He is the painter who chopped off his ear. She is the soul singer who got booed off the stage for her incoherent babbling. He is the deaf composer who cried because he could not hear the audience’s applause at the end of his piece.
He is the tortured artist: the cliché that if you aren’t a chain-smoking cynic, then what really inspires you? Psychologists often talk about the concept of the “mad genius”—the belief that we must have some sort of neurosis in order to be the great creators of our time. Because of this stereotype, our society has become obsessed with the idea that pain equals art, yet pain is only part of the human experience, and the artist brings into play an entire spectrum of emotions in his art.
As artist Piet Modrian, part of the abstract minimalist De Stijl movement, said, “The position of the artist is humble. He is essentially a channel.” Pain is just one of many experiences that artists channel.
However, it makes sense why the misconception came to be. It’s easy to retrieve a list of afflicted creative individuals from our collective unconscious, such as Tennessee Williams, Jean-Michel Basquiat, or Virginia Woolf. Pair that evidence with the sky-rocket of psychiatric medication prescriptions and the brigade that say we’re medicating the art out of people, and the tortured artist has become a widely accepted trope. But it isn’t necessarily true that one must choose between happiness and creativity. In fact, sometimes they may work together
But as the leader of the alt-rock band Wilco, Jeff Tweedy, says, “I think it’s a very damaging mythology that has grown up around the idea of art being a product of pain as opposed to being something that is created in spite of pain.” He goes on to say that his creativity is something he has been able to nurture while he deals with his own mental health.
From his clinical standpoint, Dr. James Kaufman has compiled the contradictions made in the psychology field of the link between mental illness and creativity in his 2011 meta-analysis “The Sylvia Plath Effect.” He cites how some researchers claim constructive traits correlate with creativity, such as positive daydreaming, while others, such as Dr. Charlotte Waddell, show a link between mental illness and creative types. “This very inconsistency may be the nature of the creative personality—one inherently filled with contradictions and dichotomies.”
Kaufman’s article, which cites over thirty studies and articles, demonstrates our obsession to link creativity to a singular something, yet what it concludes is that the art is created in a range of mood states, emotions, and experiences.
And artists have themselves been highlighting this idea that artistic expression can come from many experience and emotion. In a New York Times article, Vivien Schweitzer interviews pianist Leif Ove Andsnes about understanding difficult Beethoven concertos. “Beethoven is not only about suffering—it’s about many emotions, true happiness and ecstasy,” says Mr. Andsnes.
For Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, the emotion that she channels into her work now is fear. After her initial success with the novel, many began to wonder if Gilbert’s artistic prime was past her. “What I have to recognize now is that fear and creativity are conjoined twins…Creativity is going into the unknown, and the unknown is scary,” Gilbert says in an interview with NPR. She takes her fear and moves with it.
Yet it’s hard to ignore is that for many others, creativity came in the assistance of substances. Tennessee Williams did amphetamines during his playwriting sessions. Jean-Michel Basquiat did heroin for his painting. And Elliott Smith did everything during his songwriting life. These artists suffered from a state of depressive consciousness, but substances did offer them an altered viewpoint. On the other hand, Dali used to fabricate lucid states of dreaming in order to draw inspiration for his art. The surrealist became infamous for accessing his subconscious by sitting in a chair, holding a spoon above a plate, being awaken by it when fell, and immediately writing down his dreams.
Others choose to explore different experiences in order to pursue inspiration. Writer Henry David Thoreau secluded himself in nature for two years. Japanese artist and writer Yayoi Kusama permanently checked herself into a mental institution by choice in 1977, and has stayed there ever since, according to a 2005 article.
All these different artists’ experiences show that creativity can come from virtually anywhere. In Gilbert’s TED Talk she states, “When you say creative people, that’s redundant. We are creativity.” Although it’s drenched in TED optimism, the essence is that the human condition is what makes us creative. We can take our happy, our sad, our dazzle, anxious, fear and channel it into something special, perhaps even untortured. Creativity has a ubiquitous nature in that at any point, we can be creative. It’s simply if we are up to channeling that creativity into something.