An exploration for mental health awareness month on why the idea of the tortured artist is problematic. However, creativity is vital to healing trauma.
Trigger Warning: Details of famous artists traumatic events that shape their work including details of emotional and physical traumas, suicide, medical diagnosis terms
Pain is passion and pain creates art. Society has a habit of assuming childhood trauma or that experienced as an adult means you are automatically a scarred artist. Whether your medium is visual, auditory, or written masterpieces, people may presume your level of success is based on your level of emotional damage. On the other hand, creativity is often sparked in traumatized minds and used for healing. Creativity is an unexpected side effect of trauma.
There are countless examples of artists and authors with diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health conditions. In written form, Sylvia Plath conveyed emotional baggage and damage throughout her short life. Virginia Woolf was a trailblazer for societal change and was open about mental health which was heavily stigmatized at the time. Emily Dickinson, Lord Bryon, and others pushed boundaries and opened the door for knowledge of mental health struggles.
A life of pain birthed in a canvas
Frida Kahlo was born with spina bifida. This curvature in the spin may result in multiple surgeries. From birth and through her adult life, she experienced chronic pain. Later on, she was involved in a horrendous bus accident. This left her bedridden and in constant pain. A key characteristic people attribute to artists is perseverance. Kahlo had determination and grit in excess. She continues to paint with various apparatuses to enable painting in bed.
Kahlo’s refusal to be defeated was a core piece of her personality. It is logical to assume that the tolerance of excessive pain at a young age could create resilience in anyone. However, Kahlo used art as a creative outlet to process trauma. Keep in mind, you can be resilient without trauma. It wasn’t the challenge that made Kahlo famous. It was the desire and will to overcome any obstacle in her path.
Many people that experience trauma become determined to have a quality life. On the other side of the spectrum, some people are buried by their mental status. As was the case with Plath and Woolf committing suicide at young ages.
It is not the pain or trauma that makes you creative. You desire to heal that brings out an imaginative nature. This production of art does not guarantee fame, but in the end, fame is not the point. Art is an emotional expression that allows the creator to process their traumas. Frida Kahlo lived, endured, and created pieces of herself that the world will not soon forget.
The danger of linking creativity with trauma
It is vital to stop the idea of “the tortured artist.” This concept leads people to believe that their creativity will be hindered by taking medications for their diagnosis. A mental health diagnosis does not start a sudden onset of imagination and creation. Some may be apprehensive to attend counseling or make lifestyle changes to improve their health to be a tortured artist. Trauma is not a magical elixir you purchase off the store shelf to give you fame. It is a daily struggle for wellbeing and clarity of thought. Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) has been known to stifle creativity which can only be remedied through therapeutic practices.
Art is vital to the healing process
Visual and written art removes the jumbled mess from your mind. The internal dialogue becomes a conversation with your canvas and a way to be self-aware. The tricky part about trauma is the immense toll it takes on your ability to feel happy, safe, loved by yourself, and worthy of love by others. You do not need to produce masterpieces for art to change your mental state. Zen-Doodling or Zen-Tangle and journaling are easy and constructive ways to safely release your emotions.
Trauma is not a prerequisite for creativity. Post-trauma artwork unleashed your ability to be open and imaginative to heal. Everything that you write down or put on a canvas is a reflection of what was there all along. It is an embodiment of your grit, endurance, and resilience in the face of major obstacles in life. No need to think of yourself as a tortured artist, but as an artist. Art is not tortured. Art is healing on paper. Art is the manifestation of the innate creativity you had all along.