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Do You Have To Be Miserable To Be An Artist?

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It’s as old as Aristotle and his Daughters of Zeus. “Why is it that all men who are outstanding in philosophy, poetry or the arts are melancholic?” the ancient Greek asked. Two thousand years of Western culture have done little to challenge the stereotype, from Goethe’s Werther blowing his brains out at his desk to David Foster Wallace hanging himself on his patio. The history of art is as littered with corpses as the stage at the end of an Elizabethan revenge play. The list of famous artists who seem to have suffered from depression or other mental illnesses is impressive, to the point where we almost expect our artists to be miserable. When a stereotype is parodied in The Fairly OddParents, you know it’s truly ingrained in the culture.

Dr. James Kaufman coined the term ‘The Sylvia Plath Effect’ to describe the high prevalence of mental illness among artists. Particularly poets. Even more particularly, female poets. It makes sense. High levels of creativity require a willingness to defy convention, to go against the crowd. And any kind of genius requires a mind that works differently to most people’s; that in itself is indicative of mental illness. A number of studies have noted a correlation between creativity and bipolar disorders, in particular.

Any great passion implies imbalance, and happiness, in the sense of a lasting contentment, requires a certain equilibrium. It’s not just art; if you obsessively devote yourself to a certain person, or to creating the perfect pancake, or to making a suit of armour that will withstand a charging grizzly bear, you have strayed from the range of normal human equilibrium, and misery lurks on those paths less trodden. Misery, and glory. Creativity requires that an artist step off the trodden path into the darkness beneath the trees. It’s a scary and dangerous place, and if you were perfectly happy on the path, why would you ever leave it? It’s those who aren’t entirely at ease in this world that go off looking for something else, something better. As a group, artists are already self-selected to be miserable.

Does it follow, then, that in order to make great art, you have to be unhappy?

Well, no. While a terrifying number of the great artists of the past have lived miserable lives, it’s impossible to draw a simple line between the two and state that misery is a necessary condition of art. It’s simply not true. For every Virginia Woolf, there’s a Mendelssohn; a great artist who lived a stable family life, and as far as we can  tell, was not unhappy. The thing about being an artist is that it is, in itself, a depressing proposition. Few other spheres of life open a person up to such a level of rejection. Even in romantic relationships — the arena in which every dilettante becomes, for a while, an artist — rejection, while virtually inevitable, is rarely forever. Everyone gets married sooner or later. It may not be a happy marriage, but that’s a separate question. The artist, on the other hand, must plow ahead in the knowledge that it’s not only possible that no one will ever appreciate their work; it’s probable. And artists care deeply about their work. They have to. No one ever produced any great work of art by not trying, and to try hard at anything means to care about it. You work steadily in the dark, hammering out your vision, baring your soul, until finally you produce your masterpiece — and the world shrugs and carries on. It’s devastating. So, just as unhappy people make art, art makes unhappy people. If you decide to dedicate your life to your art, you’re going to be unhappy quite a lot of the time. It’s a cruel and vicious business, this practice of exposing one’s inner heart to complete strangers.

At the same time, though, you are opening yourself up to what is certainly the greatest joy I’ve ever known. When I’m sat at my desk and the words are coming, when I can’t type fast enough to keep up with my racing thoughts, it feels like I’m flying. I’ve lived a pretty good life so far and had some amazing experiences, but nothing beats that, nothing. Just as we all do when we fall in love, artists risk soul-crushing lows in order to attain dizzying highs, choosing one hour as a lion over a decade as a jellyfish. That’s the secret flip-side to the misery; the feeling of your brain being on fire, lightning shooting from your fingertips, your whole being lit from within like a paper lantern. The trouble is, these moments of ecstasy, especially in the case of poets or novelists, are generally solitary. Nobody sees me at my best. They see me when I’m doing something other than writing, when I’m postponing the thing I love most in the world in order to do something I have less interest in. If artists often seem miserable, that might be part of the reason why.

