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The Myth of The Tortured Artist

By Kate


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This is part one of an exploration into well being and mental health within the cultural sector. Kate's research into the topic will play a key part in shaping our new wellness policy. You can follow this journey on Sort of Nothing Like A Book Club, our fortnightly delve into systemic issues in the sector. 


The image of the long-suffering artist who pours their pain into their artwork has been prevalent throughout history. Even Aristotle stated that “no great genius has ever existed without a strain of madness.” This ‘Tortured Artist’ image has grown into a well known stereotype for those in the creative industries. With many incidences of artists fitting this trope, it is impossible to ignore that there might be some truth to this long held idea that creativity and mental illness go hand in hand. Across the years many artists have been given the ‘tortured artist’ label such as Vincent Van Gogh and Virginia Woolf. This label has also found its way into the 20th and 21st century with Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Tennessee Williams and Sarah Kane all being viewed through this lens. Even with this long association, it has to be questioned whether this isn’t part of the innate creativity of the artist, but rather a by product of the creative world in which they exist. In a creative sector with financial instability, high levels of pressure, and a perceived lack of value placed on work, how is this environment conducive to stress and poor mental health?

In 2017, a survey was conducted to study the mental health and wellbeing of those who work in the creative industries. The ‘Changing Arts and Minds’ survey of 574 people found that those working in the arts sector are three times more likely to have a mental health problem than the general population. The most commonly diagnosed disorders were anxiety (36%) and depression (32%). Artists draw on personal experiences to create their art and their creative output can be uniquely personal. Through their art they may be exploring their own pain, suffering and vulnerabilities. With the creative process involving so much of the ‘self’, one respondent to the survey observed that this can make the artist very vulnerable as it can “stir up mental health issues.”  


Malcolm Sinclair, the president of Equity says that “the stress of short term contracts, irregular work, frequent rejection and the basic pressure to perform can all make life extremely difficult.” Working within the arts sector can be very high pressured. In this modern era where anyone has the power to be a critic with just a tweet, a bad review can reinforce insecurities. Also, many artists are freelance, and are constantly applying for commissions and jobs. Many artists face multiple rejections, sometimes because of their appearance and this can have an adverse effect on self esteem and mental health.  In addition, most artists are unable to admit they find it tough because of attitudes of those outside of the industry. In ‘Mental health in the arts: Are we talking about it enough?”, an artist reveals that she doesn’t feel comfortable admitting she’s struggling due to friends attitudes of “that’s showbiz” and that she knew what she was “signing up for”. This attitude that struggle is part of the job creates an unhealthy atmosphere where artists may feel afraid to ask for help due to the fear of being dismissed.

There can be a perceived lack of value placed on an artists' work. Many artists are asked to work for free, or in exchange for ‘exposure’ during their career. According to ‘Changing Arts and Minds’, over 20% of those in the creative sector are being paid at a level which is below the poverty line. Cal Strode from the Mental Health Foundation states that maintaining a healthy sense of self can be “difficult if your work, passion and skills are consistently devalued in this way.” Low and irregular pay leading to financial instability can lead to stress and can be very damaging to mental health. 

But there is hope. With more people opening up about their mental health, organisations are stepping in to fill the gap in mental health support in the arts. Arts Mind has been set up by British Association for Performing Arts Medicine, Equity, The Stage and Spotlight. This resource provides information and sources of support for those in the industry who are worried about their mental health. The UK National Arts Wellbeing Collective has also been launched to improve the situation in the arts sector. This collective brings together UK organisation to share information to improve support services for performing arts workers. Performers In Mind is a non-profit organisation working towards an improved mental health provision in the arts sector by funding wellbeing workshops for arts training institutions. But the industry has a long way to go to remove the stigma of mental illness, to support artists, and to address the unhealthy aspects of the industry. Only then may we see an end to the ‘tortured artist’ image and have a healthier and happier industry. 

If you are struggling with your mental health, Mind have a range of resources and support. If you need to talk to someone, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org. 

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