Creative Agony – Beautiful Art and Broken People

Why the idea of the tortured artist really needs to go, insight from being told I couldn’t get better and still make cool shit.

Oh, Hello Again!
I suppose I should warn you, this is going to be a toughie.

I think one of the most harmful ideas I was ever given actually came from my high school psychologist. At the time I admired him greatly, and I will never discount the fact that he gave me he tools I needed to help a lot of friends, and was my connection within that school to official mental health services. I knew a lot of people who needed help, and thanks to him I knew that I couldn’t adequately provide that assistance myself. And yet, he had some ideas and perceptions of the world that I cannot help but find profoundly harmful looking back. Of these, the one that I still struggle with most today is the idea that creativity is born of pain and suffering and that to get better was also potentially to lose my writing, my art, my passion.

That idea is, in a word, bullshit.


For one thing, in the middle of a depressive episode, it’s incredibly hard to be creative, and particularly to be quality creative. It’s easy to be distracted, hard to face the things you want to delve into, and your passions don’t seem to matter quite so much. Art is about passion, dedication, and (good art) is often about being strong in the face of adversity. So, at its most basic level, depression, mental illness in general, is not a catalyst for creative expression. Sure, it might be one of the things you focus your creativity on (as I am doing right now), but I think that is because people who are both mentally ill and creative would probably be creative regardless of the mental illness. You create things to discuss mental illness and pain not because that is where the creation came from but because those things are the experience of someone with mental illness, and so to forbid yourself from creating things about pain and mental illness would be to divorce yourself from part of your experience and reality in your art.

It’s time to get rid of this perception. Culturally it is time to move beyond the idea that mental health issues and creativity go hand in hand, and especially to get rid of the idea that creativity might decrease if artists sought help. We need to stop telling people that they have to sacrifice their happiness for their passions.

In order for this to be a realistic expectation, however, we must examine the cultural tendency to celebrate pain. Chester Bennington, in light of recent events, seems a perfect example of an artist whose pain was evident, listen to the lyrics of almost any Linkin’ Park song and it would be hard to miss the fact that at least one band member deals with mental instability. After his recent passing, again and again, amid the mourning and the tribute songs, I saw people talking about the relationship between pain and artistry. People mourning his loss, but admiring the things he produced in pain and from the pain. Every time we lose a great artist this narrative re-appears. Robin Williams is another brilliant example. In the aftermath of his passing the sheer number of memes that appeared about the ability of sufferers to give light and happiness to the world is a testament not only to a truly great man, but also to the cultural idea that happiness is not a path to greatness or success. Earlier this week on one of my own social media profiles a friend commented that he thought it would be a good idea to channel my anxiety and depression, a result of my PTSD, into something creative. That his best creations always came out of dark places, and that he felt it might be the same for me. The TV show The Magicians goes even further, stating outright in one episode that people who have magic aren’t happy. That magic itself comes out of pain.
Think back to your own academic days, be it high school, college, or merely that one time you picked up a novel by one of the ‘greats’ in an attempt to become more well read. How many of those stories featured a human being that either felt internally fulfilled, or, perhaps an even better gauge, would be someone you would actually appreciate having and spending time with in your real life? We don’t just glorify the pain in artists, we glorify the pain in their art as well.

The result is this: Mental illness and trauma and tragedy become spectator sports wherein the afflicted are the entertainment, and the entertainers. For myself, and too many people like me, this means that there is no example of how to move on. No example of how to seek a happiness we feel has been stolen, or perhaps was never there for us in the first place. And when we reach out for it, many of us, who do find solace in the act of creation, are warned that the pain we’re desperate to escape is the very thing granting us the only thing we value about ourselves, our creativity.

It’s worse when this begins young. Articles are being written, likely even as I type these words, about the dark tone to much of Millennial humor. Childhood victims, be it of sexual assault, physical or emotional abuse, or neglect and deprivation, are sponges as much as other children are. The narrative they receive is a combination of lived experience the things they learn at school and the media they interact with. When we don’t offer these children and young adults hopeful narratives along with those narratives that teach the evil of these crimes, we’re telling them that there is no recovering from things that have happened and are out of their control.

And some children, like me, are told this explicitly as well as implicitly.

We admire the Chester Bennington’s, Van Gogh’s, Robin Williams’, and Ernest Hemingway’s of the world for their ability to create amazing works despite struggling with mental health issues. But we don’t take the next step, the one we need to take, in wondering and regretting what they might have been and might have produced had they not suffered so intensely. Had they been given the help and support and (maybe) medication that they needed. That is what we need to ask. What might our artists do if we supported them and helped them? Where might we, as a society, go if we didn’t predicate our innovation on sorrow? What if fewer people, like me, put off seeking mental health care because they were scared it would change them in ways they didn’t like or want?

Personally, I think this world would be a better place.
And, one day, I’d like to go to the museums showcasing all that new art and culture.

What about you?



2 thoughts on “Creative Agony – Beautiful Art and Broken People”

  1. Never thought about it like this before….
    I have to laugh, because checking out your blog led me to logging in to my own WordPress account. I had a writing blog from 2015 when I was a senior in high school, and man I was edgy. Comically so honestly.
    I used that pain and confusion from growing up to create art, and in some ways it probably made it worse. I had no dedication to learning poetry or actually practicing my craft but instead I used it as an outlet for my angst. Not trying to say that writing isn’t a good way to process pain, but pretending that pain makes art _good_ is pretty laughable.

    With glass now, I absolutely have to approach it from a healthy state. That’s partially because of the patience required for that art form, but also from art in general. Like you said, dedication and practice are what make things work.

    1. Yeah! Emotion is a wonderful thing when it comes to creativity, and creativity is an amazing way to process emotion. But it isn’t enough by itself, and dedication and passion can take you places emotion can’t. We don’t need to keep ourselves sick to keep our talents and skill.

      I’m so excited every time I see more glass stuff from you, and I want to check out your old blog now! I’d love to see you writing poetry too! Have you checked out the poetry slam @ The Bean Cycle?

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