Why We Should Let Artists Be Happy (And Stop Glamourising Suffering)

May 7, 2018  |  art / people / psychology  |  11 Comments

“No great genius has ever existed without a touch of madness” – Aristotle.

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When’s the last time you heard someone say “I’m so glad that *insert tortured artist here* got clean and is mentally well adjusted. Their work is just so much better now.”
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We glorify suffering in the arts. To some degree, I think we equate it with depth. People who feel heaps of feelings must be so complex and multi-faceted and interesting. We often talk about how artists’ peak periods were fraught with misery and turmoil, and their biographies usually end with them dying or getting their shit together (which, in either case, completes the story). It’s true that studies have shown that creative people have an increased likelihood of suffering from mental illness in their lifetime. But are we helping the matter when we constantly equate ones own genius with ones own suffering? 
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As an adolescent, I bought into this “tortured-artist” thing hook, line and sinker. I idolised these people, I admired their art and I thought that their psychological illness only served to enhance their creativity. It made me less prone to addressing my own psych issues – hell, it made me, in a way, kind of proud of them. I must be complex, I must be deep, I must be interesting.  
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It took a while to break this illusion. Of course, the last thing an “artist” wants to be is less interesting. However, ones ability to make great art is not synonymous with living a great life. We’re constantly shocked when incredibly wealthy, successful artists, who seem to have achieved every creative and commercial accolade possible, reveal they suffer from depression or take their own lives. It’s almost like we think they’re not entitled to be sad when all the while we’ve been hyping the fact that it’s their sadness that helps makes them great.
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If you’re one who is prone to glamourising the suffering of your idols (or your own suffering), here are a few things to keep in mind;
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  1. 1. You live your life way more than you live your art. They’re not the same thing (even though it does sound wonderfully bohemian). 
  2. 2. Happiness & contentment is not creative suicide. Many artists have flourished with the clarity and balance that comes with getting your shit together. 
  3. 3. The longer you hold onto the idea of suffering as a beacon of complexity and productivity, the harder it will be to separate from it. There is much more that makes you and others prolific, complex and interesting besides unhappiness. 

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One of my favourite Americana singer/songwriters, Jason Isbell explores his journey with getting clean, starting a family and maintaining his career and creativity beyond the “tortured artist” concept. Despite walking away from his wild, reckless, outlaw lifestyle, his recent work is beautiful, nuanced and rich in complexity. Which goes to show art can thrive – beyond suffering, beyond misery, beyond  madness. 
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“I broke a promise to myself – to ride the throttle ’til the wheels came off (&) burn out like a molotov in the night sky. I broke a promise to myself. And made a couple to a brown-eyed girl who rode with me through the mean old world. Never say die.” Molotov, Jason Isbell. 

For crisis and suicide prevention support, contact Lifeline’s 24 hour crisis line on 13 11 14. For more information and help with depression contact your doctor or Beyond Blue.



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