The myth of the suffering artist can become a trap. It’s easier to mope around being angsty than it is to actually create something, let alone something good. Myths about creativity like this one serve mainly to give people a way to call themselves a creative person simply because they’re not very cheerful. Misery is not a virtue, no matter what anyone says. And while great art is often made by desperately unhappy people with deeply unsatisfying lives, that doesn’t mean that an artist must be miserable. Far from it. Creating a masterpiece really only requires two things: a bit of talent and a truckload of hard work. Look into the biographies of great writers and musicians and artists, those who seemed to simply breathe out gems without really thinking about it, and you’ll find it isn’t true. With most artists — though this is less true than it used to be — all you see is the polished, finished product, not the several aborted mediocrities whose rotting corpses fed the soil of the finished masterpiece. Just like in sports, mastery of an art form does not come without years upon years of practice, even for those with a natural aptitude. Any artist who wants to amount to anything must therefore develop the mental toughness to bulldoze their way through failure after failure, and for a depressive, this is unlikely. Depression says don’t bother, stay in bed; nothing you do will come to any good. You’re deluding yourself; you have no talent. You have nothing to say. You’ll die alone and unremarked, and all the effort you’ve put into this will have been wasted. We all hear these nasty, negative voices from time to time; everyone who has ever tried to make any kind of art will know what I’m talking about. But the greatest artists are those who have found a way to ignore those voices, to push through despair, to create with a desperate optimism, a belief that even in the face of utterly absurd odds, your creation can be seen, heard, felt, that it may touch the lives of others, even people you’ll never meet. That’s wildly optimistic, yet there’s no stereotype of an optimistic artist.

Goethe — who had a fair bit to do with popularizing the suffering artists stereotype himself — put it like this: “The person born with a talent they are meant to use will find their greatest happiness in using it.” The real energy and insight needed to create a great work of art comes not from a place of despair, but of joy. It’s when we are happy — not merely content, but genuinely joyful — that we approach the world with the open eyes and heart of a true artist. Many famous artists were deeply unhappy, but not while they were making their art. To say an artist must be unhappy is like saying a sub-Saharan African must have HIV; there’s a higher than normal prevalence in a certain population, but that doesn’t mean one automatically follows the other. Art is born at the raw edges of human experience, and joy or love or awe will get you to those edges as surely as unhappiness will. An artist is one who responds to the unknowable mystery of existence with fascination, not despair. TC mark

image – featke

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    • Bernard

      Brilliant.

    • Nishant

      “Many famous artists were deeply unhappy, but not while they were making their art.”

      A simply fantastic read. Beautiful!

    • Greg

      Nicely done. To quote Nietzsche (loosely), “We have art so that we shall not die of reality.”

    • http://twitter.com/iamthe0nly Jordana Bevan

      i don’t think you have to be miserable, but you have to think your life is worthless

    • Angie

      I enjoyed reading this well written piece. I got tired of the whiney TC posts and this is like a breath of fresh air. :)

    • http://twitter.com/barkmuckner Mark Buckner

      Love the sentiment expressed in this.

    • Nastenka

      The one above beat me, but I was just going to say the same. This is brilliant.  My heart was racing as I read it, how exhilirating! I am not artist, but a depressive but the very minute moments of my happiness are mostly the times when I am drawing, or doing something. 

    • guest

      Thank you, I enjoyed reading this

    • Anonymous

      I often think about the often direct proportion relationship between good art and miserable people. I love how you examine the “voices”, not necessarily in a schizophrenic way, but in a way where one negative thought connects to another synapse, ultimately unfolding and manifesting until everyone and everything you see becomes dark–hence this trodden path into the darkness which very few can bear.

      Not being an artist myself, but certainly suffering from mental illness and appreciating art in many different forms, at the very least I can say that I greatly appreciate those artists who sacrifice so much of their sanity to experience high moments of optimism and the thought that their work has touched the lives of others.

      Is this enough for artists, though? If we were to catch David Foster Wallace at the beginning of his career long before he embarked on “Infinite Jest”, would he approve of what his life would become? Not even “approve”, but would he be willing to sacrifice everything for art? And do artists have the choice and will to approach the unknowable mystery of fascination? If they chose fascination over despair, wouldn’t they not be experiencing this despair and these voices that do not quiet when asked politely?

