There seems to be a popular trope in music, TV, film, and in art itself that all the best artists are tortured. When we think of artists we automatically think of the artists that experienced great pain and suffering, we think of the writers who drank themselves to death while writing, we think of filmmakers and actors who experience their mental and personal struggles in the spotlight.
All artists must be tortured then, right? All artists must be depressed or bipolar or addicts. All artists must be fucked up in the head in some type of way because that’s what makes a creative: personal struggle and torture.
When we think of the tortured artist, we are in danger of romanticizing mental illness, which totally isn’t okay. So what is the truth when it comes to the tortured artists? Are all creatives really mentally ill? Or does it take being mentally ill to be creative?
So, what’s the science?
There have been many studies and books written on the subject of artists and mental illness. However, when it comes to scientific evidence, there is very little linking mental illness to being a creative. A study done in Sweden said that people in creative professions were not more likely to suffer from psychiatric illnesses than people who aren’t in creative professions.
The only definitive study that linked having mental illness to depression was that on lawyers. It was shown that lawyers are more likely to be depressed than people in other professions. There was proven to be a slight (but only a slight!) correlation between being a writer and having addiction issues, bipolar, or depression. But correlation does not equal causation.
There has been discussion about whether or not the temperament that comes with mental illnesses – such as bipolar can help an artist create. For instance, people argue that if an artist is in a manic state, they are more likely to create and create more, but if an artist is depressed, then they won’t create. While it’s argued this can help with creativity, an artist can make inconsistent and incomplete work while in mania and could make no work while in a depressive state… or worse, hurt themselves.
A note on feeling tortured
I don’t want to discount any artists who do have mental illness or who have created work as an outlet for their tortured feelings! Because there are artists who create in response to suffering and that’s valid.
Khalo created while she was dealing with chronic pain after a car accident when she was 18 and after she experienced the pain of a miscarriage. And Picasso’s blue period is known as such not just because of the blue hues in his work but because he was mourning his friend who’d passed away.
Turning the internal struggle outward is helpful for the mental health of the artist. Louis Bourgeois even said that art is her therapy. She wasn’t creating art for her audience – she said the audience is bullshit – she was creating art for herself.
Romanticising Mental Illness
The trouble comes when we romanticize mental illness. Depression and anxiety aren’t beautiful and creative states, they fucking suck.
There are plenty of tortured artists out there ( keep on doing what you’re doing, tortured artists!), but you don’t have to be tortured to make art. Never neglect your mental health because you think it can make you more creative. Because you can’t create art if you’re dead.