To be a tortured soul is to seek meaning in a self-proclaimed meaningless existence, brooding over the complexities of life in a multitude of expressions. For many of these individuals, their method of choice is creation through art — the “mad artist” stereotype seen in creative visionaries like Edvard Munch and Vincent Van Gogh exemplifies this particular human experience. In the words of Van Gogh, these individuals put their heart and their soul into their work, yet believe to lose their minds in the process.
The link between mental illness and creativity is not a projection, but rather a steady truth — studies from institutions such as Albany State University state that the relationship between creativity and mental illness is palpable and clear. With this being said, the relationship between these two facets of the brain and the associated stereotypes bring a heavy and highly subjective question into the art world: does art only have meaning and intrinsic value behind it because of the suffering it is inspired by?
As a self-proclaimed artist of 18 years, I’ve struggled with this concept throughout my artistic process. In extremely vulnerable and low moments, I found myself adopting an almost masochistic outlook on my mental state — I felt hopeless but believed it could become my inspiration, and so I cultivated it further.
With a declining mental state, my art became more complex and introspective, and I felt that I had begun to create pieces that were worth talking about. As much as I wanted to rid myself of anxious thoughts and feelings of numbness, I was terrified that if I became better, my art would lose all meaning and depth.
My biggest flaw in these weak moments was believing that pain was the only emotion worth expressing in art. What I later realized is that my art should act as an outlet for these emotions as a way of making sense of them rather than it acting as an embrace of depression.
The fickle nature of depression and mental illness in relation to creativity creates a fine line between madness and genius — the line becomes blurred all too often. The ability of an artist to control and manipulate these emotions in their art rather than to let their emotions control them becomes the true test, leading to extremes of self-destruction or a higher understanding of self. Art created through suffering should be led with the intention of healing, not further misery.
By saying that we must suffer to create art, we eliminate all other avenues of creation. While pain may have inspired some of the most influential and important pieces of art in today’s world, positive emotions of hope and love have inspired just as many. Artists who place themselves in the box of a “mad creative” and liken themselves to the protégés of tortured souls that came before them is harmful not only to the creative process but to the very mind of the individual, albeit an easy trap to fall into.
Art is an extension of self at its most basic form. With this being said, the artist has the ability to shape this extension of self into anything they desire. This revelation led me into pursuing a process built not on the foundation of suffering but instead on the grounds of my purpose in this world and what I want to do, ultimately allowing me to create work at a calibur higher than my previous state. I was fueled by ambition rather than despondency, and I was finally able to begin my healing process rather than prolong it.
Because art is so subjective, my thoughts on the matter feel almost futile to me in the grand scheme of things. Mad artists will undoubtedly continue to feverishly create through their experiences of pain, and I will become the onlooker rather than the creator in those circumstances. There are far worse vices to turn to — I just hope that the future of mad artists use their vice as an outlet for remedy rather than ruin.