It’s always been my belief that all great art comes from pain. Van Gogh painted The Starry Night while in emotional torment; Lennon and McCartney forged their creative partnership following the death of their respective mothers; Milton pennedParadise Lost after losing his wife, his daughter, and his eyesight. Such unremitting grief would send even the most grounded among us into a frenzied Xanax binge and associated fetal position, but these celebrated artists chose not to recoil in passive suffering. Instead, they turned their sorrow into something the world would cherish.
The idea of the tortured artist has long been debated in our culture, but to me it always seemed a self-evident truth. Art is a reflection of humanity, and humanity’s greatest virtue is its ability to overcome adversity. Why shouldn’t that same adversity inspire our greatest art? In fact, it’s a topic that fascinates me so much, I wrote a book about it, aptly titled Tortured Artists, which takes an admiring yet irreverent look at the link between creative genius and personal adversity. Did you know that Picasso nearly died in an earthquake at the age of three? Or that Frankenstein was inspired by a volcanic eruption? Or that Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse as an act of revenge?
Although my book approaches the subject matter in a fun way, it centers on a weighty idea: the idea that suffering does not happen in vain. Van Gogh may have suffered from anxiety, absinthe addiction, and debilitating seizures, but his suffering gave him insight, and that insight, in turn, gave the world a new kind of art called Post-Impressionism. Such poetic symmetry is enough to convince even the stodgiest fatalist that the universe is not as cold and random as we perceive it to be, which is why I’ve always found the notion of tortured artists so appealing.
But not everyone shares my zeal. In fact, the more I speak about tortured artists at author events and in interviews, the more I realize what a polarizing topic it actually is. Some folks seem to consider the primary thesis in Tortured Artists — that pain is a requirement for producing great art — a biased assessment of the creative process.
However, I never claimed that art cannot be produced without suffering, only that art produced without suffering is not likely to be very good. Why? Because the central function of an artist is to convey an idea. That idea can be visceral or intellectual; it can be conveyed through a painting, a song, a poem, or a guy dancing around in a moose costume. The method doesn’t matter. Artists, both brilliant and hackneyed, create out of the same basic desire to communicate. But it’s we art lovers who invest our attention, our time, in their creations. Why should we invest in a work of art that was created without conflict, or struggle, or pain? Where is the challenge?
Of course, I always knew there would be people who wouldn’t buy the tortured-artist concept, but what I find most surprising is that the people who are least likely to subscribe to the idea also happen to be artists themselves. Indeed, many creative types are simply fed up with what they see as a baseless falsehood perpetuated by romantic tales of Kurt Cobain blowing his brains out and Sylvia Plath putting her head in the oven. In a 2011 interview, the indie rocker Jeff Tweedy, of Wilco fame, called the concept of the tortured artist a “damaging mythology,” one that impeded his own battles with addiction, anxiety, and depression.
And Tweedy is not alone in his hostility. In speaking publicly about tortured artists, I’ve been accused of suggesting that drug addicts are better off high and the mentally ill should not seek help, if only because such impediments, by my estimation, help them produce better art. But calling John Belushi one of the greatest comic performers of the 1970s is not the same as condoning his excessive drug use. Even if we ignore the fact that few performers were not on drugs in the 1970s, we needn’t see Belushi’s brutal addiction as having caused his talent. Rather, it was a symptom of the same insatiable void that drove his need to perform. You might say that void tortured Belushi; you might also say it’s what made him great.
So why, then, are so many artists still turned off by the tortured-artist concept? For some, I suspect, it simply hits too close to home. Consider the wedge it creates between two fundamental desires: the desire to be happy versus the desire to produce great art. The stereotype of the tortured artist as a long-suffering creative genius suggests that those two states are mutually exclusive — and that’s an unsettling thought for anyone who practices a creative craft. But even those of us who don’t have the wherewithal to choose between happiness and being a great artist can take comfort in knowing that the former is within our grasp. Let’s leave the suffering to the geniuses. It’s what they do.