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Why Are Artists Never Happy?

Is it fair to talk about "tortured" artists?

By Asterion AvocadoPublished 12 months ago 6 min read
Why Are Artists Never Happy?
Photo by Redd on Unsplash

We talk about madness, mental illness, oddballs, but, do we really consider the bigger picture when discussing artists? I was searching for sentences, keywords, stuff that people usually searches for or associate with "artists". Across several interesting findings, one struck me:

Why are artists never happy?

For starters, is that a fair assumption to make? After all, sure, there might be a higher incidence of mental health issues across the group. However, the group is (like most groups) not homogeneous in the way we think it is. Artists come from all walks of life and come with very different minds.

Vincent Van Gogh shared an apartment with - one of my most hated- Paul Gaugin. They didn't have a good time as roommates; in fact, they had a lot of arguments. During one of these fights, Vincent stalked Gauguin down with a knife and attempted to stab him. Gauguin swiftly left the scene, and Vincent ran off, infamously chopping off the tip of his ear and giving it to a prostitute.

Vincent checked himself into a mental institution. He kept painting, but suffered an heart attack not long after. Although during this time, he managed to complete The Starry Night, arguably considered his most popular work.

On July 27, 1890, a little after morning tea, Vincent Van Gogh walked 7 kilometres to a wheat field where he had been painting and shot himself. Adeline Ravoux, the Innkeeper's daughter, who was 13 at the time, remembered him returning at 9.00 p.m. trying to hold his abdomen and retiring to his room.

It took him two agonising days to die. This has been the widely accepted explanation, but some believe it was manslaughter.

My favourite painter too, Munch, was known to be chronically depressed. Why?

By Tyler Clemmensen on Unsplash

Are artists more inclined toward poor mental health?

A quick Google search reveals that certain categories of artists are supposedly more likely to be mentally ill than the wider community, but others have used creativity to fight against mood disorders.

Bipolar disorder, which is characterised by periods of mania and depression, was most frequently associated with creativity, according to a 2017 study. Creativity, on the other hand, was not linked to persistent depressive disorder (PDD)or low-grade depression. However, the study found that people with MDD (major depression) are more creative than those with moderate depression.

However, correlation is not the same as causation.

For example, we might wonder if some people who are prone to depression use art to help them cope.

Don't take my words for science, as I did not research this, but I am inclined to believe that while the link of artist-sadness is common, there is no one right direction for it. In other words, sometimes depression inspires people to express it, or explore it. Other times, inquisitive and creative people are brought (or born with) poorer mental statuses.

By Quino Al on Unsplash


Sylvia Plath was a talented young poet who committed suicide in London almost sixty years ago. Following that, in The Savage God: a Study of Suicide, a friend and fellow poet, Al Alvarez, offered a first-hand description of her terminal illness, as well as his own unrelated suicidal attempt. Alvarez had failed to appreciate the crucial distinction between his own sadness and hers, according to a review in the British Journal of Psychiatry by Eliot Slater, the journal's editor at the time. According to the journal, Alvarez's personal experience does not help him comprehend Sylvia Plath's behaviour.

"I didn't know why I was going to cry, but I knew that if anybody spoke to me or looked at me too closely the tears would fly out of my eyes and the sobs would fly out of the throat and I'd cry for a week."

Regardless of how where we stand on the "depression continuum", what we can see by reviewing her work is that she tried to externalise her depression and suicidal intentions. Maybe not too dissimilarly to Chester Bennington, former frontman of Linkin Park.

I'm tired of being what you want me to be

Feeling so faithless, lost under the surface

Don't know what you're expecting of me

Put under the pressure of walking in your shoes

Every step that I take is another mistake to you

(Caught in the undertow, just caught in the undertow) - Linkin Park, Numb

Here I wanted to write something like "Maybe, these are messages, calls for help, and it's on the receiver to be able to understand and try to help". Yet, while I partly believe that, I don't think that it is anyone's fault - usually - when depression takes all from people.

From a more positive approach, creativity may be regarded as a therapeutic outlet for persons suffering from mental illness, with art therapy being more widely prescribed for trauma sufferers. According to studies, writing about traumatic situations in one's past can temporarily strengthen one's immune system.

And as we have touched on previously, people with mental problems may intuitively turn to art to help them manage or heal, because creativity may be healing.

On the other hand, the nature of creativity causes artists to act in disorganised ways. As a result, "functioning as a creative person" may appear to some - possibly the more closed-minded - people as mental illness.

By Cas Holmes on Unsplash

For me, it is important to stress the problematic over-generalisation that we pose on artists. Yes, they are all artists together, but there is extreme variety and variability between individuals. Not all artists are the same, and this is not only about what art they make, but also about their internal and external lives.

For example, in their page Definitely happy: artists who lived in clover. Part 1 , the folks at ArtHive have put together a list of renowned artists who were, more or less, happy.

In part 2, they include the story of Tetyana Yablonska. Young Yablonska was the most well-known and promising student, receiving a solo show. She began teaching at the Art Institute at 27, and at 33, she was awarded the first Stalin Prize. She married twice, spending exactly 11 years with each spouse and giving birth to three children. Olya, Lena, and Gayane began as their mother's favourite models before becoming artists themselves.

Tetyana Yablonsk, always maintained a strong commitment to her work. She did yoga, she liked skiing, swam, drove a car and a boat, and gave boiled potatoes to sick youngsters. (Thank you ArtHive for the potato anecdote.)

By Frankie Cordoba on Unsplash

To conclude, I think that there may be in many cases a certain connection between mental health and an artist's creativity. But I do think that for some reasons unknown, there has been a social construct, a generalisation of artists, defined as "mad" or "tortured". That may be the case, but only for some, certainly not for all.

In fact, we may be pushing a dangerous phenomenon that may result in young artists' internalising the stereotype, and self-fulfilling it as a prophecy.

Not all artists are not happy. And if some are, and you know them, try and help.

Indeed, often art is used for troubled, tortured people. While it may not work for everyone, art (music, writing, painting, etc) can actually help us understand, externalise, or rationalise what is troubling us. Often helping people who have suffered trauma, or those of us with learning disabilities.

Then of course, I could always be wrong. What do you think?


About the Creator

Asterion Avocado

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