Treating creativity: how to cure the tortured artist

"Let's leave the suffering to the geniuses. It's what they do."

The Myth of the Tortured Artist - and Why It's Not a Myth, is a book written by Christopher Zara, Arts Journalist for the Huffington Post, and no, he's not being ironic."It's always been my belief that all great art comes from pain", Zara begins by announcing and goes on to provide ‘evidence', such as the truly bizarre assumption that John Lennon and Paul McCartney "forged their creative relationship after the deaths of their respective mothers". This book encapsulates almost all that is dangerous and harmful about the way we view creativity and artistry today - our focus seems to have moved from the art itself to the story of the artist behind it; but only when that story is traumatic.

People do bond over similar experiences of suffering. But I like to think that Lennon and McCartney had more in common than the tragedy of their mothers' deaths; a love for music, artistic talent, a desire to write songs. Otherwise, if you think about it, we are saying that in order for us to enjoy the Beatles' greatest hits, two people had to die. And once you start thinking about it like that, singing along to ‘I Feel Fine' feels a lot more uncomfortable. This may seem like a rather extreme interpretation, and perhaps it is, but think about the last time you watched the X-factor. How much more attention was given to those candidates with ‘sob-stories' - and how much more support were they given than those without?

But perhaps I should give Zara more credit: he does not claim in fact that there can be no art without suffering, just that "art produced without suffering is not likely to be very good". Why? Because suffering gives artists ‘insight'. Indeed, he asks: "Why should we invest in a work of art that was created without conflict, or struggle, or pain? Where is the challenge?"

But I ask: why this fetish for pain? Why do we need to have a heart-breaking, gut-wrenching, sob-inducing back story to validate a piece of art? No matter where the inspiration comes from, the work of art should be self-sufficient. Information about the context of its creation would be intellectually intriguing no doubt, but biographical footnotes should not be required to ‘explain' it.

Still, Zara's perseverance in convincing us that art needs pain reveals his own agenda: proving that suffering happens for a reason. But this falls flat when we think of all the millions and millions of people who are out there, suffering, who will never be artists, nor will they ever be within twenty feet of an artist. What is the point of their suffering then? Even in asking this, the argument seems misdirected: Virginia Woolf did not turn to writing to give her depression a purpose for existing; rather, she wrote because that is what she enjoyed doing.

Zara's claim that the concept of the ‘tortured artist' is a conflict between the "desire to be happy and the desire to produce great art" is absurd. Producing great art makes people happy. Equally, when people are happy, they are more productive, which means they are more likely to produce great art. And anyway, as AL Kennedy puts it in her Guardian blog, "the sheer effort of getting better", the process of mastering one's art, is enough suffering to be getting on with.

And here I turn to another misconception about the artist, one that we have inherited from the Romantics and still seem to hold worryingly near and dear. ‘The artist does not suffer trying to master his skill, he is already a master to whom words and poems come effortlessly'. No need for slaving over them for weeks, months, years – that is the work of the mules.

This mythologizing of genius, often carried out by the artists themselves, is toxic. It is not shameful to devote endless years to one's artistic work. It does not make for a lesser artist. In fact, the ability to focus on something for an extended period of time, the self-discipline that enables the artist to work so hard, should be praised. If we expect our creative minds to bash out masterpieces in an afternoon, then we are creating an environment where quantity is prized over quality. Of course this would pile on the pressure, and it may even cause anxiety and panic among otherwise stable creative minds. Then, yes, they really would be tortured artists.

I believe that the cure comes with the re-calibration of our ideas about creativity. Instead of considering creativity to be the flash of inspiration that falls upon the unsuspecting artist's head and puts him in a stupor, we could think of it as a process. The grinding of wood, and flint, and even more wood, for hours and hours of labour, of sweating, and muscle cramps, just to obtain a spark.

The artist is someone who enjoys this whole process, not just the spark – the moment when you start seeing the work dance and flicker in front of you. He or she enjoys it both for the work that comes into being, and for the developed muscles. As Tchaikovsky wrote: "a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood. If we wait for the mood, without endeavouring to meet it half-way, we easily become indolent and apathetic."

Inspiration might well come to those who wait, but we also predispose ourselves to inspiration by working, by creating a fertile ground in which it can sew itself. If we can shift our understanding of genius to encompass these incredible achievements of determination, self-discipline and control, then the tortured artist can finally be released from the white room we have laboured to enclose him in, and can walk out in plain daylight, smiling.

Andreea Tudose

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