The Archetype of the Tortured Artist

Image courtesy of NRK P3, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

I wasn’t particularly familiar with Amy Winehouse before her death. I knew the name, and I had the general impression that a lot of the people I respect admired her art and her intelligence. My days of keeping up with what’s new in the music industry are behind me, though, so I can’t claim to be a fan, or even name any of her songs.

This post isn’t about her, then, but about the thoughts that went through my mind as I read about her tragic life in the wake of her death.

As I read about the signs of destruction leading up to Winehouse’s death, I thought about a pervasive archetype in art: that of the tortured genius. I know a lot of arty people, and I know a lot of broken people, and the overlap between the categories is huge. I know people who revel in their brokenness, who say, for instance, that the most sensitive people tend to suffer from depression and mental illness–with the corresponding implication that if you’re not suffering, it’s because you’re not sufficiently sensitive, in the artistic sense. I know people who seem to believe that being arty causes one to be depressive.

I tend think there’s some confirmation bias at work here. For people who view the world this way, every time they find out about some artist’s tortured background, they say, Ah hah! There’s another bit of evidence! If they’ve not heard that an artist struggles with depression or self-destructive behavior or whatever, though, they don’t make a note of it. There isn’t a check box for “happy artist”; there are check boxes for “unhappy artist” and “we don’t know yet.”

It wouldn’t utterly surprise me if there were some correlation between mental illness and artistic inclination though. Maybe self expression holds an attraction for the same kinds of people that are commonly afflicted with depression or other disorders. Even so, I wouldn’t buy that one is a prerequisite for the other.

Or there may be another factor. Maybe it’s not that broken people are more artistic, or that artistic people are more broken, but that broken people are more driven to achieve the outward trappings of success in any field. I actually think there’s something to this. In educational psychology we learn about something called an “external locus of control,” but I think some people have an external locus of approval. I think some people have such a difficult time loving themselves or seeing themselves as worthwhile that they need the esteem of others and tangible accomplishments to feel like they’re worth a damn.

In any case, I believe often what you do with a truth is more important than its actual veracity. Even if there is a correlation, it’s no reason to wallow in dysfunction, to celebrate it like it’s some sort of badge of legitimacy as an artist.

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6 Responses to The Archetype of the Tortured Artist

  1. Tom Emmons says:

    Even if I had come to such a conclusion as artists being tortured, I would still suspect my own confirmation bias, as I often do with many things. Such conclusions seem to pose more questions to me than are as conclusive as I might hope.

    Good thoughts. I wonder about the percentages of happy artists now, and wonder how we could actually test these ideas.

  2. Liz says:

    I think there is also an achetype that exceptionally inteeligent people are also on the “crazy line.”

    Someone close to me recently had a psychotic break, and as we awaited the diagnosis, hoping not to hear the “S” word(schizophrenia), a friend who is a psychiatrist said something interesting. She said that the fact that this person spent her days in the hospital writing songs and singing them, though she had not sung publically for many years, led her to believe it was probably bipolar disorder, as schizophrenic patients usually appeared” flat” during a psychotic episode. She ended up being right, so I quickly did a google search, expecting to see a plethora of bipolar actors and musicans. Not so much. There were certainly quite a few, but certainly not enough to make a point.

    I am not exactly sure what my own point is here, but I thought I would add my two cents anyway.

  3. Bob says:

    Bipolar disorder can be very tough to live with. I hope your friend finds a good treatment option.

    I don’t think all artists have to be tortured. Just a few to serve as examples to the rest should suffice.

  4. Liz says:

    Ha ha!

  5. Liz says:

    This must be Bob with the last name of S?

  6. Joe Iriarte says:


    Can I come up with a list of artists to torture?

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