    • Kelly61090

      “not the several aborted mediocrities whose rotting corpses fed the soil of the finished masterpiece” 

      Whoa. I am writing about this whole thing, obsessively, right now. you hit the nail on the head. I think I’ve summed it up as artists having a ‘broader spiritual/emotional surface area.’ wonderful ideas here. 

    • http://twitter.com/robwoh Robert Wohner

      Really awesome read. The 2nd to last sentence might keep me up tonight. Thanks for writing this. 

      Sometimes, for me at least, writing or playing music is inspired and motivated by the memory of what I feel I’ve lost. I’m creating art, for lack of a more accurate term for what I’d call my piano playing lol, as a way to keep those memories or emotions alive. Or at the very least, make something meaningful out of an otherwise empty situation.  I think that’s a legitimate motivation to create art and it might involve misery. But I agree that there isn’t anything noble about wallowing. Exclusively returning to that emotional place is detrimental to anyone’s growth as an artist for the reasons you’ve elegantly described. Anyway, amazing essay. This might have to become required reading for anyone creating an account on Tumblr. 

    • Anonymous

      Beautiful, wonderful, lovely, FANTASTIC read.

    • http://circa2012.me/ Jojo

      Just beautiful….fantastic writing. This is art.

    • Anonymous

      My God. Really. Whoa, how can I even. Please, tell this to my parents, who do not believe that I am focusing on the future by writing and reading instead of studying and socialising.

    • http://twitter.com/JonTargaryen Carly Fowler

      This is brilliant! What an intelligent read. 

      I find that I make my best art when deeply moved but definitely not depressed. My depressive episodes keep me in bed, like you mentioned. My spurts of creativity come when the feelings I’m experiencing become a bit too much. Just look at Picasso’s Blue Period. 

    • Guest

      This is fantastic. Just reading this inspires me to work on my own writing. Great job!

    • http://twitter.com/mitzyredmango Mitzy/MarieKat

      It’s like you gave me a good reason to continue loving what I do when I’m about to stop loving it. 

    • Becca

      This is beautiful and articulates my experience  so well. Thank you!

    • CarlyE

      I. Can’t. Even.

      You seriously took the scrambled emotions and thoughts in my head into a beautiful, refreshing piece that leaves me empowered to continue what I’m doing rather than guilty.

    • Ella

      Thank you so much for the Goethe reference. As a German who loves LOVES Werther, I really appreciate it. also, wonderful piece.

    • Anonymous

      I was nodding my head along in agreement with virtually each sentence that you wrote.  I’m an artist, too and I’m friends with a lot of them.  We go through a lot, but for many of us we are truly happy in our craft.  You can see the joy on our faces as we do it.  It’s just nice to see a fellow artist with a like mind here.  Keep doing you and thanks so much for this piece.  It was brilliant.

    • Lilac

      I did read somewhere that famous writers wrote their works just after or coming out of a period of depression. In any case, this was a great read. And another couple of examples of happy writers – Ogden Nash and P. G. Wodehouse

    • Kelly

      I think along these lines when I’m feeling optimistic about the “artist’s life,” but more often I think the sadness inevitably tied to devoting oneself to such a solitary endeavor springs from thoughts like Yeats’ “The Choice,” “The intellect of man is forced to choose perfection of the life, or of the work.” This was a lovely read, and inspiring, but what keeps me up at night is the fact that, as you said, if doing artist’s work is the thing that makes you happy, then participating in the social sphere can never be quite as satisfying. In the whole scheme of things, especially if your art does get picked up, this doesn’t really matter– but what about the now? I think this tension is really the root of the unhappiness, as it touches upon the other artist stereotype of being unhappy because “no one understands you” (…and the other artist stereotype of having a massive ego).  

    • Hannah

      Oh my god. Have you ever read Keats? Happy poetry rings hollow. “The greatest artists ignore those voices” I guess our definition of “greatest” differs. 

    • http://general-disinterest.blogspot.com/ Taylor

      My English professor romanticized the idea of the depressed artist by saying that artists are the ones who go on dangerous journies and (sometimes) come back with marvelous treasures that they share with all of us, but then sometimes they don’t come back.

      Wow, that sounds dumb. He phrased it in a much more elegant way.

      I’m not sure if I believe him though.

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