The Reality And Myth Of The Tortured Artist

Deep introspection starts in many ways for me: An insightful book about politics, religion, art and business; a well-made narrative or documentary film; even a timely question about something I am doing.

This weekend, a documentary about Vincent Van Gogh simply called Van Gogh: Brush With Genius got me thinking about a time not so long ago when I was described as being a tortured artist. Enraptured by the beauty of Van Gogh’s paintings, I reflected upon a time when I was unable to express the beauty and pain buried deep within. Trapped in an environment created by fear. The fear of not being perfect. The fear of showcasing my humanity. The fear of not being successful.

In comparing myself today with the person I was then, I see a lot of similarities. I am still highly afraid to communicate and express the emotional pain I have deep down. I fear failure, and in a paradoxical way, success as well. I delay and stagger the work that I do for fear that it is not perfect. I hesitate to try new things. In times of stress and uncomfortable situations, I shut down as I try to find ways to understand and relate to what is going on. I fear the release of my art to the public. What will they think? What will they say? Can I take the criticism that is bound to manifest as I express my take on the world? Fear, fear, fear.

However, the similarities are slowly being outnumbered by the differences between who I was and who I have become. While I can say that I still have all of the fears listed above, I have been daily battling those fears by attempting to do the very things that I strive to do. This means that in spite of my feelings, I am going to do my best each day to move towards specific goals, as opposed to free-floating in an undefined world. I am learning that it is okay to have a defined world. More importantly, I am learning that it is okay if the world that I seek to create looks nothing like what is being sold to me by Madison Avenue, Hollywood, or even my family.

Regardless of whether the things that I do are perfect, I have learned that perfection is not attainable and is highly unsustainable as a business and as a characteristic of humanity. In fact, perfection is merely looking at what someone else has done, comparing it with the work that you have done, and making a personal judgment as to whether you measure up to it or not. Is that anyway to live a fulfilled life, content and satisfied with what you have accomplished?

I have also learned to attack my definition of success. In the past, I looked at success as a negative, accepting that if I am to gain greater monetary reward for the work completed, I have to be willing to let quality relationships fall to the wayside, accept that my marriage will suffer, and daily keep my emotions in check as to not show anyone else that I am human. But no matter what you gain, if you let your life fall apart, all the money in the world cannot bring it back. In fact, it only complicates the picture.

That is why success to me is not about how many followers I have, but how many people I call friend. It is about caring for others regardless of whether it fits into my schedule or not. Serving my wife, making sure her needs are met before my own. Giving back to a community that gives me more than I deserve. Remembering that success is defined by an entire life lived, not just a single moment or breath.

The Myth: Suffering Is What Makes A Tortured Artist

Our society likes to think that if you suffer for your art, or for anything really, you will end up like Van Gogh, Hemingway, Cobain or the many artists that eventually succumbed to their demons. We like to think that suffering is bad, that anything worth doing will come to you easily as long as you do it right. We like to read the success stories of businesses and executives that found fortune and fame, but gloss over the pain inherent in the journey. Artists that slave over producing art that reflects something original is deemed unnecessary in a modern-world addicted to the immediacy of technology. Why paint on canvas when you can scan a photograph, apply a few plug-ins in Photoshop, and voila, instant art? Why learn to draw when a camera is there? Why learn to use a camera when your phone will suffice? Why learn to relate to others face to face when digital technology can eliminate any uncomfortable feelings that come with conversation? Where is all of this heading? Are we living in a society where we are eliminating sacrifice and suffering from our collective experience and language?

As I think about our delusions of grandeur, I am struck by the words from Van Gogh: Brush With Genius: “In less than a century, I became a myth…when all I wanted was to become a painter.”

Are we striving to be complicated living legends or deep down do we really just want to be something much simpler?

The Reality: Suffering Is Necessary

The truth is that there is no such thing as a tortured artist. What we confuse the tortured artist with is really the tortured soul. A tremendous difference because being tortured transcends all areas of live, every occupation, calling or vocation. It is not unique to one, it is applicable to all. Tortured is a label that we apply to those that we view suffering for their work, because we cannot understand why they choose to go through the trials and tribulations of producing something original and unique.

We are all liars. We all suffer for what we do. Some of us have found ways to numb the pain that are socially acceptable. We may not smoke crack, shoot heroin or drink straight from the bottle of rum, but what do you think unchecked consumerism is? Debt? Gluttony? Envy? Keeping up with the Joneses? Technology addiction? Constantly checking our social networks? These are all ways to numb our pain that we suffer from.

There Is Hope For The Suffering

Fortunately, there is hope for the suffering. There is hope for the tortured. We need each other. Van Gogh could no longer stand the isolation. That is what drove him to suicide. Fortune and fame lead to isolation as do our unchecked addictions. We need to confess and we need to listen to the confessions of others, accepting their sufferings and systematically removing the tortured label from their being, so that life can proceed.

It is not a job for the faint of heart. It is messy, but it is necessary. We all suffer, some more than others, but unless we find relationship and community in our suffering, we will continue to torture ourselves and others with unnecessary labels.