Debunking The Myth Of Tortured Artist

Corey McComb

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Since her death, the painter and revolutionary figure Frida Kahlo has become a symbol for struggle, art, and heartache. She was diagnosed with polio at the age of six and spent nine months in bed, stunting the growth in her right leg. When she was 18, a trolly hit her and broke nearly every bone in her body. This accident would leave her with chronic pain for the rest of her life, but it was during her recovery in the hospital that she learned to paint and completed her first self-portrait.

Frida channeled these early traumas into her art, but another disaster lurked around the corner. His name was Diego Riviera. Frida and Diego were both painters, both with a penchant for drama, and began a romance that would spread conflict and chaos into every inch of their lives. They married in 1929, divorced in 1940, and remarried again the same year. Controversy and infidelity defined their relationship, with Frida having affairs with the Communist figure, Leon Trotsky, and Diego sleeping with Frida’s little sister.

Frida’s work is a testament to how humans can turn pain into creative fuel, yet the chaos of her life and relationship didn’t do her already shaky mental health any favors. She once confessed, “There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolly, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.”

Frida died at 47 from a pulmonary embolism, brought on by chronic stress and depression. Though, rumors of suicide still surround her final days.

It’s no surprise that the words tortured and artist are forever connected. Many of history’s favorite artists are as well-known for their inner turmoil as they are for their work. Jackson Pollock’s paint-drip technique is forever attached to his alcoholism and rage. Sylvia Plath is remembered as the “tormented poet who stuck her head in the oven.” And you can’t say the words tortured artist without Vincent van Gogh coming to mind — a visionary so wracked with paranoia he chopped off his own ear.

The list of artists, writers, and musicians who landed in an early grave is so long and haunting that it’s no wonder people believe suffering is the best fuel for a creative fire. It’s true that a creative practice can help untangle some of the existential dread that comes with existence. However, the notion that turmoil is a prerequisite for being artistic is a pathetic myth.

Our ancient human brains still interpret stress and anxiety as danger. When mental anguish arrives, our stress hormones tell the brain to redirect resources toward basic survival. The limbic system (the part of the brain responsible for creative thinking) slows down and our reptilian default of fight-or-flight takes over. And since our hardwiring hasn’t updated with all the ways of the modern world, these response systems have a hard time distinguishing the difference between a hungry leopard pouncing out of a tree and an angry spouse shouting up the stairs.

Ever notice how your heart beats faster when anxiety arrives? That’s an increase in blood pressure. It’s not there to help you write your screenplay, prepare the presentation, or cook a nice dinner — it’s there to help you outrun the leopard.

Just because creativity is inherently human doesn’t make it a necessity for survival. If the brain is constantly being toggled between fight-or-flight mode, creativity is going to get pushed to the backseat. Self-actualization is at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for a reason. If you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, “staying inspired” isn’t going to register as an evolutionary imperative. If you’re out drinking every night, living the “life of an artist,” when will you have the energy to bring your inspiration to life? Hangovers, emotional roller coasters, physical exhaustion — these are not “tools of the artist.” These are the things that will almost always stand between an artist and their best work.

The filmmaker, David Lynch, says of van Gogh in particular, “People might bring up Vincent van Gogh as an example of a painter who did great work in spite of, or because of his suffering. I like to think that van Gogh would have been even more prolific and even greater if he wasn’t so restricted by the things tormenting him. I don’t think it was pain that made him so great, I think painting brought him whatever happiness he had.”

Slicing off an ear or sticking a head in the oven are dramatic examples. But how often do we stick our head so deep in our work that we forget to breathe? How many hours of tunnel vision does it take before we lose sight of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it? Overwork and burnout torment the mind and restrict great work from being made just as often as these extreme cases of chaos.

We have to ask ourselves: Is our life’s purpose to create things that leave us worn down and weary? Is that what life is asking of us? To become martyrs to our own productivity?

We don’t know how many more beautiful paintings or classic novels the world might have if some of our greatest creatives had been able to outrun their chaos. But I think it’s safe to say that their sons and daughters, husbands and wives, would gladly trade any piece of art for one more day with their favorite artist.

We should celebrate those who can use artistic expression to tame a tortured mind because eventually, hardship and heartache come for us all. The musician, Nick Cave is known for his somber lyrics revolving around death, love, religion, and violence. He’s suffered the loss of a child, battled addiction, and has spent years trying to outrun personal demons. Yet, despite the turmoil that’s accompanied him throughout his career, he’s wary of the belief that suffering is an artistic necessity.

When a fan wrote Cave a letter asking, “Do you need to be hurt or mentally ill to be a great artist?” Cave responded by writing, “Whether being hurt is a necessary requirement to creativity is only true in so much as to live is partly to suffer. You cannot create without suffering, because you cannot live without suffering.”

Just as a forest needs a forest fire to clear dead brush and revive its roots, a human needs to experience pain in order to grow. We cannot live unscathed. And we shouldn’t try. On the contrary, we should lean into it. Face it head-on. Then can we move past it and create. That long and haunting list of our favorite tortured artists? They lost the battle because they ran away from their chaos. They avoided it with alcohol, drugs, canvasses, and color wheels. Instead of using their creativity as a way to overcome chaos, they swallowed the myth that the two were one and the same.

Nick Cave gives a warning to those who insist on traveling to dark places where inspiration may lie, “Go there cautiously, yet fearlessly, and, perhaps most important of all, remember to return.”

Pain is forever connected to growth, but a life of suffering is not the path to great art. Sacrificing personal safety and good mental health are not the price of admission for a creative or productive life. Chaos may stir a creative heart. Adversity may strengthen and inspire. Yet, it’s during prolonged periods of peace that real work is produced.

We can’t always avoid turmoil, but we can do our part to walk toward a sense of peace. We can make an effort to find stillness. Don’t hide from chaos behind an easel or computer screen. Face it. Learn from it. And then use your creative practice to give it a proper burial.

That’s how you turn pain into art.

That’s how you stay human.

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Best-selling author of 'Productivity Is For Robots' | I sprinkle a dose of humanity into overly-optimized brains with stories on life, business, and what it means to be human. Visit coreymccomb.substack.com to see my best work. Follow me on Twitter @coreymccomb

San Diego, CA
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