Why the "tortured soul" myth is harmful

8th June 2018

We’re often introduced to successful artists as “tortured souls” — the horrors they faced every day is what made them and their art so great.

While it is often meant in good faith and said in a well-meaning way, the truth is that it is a dangerous idea.

The artists most often described as “tortured souls” are the likes of Kurt Cobain and Sylvia Plath, who both suffered from depression and ultimately died by suicide as a result of their illness.

The argument put forward by the Tortured Artist camp is that artists with mental illnesses, like Cobain and Plath, are more creative and create better art because of their illnesses. Just to be clear, I’m not saying people like Cobain and Plath did not create great art. I’m saying their art was not great because of their illnesses, it was great because of their talent.

If Cobain had not taken his life, Nirvana would have produced more music

This is also not saying that their mental health did not impact their music and literature, as it influences everything that those with a mental health problem think and do every day. But their art was not created because of their illnesses and neither should it be defined by it.

Sylvia Plath
Would Sylvia Plath have produced more stunning works like The Bell Jar? 📸 Ungry Young Man

The facts are undeniable — if Cobain had not taken his life, Nirvana would have produced more music, undoubtedly pleasing fans worldwide. The same goes for Plath, who only published one novel in her lifetime. Now, we can only imagine what they would have created were they not depressive and suicidal. Their so-called “tortured souls” would have created more art and we, the self-indulgent public, would have lapped it up as they did the rest of the artists’ successful careers.

People often make the argument that these artists never got a chance to produce bad art. The fact that they died at their peak meant that their voice wouldn’t start to miss the high notes like Paul McCartney or produce a terrible fourth album like the Kaiser Chiefs.

How do you follow In Utero? The album was not well-received at the time and is still not as popular as Nevermind — but was it the start of a decline for Nirvana’s music? Probably not, seeing as it’s home to some Nirvana classics, but truthfully we’ll never know.

The problem is that it’s unhealthy to romanticise mental health problems and create further barriers to anyone not sure whether to seek help.

Admittedly, there are quite a few studies that find that high numbers of “creatives” suffer from mood disorders, some even suggesting that creatives are 25% more likely to carry genes that increase the risk of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. In reality though, they don’t prove very much considering science has a hard time in defining creativity — and the fact that bipolar disorder and creativity can look very similar, with bursts of activity followed by periods of contemplation, or rapidly flowing thoughts.

Artists express themselves more than most people, which means their illness is more likely to be on display

The studies also don’t take into account the idea that the job of being an artist is really tough and can be the cause of mental health issues. Alex Fradera wrote about these links in the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest. He pointed out that the low pay and gig-heavy nature of being a fledgeling musician or stand-up comedian, and having to sleep in cheap hotels or on strangers’ sofas for most of the touring schedule, could heavily impact your mental health.

Even if a higher proportion of artists suffer from mood disorders than their non-creative counterparts, it does not mean that having a mood disorder makes you more creative. Artists, by nature of what they do, express themselves more than most people, which means their illness is more likely to be on display.

These numbers can also be skewed very easily. For instance, many mental health practices worldwide use art therapy as a way of helping their patients, which could easily lead to the patients developing an interest in art, which they could then pursue upon being discharged from the ward.

Albert Rothenberg, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, believes that it’s purely down to chance.

“It’s the romantic notion of the 19th century, that the artist is the struggler, aberrant from society, and wrestling with inner demons,” he told The Guardian.

“But take Van Gogh. He just happened to be mentally ill as well as creative. For me, the reverse is more interesting: creative people are generally not mentally ill, but they use thought processes that are of course creative and different.”

The biggest problem with labelling these artists as “tortured souls” is that it’s almost always simply a euphemism for their mental illnesses

The biggest problem with labelling these artists as “tortured souls” however is that it’s almost always simply a euphemism for their mental illnesses. Talking more openly about the illnesses of famous artists could make people more aware of the effects of mental health issues, and give people with mental health issues a role model who is creating art in spite of the hand they’ve been dealt by mother nature.

Avoiding talking directly about mental illnesses can also add to the stigma that surrounds them. While being a “tortured soul” might help the poetic preconceptions in your mind, it doesn’t help other people in similar circumstances.

In the words of Vincent Van Gogh himself: “Oh, if I could have worked without this accursed disease — what things I might have done.”

8th June 2018