Art and Mental Illness: Do Tortured Artists Make the Best Work?

The almost mythic quality of the tortured artist is something we see reiterated over and over in all forms of media. But just how accurate is that image?

Coming to you from The Art Assignment, this fascinating and important video essay examines the idea of the tortured artist and just how accurate that myth is. That very image is romanticized constantly in movies, television, books, and more, but whether creative genius and mental illness go hand in hand is far more complex, and whether the presence of mental illness in an artist helps or impedes creativity is a separate issue altogether. 

Where things get dangerous, though, is when one buys into the idea that mental illness is a requirement or at the least, an enhancer of creativity. As the video mentions and as many successful creatives will tell you, serious mental illness is a detriment to creative work, often to the point of halting it, and romanticizing it can lead younger artists into making dangerous life decisions or not getting the help they may need. It's a serious issue that deserves careful consideration among the creative community, and we should encourage those of us who are suffering to seek proper help, rather than playing up mental illness as a sort of job requirement. 

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2 Comments

JetCity Ninja's picture

regarding the mental illness aspect, genius is just a mental illness without the stigma since it's considered a positive attribute rather than negative. mental illness is anything involving the mind not functioning within the parameters of what's established as "normal." another example would be those with an eidetic memory, both those born with it or obtained it by accident or illness.

i think our perspective is skewed simply because many of the most celebrated artists in history happen to be witnessed as having showed signs of mental illness, but many of those observations could simply be wrong. very few were ever professionally profiled and many existed at a time long before we had a clinical understanding.

bottom line, those who live outside the boundaries of what's considered "normal" will obviously observe the world differently, have a different understanding of those relationships or simply convey those relationships differently. it's like trying to reconcile the observations of a colorblind photographer compared to a fully sighted one. even things like cultural background or upbringing can skew a person's outlook on the world. decades of brutal poverty can cause a person to see the world differently, resulting in photographs that may differ from those taken by someone born into wealth, if two examples were to be given cameras and an assignment.

it's why the photographs generated by someone not white, male and middle to upper income can be so striking and memorable... they simply have a different perspective of the world they're photographing. it's also not just limited to creative arts, as we're slowly learning in the US. politics hasn't been truly representative for generations now and slowly we're starting to see elected officials who reflect the upbringing and values of the districts they represent and the old guard are realizing their own views aren't universal.

in the world of the blind, the one eyed man is king. or so the quote goes, i think.

I often wonder how the mentally ill artists would do if they weren't mentally ill. We overlook the millions of "normal" artists who produce wonderful work. And then we say, look at this person, he/she is mentally ill and creates this marvelous piece of work! But wouldn't it be wonderful if that creative force weren't shackled by unhappiness, stress, and struggle to survive? I grew up with and around artists. Many of them strove to "appear weird" in order to get attention, but were really quite ordinary people. Many of them were self-centered blowhards, but not mentally ill. Sometimes this "nouveau mental illness" is a way to get street creds. Meanwhile, we ignore the real struggle of real people in pain.