All Artists are Tormented Souls: True or False?

November 27, 2017


Man sitting on stool in dark room playing guitar

All Artists are ‘Tortured Souls.’” So goes the common folk wisdom of yore, which still persists among many people. Is this a valid stereotype?
An imagined “Artistic Genius Hall of Fame” could include the likes of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Liszt; Plath, Hemingway and Tolstoy; Warhol, Pollack and Van Gogh; Garland, Monroe and Holliday; Morrison, Cobain and Joplin.

All these were obviously creative icons who in addition to innate genius also had in common that they endured severe psychological distress over the course of their lives.

According to the “tortured soul” stereotype, this is no surprise: It posits that all painters, musicians, authors, actors, composers and other creative people by definition suffer from disorders of mood and melancholy, angst and anxiety.

They are said to have “artistic temperaments,” meaning melodramatic lives, mood swings (sadness, ecstasy, anger), unpredictability and volatility, frequent interpersonal conflicts and substance abuse.

They have also been criticized (even vilified) for flouting social norms in their personal dress, language and behavior, and for their “bohemian” lifestyles and values.

Early researchers studied the ‘tortured soul’ idea “retrospectively,” by examining the lives of famous artists who were known to have had emotional challenges. They concluded that these artists owed their talents to deep-seated conflicts within themselves and their families, and their “madness” either caused or enabled their artistic talents.

To better explore this provocative hypothesis, studies looked at large numbers of functioning creative artists. The results were largely inconclusive, but they did refute the notion that artists suffer from more mental disorders than the general population.

While some artists do suffer from emotional disorders, the “tortured artist” hypothesis is no more valid than the notion of the “tortured physician” (or tortured politician, teacher, policeman, business person, journalist, gardener, or any other person).

There are wide variations in the personalities of artists, some with psychological disorders, some with behavioral difficulties, and many more without either. Artists are like people in all walks of life in that they don’t produce their finest works when they’re suffering from severe depression or anxiety, or when they have major interpersonal problems.

By the same token, when they do have psychological disorders or characterological defects, they should not be “given a pass.’” Their talents should never give them license to exploit or hurt others, and they too have to be held accountable for their “crimes and misdemeanors.”

The vast majority of artists, whether famous or less talented, put themselves on the line each day in attempting to express inner perceptions and feelings through their art.

Artists demonstrate a disciplined and tenacious work ethic necessary to create their works. They show dedication and fortitude in the face of demands, criticism and scant financial support.

Artists are usually drawn to their calling early in their lives, spurred by family interests, exciting teachers or mentors and certainly by their own talents.

They are often sensitive to the ambient moods, sounds, people and events in their lives, and they resonate to these at a subconscious or deep emotional level.

When they sense the romance and joy, or conflicts and sadness in life, they are driven to translate these human experiences and perceptions through their works.

We non-artists are the beneficiaries of
their creative talents, who might transport us from the mundane. We are uplifted by the magic of their paintings, sculpture and music, novels and poetry, their plays and other evocative arts. Α


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