The Tormented Artist: How Stereotypes Hold Us Back.
We all know the trope of the brooding writer and the tortured soul of the painter — but it might be time to replace them with something better.
Pained and Suffering.
There is an unspoken assumption running beneath our image of the “artist.” The greatest creative minds are almost always the most tormented ones. From Van Gogh to Anne Sexton, Michelangelo to Frida Kahlo — artists of all kinds have been portrayed in popular culture as long-suffering, mentally ill caricatures of humanity with laundry lists of tragedy peppering their childhoods and adult lives.
And while it would take a book to explore the why of our obsession with this image, it begs the question: Why does torment have to be a part of the creative process?
I remember the day I first learned about Frida Kahlo. I was in my high school art class looking through a book about famous female painters. Frida stood out to me in a way the others didn’t. It’s not a surprise — she has that effect on a lot of people.
What struck me the most, however, was the focus this book put on the pain she endured throughout her life. From the physical disabilities she endured as a result of a childhood bike accident to her torrid, often abusive love affair with Diego Rivera, these details were placed on a pedestal — as if they alone had made her the phenomenal artist she was.
I didn’t buy it.
The Reality of Human Life.
When I look at Kahlo’s paintings, what I often see is suffering, yes, but also a deep and abiding appreciation for the human experience. Her paintings are dripping with life, and some of that life is truly exuberant.
She celebrated the self, irrespective of whether that self was in turmoil or not. There was a creative spark in her that existed in spite of her torment, not because of it. This was when I really began to question the “tormented artist” trope.
This perspective took root as I grew and matured as a writer. Still, it often felt at odds with the images of artists I was seeing in movies, books, or other pop culture. In the academic circles of universities, especially literary ones, the tormented artist was a standard by which to compare yourself to others.
If you weren’t introverted almost to the point of being antisocial, and if you weren’t wracked with the ghosts of past relationships or even abuse, there seemed to me to be an unspoken assumption that your work couldn’t possibly be as “deep” as the work of someone who had truly suffered.
As a predominantly extroverted, optimistic, and overall exuberant person, this insidious assumption began to impact my ability to write freely and joyfully.
I had suffered, it’s true, even by the exacting standards of the tormented artist trope. The problem was that this fact never seemed to be at the core of my inspiration. I wrote out of love, joy, hope, free thought, and a million other things. The pain of my past and my struggles with mental illness were one small thread in a creative tapestry that seemed to span the whole of human (and female) experience.
The Secret Sexism of the Stereotype.
“But how,” the tormented artist trope seemed to ask, “could I possibly write great works if I wasn’t writing out of a place of suffering? How could I create the best poetry, the most impactful novels, if I wasn’t brooding over them and inviting my ghosts to occupy every line of them while I wrote?”
Women artists, especially, are tacitly expected to have torment related to men. Their suffering always seems to be centered around the abuse and heartbreak they suffered because of fathers, male lovers, teachers, uncles, etc. If not directly related to a particular man, they seem to always be suffering because of some inability to meet the patriarchal expectations set by men in general — especially in times or places where those beliefs were very strict. They suffered not as women, but because they were women.
This, too, clashed with something deep inside of me. Why should I or any women artists have to live up to this image? Why was it so ingrained in Western culture? Where were the bubbly, happy artists who created amazing work out of their joie de vivre?
In the end, there are probably a hundred reasons why this trope exists and persists in creative culture. I didn’t have any real answers to my questions, and I still don’t. But the reason I asked them in the first place, and the reason I’m exploring them here, wasn’t really to answer them.
An Identity Set Free.
As I grew older and found the creative streak I needed to truly form my best work, I realized that this image was really just that: an image. A powerful, pervasive one, yes, but still it was just an idol to an altar created by people who saw profit in exploiting artists’ stories as long Shakespearian tragedies rather than the vibrant, diverse experiences their lives often were and are.
My poetry began to take on new life, expanding to take on themes such as faith, appreciation for beauty, and pleasure. My novels were informed by these wonderful aspects of the human experience. Suddenly inspiration was all around me, jumping out from every experience I had. A walk on a sunny day could become an hour of unprecedented creativity. A simple cup of tea could inspire gratitude so deep it seemed to have no end.
I never knew when creativity would strike or what form it would take. I fell in love with the randomness, the unpredictability of the artist’s life. By shedding the image of the tormented artist, I had opened a door to opportunities I never could have imagined before.
Originally published at https://www.thefemword.world on November 26, 2019.