The Suffering Artist: Debunking the Myth

There is a pervasive belief that the emotional life of an artist must be an intensely turbulent landscape in order to create meaningful art; the more the artist suffers, the more evocative the art.

I beg to differ.

I have noticed a trend in movies, articles, and teachings that perpetuate the misguided notion that an artist’s craft is taken more seriously and is more effective when the artist themselves experiences constant pain. During my days as an acting instructor at a variety of schools and conservatories, I often heard students dangerously unearth their trauma at the request of professors. “Use it” was a common direction for many artists who were promised the healing of catharsis. Unfortunately, that’s not how the healing of trauma occurs. The problematic notion of “using it” is that artists receive a covert message that touts the “suffering artist” mentality; the more trauma and suffering, the more fuel for performance.  

Consider Black Swan, Birdman, and Whiplash. All brilliant films that seem to present a similar conflict for their protagonists. The Artist seeks perfection in their art, and loses him or herself as a result. The quest for brilliance through a death, psychosis, and cruelty allows the individual to achieve their goal, but eventually it breaks them. And apparently it’s all worth it.

Consider the articles mourning the losses of Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Robin Williams, all of whom struggled with addiction and mental illness. A flood of writers credited these actor’s passion and talent to their experiences of adversity and suffering. Instead of a cautionary tale it read as a recipe for success.

It is no surprise that many Artist struggle with addiction and mental illnesses. Yet correlation is not causation. Ernest Hemingway was brilliant because he had a point of view, not because he was mentally ill.     

An incredible professor of mine used to say, “Live your life deeply.” It is true that great art comes from the ability to experience the full gamut of the imagination and emotions, including painful ones. Yet the concept of living your life deeply connects more to mindfulness than madness.

Instead, I urge an empowering relationship to Art. I assert that well-being is the artist greatest asset.

The artist thrives in a community and best creates in an environment of support. Empowerment and trust in one’s self breeds creativity. The pursuit of an artist’s career requires resiliency, and the longevity of that career depends on mental health. In the case of Art, the brightest stars don’t have to burn half as long.     

Depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, loneliness, unresolved pain, and self-judgment are just a few obstacles that limit access to creative channels and the freedom of expression. These struggles inhibit resourcefulness, playfulness, and the enjoyment of art which limits the depth that can be achieved within one’s craft.

Now consider Meryl Streep.

She is one of the most renowned actors of our times, and yet she is an emotionally healthy individual. No one would question her ability to engage in all parts of the human experience. She attributes her emotional accessibility to vulnerability and empathy, with no mention of the need to exacerbate suffering. These very skills are fostered by mindfulness.     

Imagine being an artist in full attunement with your mind, body, and emotions, amplifying your abilities of artistic expression; all while living a healthy life in the pursuit and practice of your art. Behold, the mindful artist.     

What does it mean to practice mindfulness? Keep an eye out for my next blog on that very subject!