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We addressed the myth, and now it's time for the truth of the tortured artist. Some art is born of pain and suffering, and reflects the darkest side of human experience. We like that about it. If you need help with mental and/or substance use disorders, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or go to

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Okay, so I made a video called "The Myth of the Tortured Artist" and after it came out, I realized pretty quickly that I need to acknowledge the truth of it, too.  I stand by my statement that there is little to no conclusive research linking creativity and mental illness, full stop, but I failed to address a few things, including that making art can be hard, really hard.  It can be born of great pain and suffering and that is indeed the definition of tortured.

There are tortured artists in the world, not only because some people lead tortured lives, whether or not they're artists, but because it's not easy to make good art, to find that small bit of ground where you can effectively communicate something of yourself to someone else and do so using a bunch of marks on a page or gobs of raw material.  Artist, author, and animator Christoph Niemann has very accurately described how difficult the creative process can be and he's also illustrated the satisfaction that can come when the internal struggle is turned outward and transformed into something that can be shared.

There are artworks that took months, years, or even decades to complete, the result of considerable hardship, toil, physical and psychological labor, and there are also artworks that unfold in a short period of time, appearing before our eyes with a few swipes of a silkscreen and lodging forever in our collective consciousness.  Near the end of his life, Van Gogh could produce a painting in a day or two, as could American painter James McNeill Whistler who admitted in court testimony in 1878 that it had taken him one or two days tops to create his now-famous but then scandalously abstract work "Nocturne in Black and Gold".  The attorney general thought that was absurd, saying, "Oh, two days!  The labor of two days, then, is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?"  To which Whistler responded, "No.  I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime."

I bring this up because I think there's part of the tortured artist stereotype that we want to hang on to, maybe because if an artist struggles over a piece, it's at least a modicum of validation for art being so expensive.  If an artist anguished over something, wrested it from the dark recesses of their soul, or bled into the canvas, metaphorically or literally, that it might seem like a more valuable commodity, containing more actual work, but if an artist seems too happy or seems to be enjoying themselves too much, then maybe they're a charlatan, pulling the wool over our eyes, asking mind-boggling sums for art that wasn't that much of an inconvenience to create.

But then again, we appreciators of art also respect skill and craft that Whistler reminds us can be built up over the course of a career.  Matisse could describe a subject brilliantly with only a few lines, but that ability was honed, something he worked on diligently throughout his life.  Likewise, Picasso is known for his progression of lithographs of a bull, starting out more realistic and with a high degree of detail and then winnowing it down over the course of several prints into only the marks that are absolutely necessary.  That's why we call art a practice, right?  It's something that you work at, that gets easier and harder and easier and harder as you try new approaches and techniques and figure out ways of working that make sense for you.

If you experience success, then you have to continually evolve, too.  It's stressful and success if it comes is almost always fleeting.  The most comforting advice I've ever read comes from John Cage's 10 Rules for Students and Teachers.  "Find a place you trust and then, try trusting it for a while."  This is all to say that I don't blame artists who become tortured in this process, but the most important thing I failed to acknowledge is that art can convey many emotions and attitudes and experiences including pain and struggle and difficulty.  Art can give form to our worst, most wretched thoughts, ideas, feelings, and fears.  

Picasso's famous blue period is called that not only because the paintings have a lot of blue in them, but because he was really sad at the time.  He was mourning the loss of his good friend Carlos Casagemas who died by suicide in 1901.  Picasso's paintings of this period depict his own dejected state and also the poverty and despair of those he witnessed all around him.

Frida Kahlo is another artist whose works show us the extreme pain that she suffered in her lifetime.  The chronic physical pain that plagued her continually after a streetcar accident at age 18, the physical and psychological pain of miscarriage, and the pain of having a no-good, philandering husband.  We know that art can be a tremendous release valve for suffering.  After the loss of three of his brothers, Tyree Guyton returned to the street he grew up on in Detroit in 1986.  Finding it in ruins, he set about transforming it into a massive walk-through art environment designed to be enjoyed by the community.

Louise Bougeois wrote that making art, for her, was a form of therapy.  She was very open in her life about the personal symbolism in her work, exploring her childhood traumas and exercising inner anxieties and demons.  Bourgeois didn't make art for other people, calling the audience (bleep), unnecessary.  Her longtime assistants once explained, "She's not sitting down to make art.  She's trying to get through the day and the art is the by-product."  

Madge Gill didn't start to make art until her late 30s, after losing a son to influenza, giving birth to a stillborn daughter, and suffering a terrible illness that caused her to lose sight in one eye.  She began to knit and write and create enormous volumes of drawings, some made at night in complete darkness, guided by a spirit she named (?~5:53).  

Hiroyuki Doi began making his circle drawings around 1985, after the sudden death of his younger brother and quitting his career as a chef.  Doi has written that this repetitive, obsessive way of producing art gave him relief from the sadness and grief.  Art is an outlet, capable of addressing out darkest, most secret thoughts, motivations, and desires, and that's one reason why people like it.  It gives us a way to feel less alone in our darkness, to know that others have experienced it, too, and that theirs looked like this, or felt like this, or sounded like this.  

(Mozart's Requiem in D-Minor sung by a choir)

So the myth is not that tortured artists exist.  There are plenty of them.  It's that you don't have to be tortured to be an artist.  Art is borne of many states of mind, including curiosity, joy, appreciation, reverence, or even boredom, and art can do other things besides express inner states.  It can share histories, reconsider histories, serve a master, support a cause, commemorate, provoke, frame landscapes, or reflect the world around it, and the interior experience of an artist isn't necessarily something we can tell by their art or as part of the story or PR messaging behind their work.

There is evidence that creativity and productivity take a nose dive when you're severely depressed or experiencing extreme symptoms of mental illness.  The danger of the tortured artist myth arises when you neglect your mental health or worse, consciously leave it untreated in order to be the suffering soul you think you need to be in order to make good work.  Art can be an outstanding way to communicate that suffering, but only if you're A) alive and B) well enough to see it through.

For all the tortured artists out there, keep showing us what you got.  We want to know about the dark places you've been.  We want to see what helps you get out of it.  And we want you to stay healthy enough in order to do that.  

Did you know that our show is called The Art Assignment because we used to give out actual art assignments?  Well, it's true, including a brilliant one by Christoph Niemann who we mentioned in this episode.  We've taken a pause in issuing new assignments, but you can still go check out the 60 excellent ones that are readily available and that will give you glimpses into the processes  of artists who make work in a wide variety of ways, tortured and not.

Thank you to all of our Patrons for supporting The Art Assignment, especially Vincent Apa.  Visit if you'd like to learn more about how you can support the channel.