylvia Plath’s story compelled you to read her book? What about Kurt Cobain hooked you into his raw, expressive music? If you are anything like me, you were probably intrigued by their haunting stories of pain, trauma, and the appeal of the ‘tortured artist’. But did they need to suffer through irreparable trauma to create genre-defining art? The popular idea of the tortured artist cycle goes: pain creates beautiful art, therefore beautiful art can only come from pain. Of course, this is logically false. It’s like saying parsley is used to make pesto sometimes, so pesto can only be made using parsley. If you’re a pasta aficionado (or a broke college student), you know that’s not the case. And if it’s not the case with pesto, why should it be so with art?
For some reason though, we’ve evolved into creatures that are absolutely fascinated with the romanticization of trauma and pain. The story of a bereaved man fighting an uphill battle to overcome his obstacles moves us to tears. But that trope isn’t necessarily representative of the population, especially the population of creators. Studies have found that artists and creators are not by any means more likely to have mental illnesses than the rest of us, debunking the idea that great art is perhaps born out of a kind of glorious pain.
However, it is true that pain is seen as a virtue and a gift when it yields a truly spectacular tangible output. Van Gogh was relentlessly harassed and frequently left in isolation because he was deemed “strange”, the same strangeness which amazes us today. “A genius beyond his time”, we remark as we gawk at his revolutionary paintings. But what if the problem wasn’t that he was beyond his time, rather that the manifestations of his illness were deemed unpalatable by his neighbours? And yet it is the illness that increases the value of the art in our eyes today, as if it is glorified through the recognition of the one wow factor.
As a self-proclaimed art enthusiast dealing with mental health issues, for years I struggled with the expectation of creating meaningful art while in a place of pain. But since, I learnt that I was only able to create and express on the days that I felt better; that I was creating despite my struggles, and not because of them. I spent a lot of energy searching for the tortured artist stash hidden in my head, but damn did I keep coming up empty.
Of course, that in no way means it’s impossible to create art through pain. We are all complex and dynamic individuals and what works for me doesn’t have to work for you, or the third person over. But that said, it is important to emphasize that pain is not a prerequisite for quality art.
In many ways, art acts as an immensely therapeutic means of finding comfort, meaning and healing. It brings people together and lets us share ourselves with each in a way that’s more intimate than a verbal conversation could ever be. But that makes it a by-product of the experience, not the building block.
Do I believe in the idea of the tortured artist trope? No. But I think tortured artists exist, absolutely. John Cage said this more eloquently than I ever could have when he said “find a place to trust, then trust it for a while.”
So here I am, existing in my space of art and expression. Have you found yours yet?