On this forum we have discussed many cases of depression where the celebrities in question still continue to fight their battle against mental illness. This is great because it is so important to know that it is possible to live a fulfilling life while still suffering with depression. But, because this forum is about cases, I feel that it is prudent to bring up the story of someone who lost his battle. Vincent Van Gogh was a famous painter who died by suicide in 1890. He is best known for his painting "The Starry Night." Though at different times in his life, the painter's neighbors petitioned to have him sent to a mental hospital, Van Gogh was never properly treated. His mental illness was ultimately his downfall. It is a crucial reminder that gone untreated depression can lead to death. Van Gogh's story is also important in that it brings up a trope. This is "the tortured artist" trope. With this trope comes the toxic idea that an artist can only produce powerful work or be in touch with his or her creative genius if he or she is suffering. Have any of you personally seen the detrimental effects of the "tortured artist" trope?
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I think the "tortured artist" trope is much more ingrained into our society that we may like to believe. In the music industry, for example, the need to make music passionate and emotional often blurs the line between healthy struggles and the type of pain and sadness that requires professional help. Over the years, I've heard so many people say "wow, you can feel the pain in that song" or "wow, I really hope [artist] is okay" or "[artist]'s songs are always so depressing." As much as it is important for music to showcase emotion and be relatable, the number of musical artists that pour unhealthy amounts of sadness and pain into their work is scary. As many other posts in this forum have showed, musical artists are very often already at risk of developing depression because of the incredible stress and expectations dumped on them, but I think we also need to consider the additional weight of the buried but still present notion that certain types of music are only "good" if they're tortured.
On the topic of the "tortured artist" trope and the journey to perfection, you guys should check out Whiplash and Black Swan. Here's a video essay I found interesting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ba-CB6wVuvQ
There's a fine line in the performing arts between pushing the boundaries of conventional art and pushing the limits of the body and mind. Whiplash portrays this extremely well, but in a way that justifies how someone would push themselves deeper and deeper into anxiety and depression for their art. There's the general stereotype or idea that artists draw inspiration from this deep well of emotion and channel that into their artwork, which thus justifies how people "beautify" depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses that would affect an artist's emotion or style in expression. Using art as a way to treat mental illness isn't the issue and can in fact be extremely efficient - there are even a few occupations that go further into that: art therapy, music therapy, dance therapy, and more - but the fact that some artists depend on their mental illness for creativity and inspiration is wildly unsettling. The problem I see here isn't that depressed artists are channeling their depression, it's that they've relied on depression for their art to such a point where they don't want to get better, and recovery only takes that creative drive away from them. We need to realize that there's beauty in recovery, too.
I think taking one's suffering and transforming it (via means of creative expression) into a masterful work of artistry can be both brilliant and inspiring. Obviously depression should be treated, not encouraged. But is the so-called problem of the "tortured artist" trope really that clear-cut? When considering the issue, I'd argue we run into more of a chicken/egg scenario. Are all artists really being encouraged to develop painful complexes, or are those with more "tortured" minds simply more easily drawn to a field that allows them to address, or even take control over, their pain?
The latter seems more likely to me; perhaps both are true. In any event, using one's painful experiences as inspiration does not necessarily prolong suffering. It may even be cathartic.
Vincent Van Gogh's story, although not entirely similar, reminds me of Beethoven's. Beethoven was abused by his father, who was an alcoholic, as a child. He grew up with many medical complications, including chronic diarrhea, abdominal pain, chronic respiratory illness, and alcohol abuse in addition to his well-known depression and near deafness. His bipolar or manic depression was most likely caused by his going deaf — one of the greatest composers and musicians of his day and of all time, Beethoven was torn down by his gradual loss of ability to hear what he was composing and conducting. He lived in utter silence, and music could only be played in his head. He was sometimes happy for no reason — he lived in pure joy for a few days, pushed to live further and further by his incredible love for music. Other times, however, he was crazy — angry, violent, and wild. His only way out from depression was alcohol, so he drank and drank and drank.
Despite Beethoven's severe mood swings, he is still respected and highly regarded by many for his incredible musical genius. His perseverance through his deafness inspires many to continue to pursue their passions despite hardship. Although his story did not end on a happy note, as he died from sickness as he continued his unhealthy, abusive, alcoholic lifestyle, his wild temperament and mood frequently inspired his innovative compositions which defied all preexisting rules — his unelegant, contrasting music was completely new to the world at that time.
There is no excuse for the “tortured artist” trope. The idea of having to suffer to make beautiful art is not only damaging to artists who do not suffer from mental illness but also artists with mental illness. Art is already a field that faces great amounts of financial instability and stigma from society, so the addition of this romanticized outlook gives artists little incentive to seek help if they are believe that their job, their passion, will be threatened. But society ignoring these terrible workplace conditions and normalizing artists having mental illness, even celebrating it in a way, is unacceptable. It is a cruel and easy way to let harmful mental illness go unnoticed and untreated. What makes the narrative of a tortured creative genius so poetic, so alluring?
As an artist myself, I am very upset by this. I sometimes feel pressured to draw pain instead of happiness because just drawing genuine happiness is apparently "not good enough." I personally will not pursue art as living, but I cannot help but feel sad for the many others that do. Mental illness and art should not be considered mutually inclusive.