Fighting the Tortured Artist Myth

June 11, 2010

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tortured artist

The term tortured artist conjures up examples like Vincent Van Gogh cutting off his ear or Emily Dickinson’s fear of leaving the house. But artists need not suffer to be successful or to tap into their creativity.

“It’s completely a myth,” says Tom Wilbeck, Associate Dean of Student Affairs at The Art Institute of Houston. “Clinically speaking, there’s really no evidence that most accomplished artists are mentally unstable or have come from an unstable background.”

The idea that creative people must suffer for their art is a frequent theme in pop culture, with media outlets focusing on high-profile individuals who fit the stereotype of tortured artist.

Society should instead focus on fostering creativity, says Jonathan Plucker, former President of the Society for the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, a division of the American Psychological Association.

“The stereotype is convenient. … [But] I don’t think that artists are any more tortured than the rest of us,” he says. “I believe that the basic construct of creativity is pretty much the same across domains. I don’t think that artistic creativity is all that different from scientific creativity.”

Plucker is also director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University and says that society has created an archetype for tortured artists, loosely based on characteristics that don’t apply to every creative person.

“The argument I try to make is we should be worried less about things like that and more about how to help each and every person become more creative,” he adds.

Maybe it’s the romanticized notion, the mystery that surrounds the myth of the tortured artist that keeps it alive. Or maybe it’s the demand for those things by art consumers and aficionados.

“We love the drama and to know there’s a mystery and some sort of explosive potential and see how it’s depicted in this art,” Wilbeck says. “The thought is that a stable person is very drawn to the work of the unstable person because they like to have a glimpse into the way an unstable mind works. We’re drawn to things we have not experienced.”

Kristin Frank is the Director of Career Services for The Art Institute of Phoenix and says there are some aspects of being an artist that can be extremely difficult for individuals. Art students constantly are having their work critiqued, and the high volume of feedback “can mess with your psyche,” she points out.

Plus, for students in art school who are at a transitional age, there can be some anguish because of the changes happening in their lives. But Wilbeck says that is natural, and not necessarily the same as feeling tortured.

About 80% of people between the ages of 17 and 22 will experience a significant mental health episode, Wilbeck says. That applies not just to art students, but all students. And from that, individuals may find that art helps them move beyond it.

“There’s complete validity that we’re going to see angst in that age range and it’s going to drive people to find new ways of expression,” he explains. “Our population is more apt to express their angst in transition in an artistic manner.”

James C. Kaufman is an associate professor and director of the Learning Research Institute at California State University San Bernardino. After researching the topic of the tortured artist, Kaufman published study results eight years ago that explored what he called The Sylvia Plath effect.

“When looking at eminent populations, I found that female poets were more likely to be mentally ill than other writers and other women,” he says.

But Kaufman points out that the concept of the tortured artist is largely misunderstood by the public. That is partly because of the way research is often conducted.

“Most of the key studies are all focused on very eminent creators,” he says. “If you look at all the studies on the mad genius, most of them are conducted on people who are famous. Most of it is retrospective and looking at biographies.”

For those student artists who do feel different from their peers, attending an art school can feel like a more supportive environment than many high schools.

“Art students are a different type,” Frank says. “They’re here because they’re the students who wanted to be doing life drawing every moment they could in high school. Here, for us, it’s the norm for people to be sketching on their arms. They’re constantly trying to communicate their ideas in diff ways.”

And while it may seem that bad experiences make for better art, that’s not always the case, says Wilbeck.

“My opinion is that as they develop as artists, they learn that honesty is what really translates in art,” he says. “I would say there’s just as much art derived from joy and happiness as there is derived from misery and torture.”

Author: Written by freelance talent for Ai InSite
Contributing writer for EDMC.

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