Last week I was photographed for a new project I’m working on. A few friends stopped by the shoot, and when the photo above flashed across the screen, one of them said something like, “You look gloriously sad. You are a tortured artist and don’t realize it. Use it to your advantage.” It’s a pretty profound observation.
In spite of my seemingly traumatic splendor, I was in a good mood. We’ve debated for months over the concept of the tortured artist, but in my reality, I don’t fall into that category. This photograph captured a split second – a flash somewhere between time and space, and does not represent eternal anguish…
or does it?
The tortured artist is the stereotype that great art is only produced by those who experience great torment. Tortured artists are often frustrated with art and people. They transition from being extroverted to introverted and self-destructive, consequently feeling alienated and misunderstood. They are quixotic, over-thinkers, have inner conflict that weighs heavily on their spirit, and become overwhelmed by their own emotions.
So does really great art come from tremendous pain? I have to admit that it’s a pretty intriguing concept. First off, art is subjective. It depends solely on the viewer and his or her emotions, tastes, and opinions. Some people believe that an artist experiencing distress is the seed that develops great art, and have no interest in an artist or their work otherwise. It isn’t necessarily an antiquated idea – to believe talent is partly based on personal suffering.
Art, regardless of medium, imitates life and some of the greatest artists used their misery in a positive way and turned their afflictions into manifestations that the world would fall in love with, which proves that great art can be created from conflict. It’s exciting, dangerous, glamorous, seductive, and can be deemed as life-changing. Turbulence can absolutely be the paradigm for artistic depth, but to what end? Drug overdoses, self-mutilation, and suicide? I refuse to believe that the creative cease to exist without turmoil. Turmoil should not validate an artist’s worth and recognition.
Am I capable of creating something extraordinary? Yes, but let’s face it, I spent a great part of my childhood growing in a suburb just outside of Chicago with both of my parents, attended a private high school, went away to college, and have lived a relatively comfortable life. Maybe I could voluntarily live in cardboard box in the park and become addicted to heroin like Basquiat. Perhaps these are the missing links to my creative genius. Will I then create the ultimate work? Will my creative process be worth a documentary? If “the goal of an artist is to create the definitive work that cannot be surpassed,” it causes exceptional amounts of pressure and self-loathing, especially when you don’t have the necessary despair to plummet into. It’s almost confirming that an artist only has two mutually exclusive options: to be happy and create nothing of value or live a tormented life and create a masterpiece.
I’ve learned a lot about myself. I am a perfectionist, sweet but temperamental, starry-eyed, and obsessive. I’ve stifled myself artistically in the past out of fear. I have dark moments that are disguised by an intentional chipper tone of voice, a bright smile, and still having the desire to engage in the activities I enjoy. Although it would be poetic to hit rock bottom, I refuse to willingly wallow in my sorrows longer than necessary to produce the work that cannot be surpassed. I create, discard, and create something else, and it’s a viscous, continuous cycle. It’s isn’t glamorous at all. It’s frustrating and time-consuming. Some days I create effortlessly and some days there’s a block. It’s work. The drive and passion to keep exploring my mind and capabilities is the beauty in it, not the suffering. Why can’t the definitive work be created out of joy? I don’t want to choose between happiness and being a great artist. I want to continue to be inspired by an array of emotions and circumstances. Because of that, I’ve been told that I’m in perpetual denial. I don’t entirely doubt it.