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The Tortured Artist

I’ve often wondered who I would be without my illnesses. Would I be a writer without the depression, the darkness? Would I be an artist? To me, there is nothing compelling about the middle. The extremes is where true art happens, and my illnesses often send me swaying from one end of the spectrum to the other. I once wrote “art is supposed to pull your battles straight from your clenched fists and feed them to you through a straw.” Can you tell I have a penchant for extremes?

There is this trope of the tortured artist. The brooding, haunted person who uses their demons to create. It is this idea of a tie between “madness” and “genius”. A lot of research has been done on the idea that people with a mental illness are naturally more creative and more intelligent, or that intelligent, creative people often have a mental illness. We certainly see a pattern of mental illness and/or addiction in some of history’s most creative and influential people. The general consensus is that there is a correlation between many mental illnesses and creativity, but mental illness does not have to be there for creativity to exist. The correlation is most often seen with regard to mood disorders such as bipolar disorder and unipolar depression.

When it comes to bipolar disorder, which I live with, many prominent artists, actors, writers, etc. have either come forth with their diagnosis or been diagnosed posthumously through their work, correspondence and testimony from those in their lives. Artists as far back as the Renaissance have been said to display traits of the disorder. In a letter to his father, Michelangelo once wrote "I lead a miserable existence and reck not of life nor honour - that is of this world; I live wearied by stupendous labours and beset by a thousand anxieties. And thus I lived for some fifteen years now and never an hour's happiness have I had." Living with a mood disorder, I can relate this. Though I take his statement of never having an hour’s happiness with a grain of salt, I can relate to the despair and the hopelessness, as well as the resigned understanding that we are different and experience life differently than most people.

I wonder how these people feel about their art in relation to their illness. Because for me, my most powerful poetry comes when I am in a dark place. My most impactful visual art comes from deep and overwhelming emotional states. I wonder what I would create without my illnesses. Am I creating because of my illnesses or despite my illnesses?

I drew this piece years ago, the night before a serious suicide attempt. I could find no other way to explain the despair and the hopelessness. I feel that it exemplifies the way the depression and the illness bring out the creativity and help me create art that is compelling and prompts true emotion.

What do you think?

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