The other day I read an article that talked about what I like to term “tortured artist syndrome.” I dislike the idea that all artists must live tortured miserable lives to produce good art. In a way it almost makes art seem shallow like it isn’t a vital part of dynamic living, which isn’t the case at all. Art IS my life. Creating-with words or color-is necessary to my ability to function. If I don’t create I am miserable. I literally have experienced the opposite of tortured artist syndrome. I am a tortured citizen of mundania when I do nothing but live my life day to day not letting loose all of the ideas that flood my mind while I’m say…doing the dishes or driving to the grocery store. Whether I do anything with them or not the ideas are there. They build up. They have to get free somehow. I literally write stories in my mind even when I don’t write them down, and then they’re lost. Not every story floating in my head is fantastic, but sometimes I get one that just won’t quit and that one has to find the paper or drive me crazy till it does.
Where does this idea that art must be fueled by misery come from? Okay, there are probably great historical answers available about the origins of the idea, but I really think a large chunk of it comes from the fact that to live and breathe art of any variety many artists have made the choice to sacrifice, live poor, for their art. The very idea of being Bohemian-basically throwing it all away to submerge yourself into the poor life of an artist, living a life full of creativity and love come what may, is a great representation of this. To be an artist is to be poor, and to be poor is to deal with far greater stressors than someone who has chosen a different more profitable trek in life. And to consciously be poor? To know by your actions that unless your art really takes off you will always be poor and potentially die with only the satisfaction that you lived a creative life? I think, when it gets hard and the dark patches come, say when you find yourself sleeping on a floor for year or three or when you find yourself juggling meals with survival in mind while you’re buying pens and paper…that’s when the idea of a tortured artist becomes a reality.
Some of our most beloved artists lived life this way. Monet did. The difference? While he was living with other artists and begging money from family so he could spend just one more year painting, just one more year fighting for recognition before he would cave-give up-go into the family business-he was in a society that seemed to value art more than we do now in many ways. Even though it wasn’t something his family supported-the painting-Monet was living in a time when patronizing the arts was at least a relevant concept. There is very little support for the arts here in our place and time. The idea of funding an artist-supporting an artist-being a patron of the arts- is far more foreign than it was in the past, and the whole idea of the tortured artist was around a hundred years ago. Two even.
So, I don’t think we really have tortured artists, we have an exceptionally poor creative class, and often times they turn to alcohol and other drugs to self medicate away the irritations of being poor, not because they are creative types and all creative types are this way. The image of Hemmingway drinking himself into a stupor while he wrote is one that people love to fawn over, but being an alcoholic isn’t a necessary factor in being a writer. The poor creative class shares every other problem of poverty-lack of medical care, often lack of decent food, lack of options, and quite commonly high student loan debt. I think that might also add to the “torture” of current artists. Creative people have frequently been to college and someone who has made the choice to try to make it on their art may be underemployed to try to give themselves the most vital piece of the creativity puzzle. Time.
Time is vital to creativity. Time is vital to any aspect of dynamic living, and poor people overwhelmingly have less of it than people who are financially secure. I know I’m wrong and there are exceptions to every rule, but I think creative people who were able to secure proper funding for their endeavors could easily leave behind the tortured artists mystic and live the robust lives –inside our heads and out- that we really want. Yes, there are people who have depression problems and are creative or other issues, but overwhelmingly, I think the problem of the creative class, the Bohemians, the artists is one of poverty, willful or otherwise, and the best way to obliterate the tortured artist stereotype would be for art funding to come back into fashion.
Society only benefits from art, so why are there no longer art patrons? Who doesn’t like to read? Look at beautiful sculptures and paintings? Listen to gorgeous music? Why are corporations driving these essential growth arenas of public life and not private citizens?
Okay, maybe some of this is wishful thinking. Maybe some of this is just that my own life would be infinitely easier if I had a patron to fund me. And that’s true, but, the tortured artist image would become a much smaller face of the art community, even if it persisted in myth and legend, if we weren’t all struggling so much with the day to day.