The Myth of the Tortured Artist

There’s a popular myth that hardship leads to accomplishment, and—relatedly—that the more troubled the artist, the better the work. It’s a nice idea, but a little-read book from 1963 teaches us otherwise.

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The upshot of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath is that, in the midst of crisis, we can find opportunity: crisitunity! Hardship provides raw material for innovation. “You wouldn’t wish dyslexia on your child,” he writes, and we have to agree: we wouldn’t. But then comes the kicker: “Or would you?”

What comes next, in typical Gladwell style, is a thorough debunking of conventional wisdom that sees dyslexia as an obstacle not to be wished on children. David Boies, we’re told, is a highly successful American lawyer who represents Microsoft and Al Gore and who happens to be dyslexic; he got to where he is not despite the handicap, but because of it. His circumstances forced him to work harder, work differently.

In an interview with the Guardian, Gladwell said that David and Goliath is “a very Canadian book,” because of how it celebrates the dignity of the underdog, and dispels the notion that the strong and wealthy will always win. Arguably, it is actually a very American book. In America, the linking of hardship and success acts as an object lesson: if you suffer and don’t succeed, it is not because the game is rigged but because you’re not trying hard enough. Turn lemons into lemonade, or else move to Moscow.

One of the most common variations on this theme, that hardship is a blessing, is the notion that mental illness and creativity are somehow linked. Jonah Lehrer, another journalist with a knack for packaging up modern folk-wisdoms (before he was busted for making up quotes anyway), made the case in his 2012 book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. “People who are successful creators,” he writes, “are anywhere between 8 and 40 times more likely to suffer from bipolar depression than the general public.” The loose application of science (“anywhere between 8 and 40 times” is a lot of anywhere) just adds value to the author’s goal, which is to reinforce our own gut feelings: that makes sense. Because Van Gogh, because artists dress like homeless people, because poems don’t make sense. Conventional wisdom wants to be flattered, and authors who do so are well rewarded.

Of course some artists are mentally imbalanced. So are some taxi drivers and dentists. But seeing artists as the Other is both convenient and romantic, in that it gives structure to a mystery: why did Rothko paint all those Rothkos? Must be depression and some kind of clinical obsession, a great burden that nonetheless fueled the work. Even some artists have found the idea enchanting. “Madness is terrific,” said Virginia Woolf, “and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about. It shoots out of one everything shaped, final, not in mere driblets, as sanity does.” Only I wonder how many times Woolf ran that elegant passage through the rigors of sane, sober, dextrous, and driblet-y revision. The possibility remains that, for most artists and dyslexic lawyers, hardship just gets in the way.

But mythology is hard to shake. Which is why a 1963 work of scholarship by husband-and-wife team Margot and Rudolf Wittkower called Born Under Saturn, in which the writers aim to debunk the myth of the mad artist, remains little known. For romantics and bedtime story enthusiasts it’s a bit of a buzzkill. The Wittkowers reach as far back as the Middle Ages, when artists were craftsmen and belonged to guilds, which leveled out individual expression in favour of a collective ethic. Art was a job, like glassblowing. With the Renaissance came creative liberation. The artist gained sanction to develop his own character and style. “The more artists disengaged themselves from craftsmen,” write the Wittkowers, “the more they were expected to display—did display—symptoms of behavior not associated with the rank and file citizen.”

This was the invention of the Bohemian, born under the sign of Saturn, the sign of melancholy: artists were different and oddball behavior became part of the brand. It was valued in the marketplace. Michaelangelo was brooding and self-loathing, called himself pazzo (crazy). Leonardo was aloof, kept contraptions in his house to scare visitors, was a vegetarian who called meat-eaters “receptacles of the dead.” Caravaggio was a troublemaker. He once drew a sword on a waiter who brought him artichokes in butter instead of artichokes in oil. Piranesi (1720–1778) was vain and unreliable and, according to testimony of the time, of “such a disposition as barrs all Instruction [sic]… So that a quarter of an hour makes You sick if his company.”

Eccentricity was endorsed but rarely seen as full-blown madness. Franz Xaver Messerchmidt (1736–1783) said he saw spirits and was haunted by what he called the spirit of proportion. He had developed an involved theory of proportion, and the spirit, he claimed, was jealous. In the 18th century, Messerschmidt was seen as an artist with a necessary, if peculiar, obsession with form. (Is that madness, or workaholism?) Hundreds of years later, after Freud, academics guessed that he might be suffering from repressed sexual urges. Maybe it’s true. But in the 20th century, say the Wittkowers, it became fashionable to diagnose retroactively: a 1928 study called “Genius, Insanity and Fame” by Lange-Eichbaum concluded that most artists were subject to Oedipal and guilt complexes and “heightened bisexuality.” The historical record, according to Born Under Saturn, is more prosaic: the great artists were eccentrics, wastrels, misers, Genoese spendthrifts, but also shrewd businessmen. Of course there were depressives and psychotics, but no more so than in any other population group. The myth of mad genius persists. It’s a good story.

And the moral of that story is: relax. Art is hard, not just for the artist but for the rest of us who have to confront its formal and contextual weirdness. If we don’t understand the work it’s because the artist is wired differently, and we can walk away from the canvas or the installation or the whozit and say: that’s interesting, but it has nothing to say about the sane world in which I live. The depressed artist is working out his own problems, not some universal truth. In the same way it may be comforting to think of the disadvantaged as having secret super powers, as Davids among the Goliaths. But that’s an ideology that also lets us off the hook: as long as the poor, the marginalized, the dyslexic lawyers of America are given to understand that they all have the keys to success, there’s less need for a social safety net. Income inequality? That’ll sort itself out once the poor pull themselves up by their bootstraps. In both cases, the myth of the mad artist and the special powers of David, hardship is a hidden blessing. That’s comforting. Unless it’s not true, in which case we suddenly have responsibilities.

The Lost Library: forgotten and overlooked books, films and cultural relics from Tom Jokinen’s overstuffed Ikea bookshelves.

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