The Tortured Artist

The 27 Club

Artists such as Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, Jimi Hendrix, and Kim Jong-hyun, are some of the countless artists on the notorious list of “the 27 club”. This “club” has been dubbed to group together countless popular artists who all died at the tender age of 27, often a result of reckless lifestyles, a result of inner turmoil and inner demons. These artists are often idolized as icons, as they gain loyal cult followings long after their lives are lived. 


Artist Breakdowns

The world watched as Britney Spears had a public mental breakdown in 2007, as images surfaced of her shaved head and messy divorce to her then-husband, Kevin Federline. We also lost legends, such as Chris Cornell (of Soundgarden) in 2017, and Chester Bennington (of Linkin Park) just a few months later due to mental illness. More Recently, after a series of seemingly sporadic interviews and tweets, Kanye West rumours “diagnosed” him with deteriorating mental health. The notion of mental illness in artists, coincides with a long history of “troubled” artists, gripped by bouts of erratic behaviour, and peaks of highs and lows. Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemmingway and Beethoven are some famously historical artists who struggled with their mental health. Nowadays, mental illness and art seem to go hand in hand. 


The Tortured Artist

“The tortured artist” has been a term utilized to represent the stereotypical woes and inner turmoil of a creative individual. Standing as the poster boy for this term is Vincent van Gogh, a dutch post-impressionist painter who laid down the foundations of modern art as we know it throughout his prolific career. Van Gogh was alienated throughout his life, being described as uncommunicative and always in a daze. His emotional range showed throughout the varied brushwork in his paintings and his self-destructive actions led him to be admitted to an insane asylum, after cutting off his ear. 

In the asylum, Van Gogh painted several of his most famous works, such as The Starry Night.  Unfortunately, at the tender age of 37, Vincent van Gogh committed suicide due to his struggles with mental health. Years later, many forensic psychologists concluded that Vincent van Gogh may have suffered from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or even autism. 


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The Starry Night (1889), Vincent van Gogh, Oil on canvas, 29 x 36 1/4" (73.7 x 92.1 cm)


Mental illness in art is oftentimes romanticized. Plato spoke of poet’s madness as being “a gift of heaven.” This idea was pushed in the Romantic Era, when many artists believed that art was meant to be expressive and personal -  these revelations led many to madness, sadness, and despair. However, the torment the artists were depicting made them heroes in the public eye, yet they tiptoed on the brink of insanity. 

Thus, the tortured artists was seen as an individual who was neglected, frustrated, ostracized, poor, dazed within their own thoughts, introverted, often resorting to substance abuse, and self- degradation, such as suicide and self- mutilation. 


Art and Mental Illness

Mental Illness is no joke. It is a paralyzing plague that grips the lives of those who must suffer from its adverse effects. It toils with the minds, emotions, and hearts of many. However, there also lies a fetishizing amongst society that romanticizes the very nature of mental illness. Everyone suffers from some form of mental illness that plots them on a wide spectrum between spread out extremes, however there lies a stigma that plagues many until this day. Ervin Goffman, a renowned sociologist of the twentieth century, spoke about these extremes in his works relating to stigma. Artists are expressive individuals, who spend their lives communicating emotively, and thus, it is no wonder that as a result, they may be more prone to wrestle with desirable as well as unfortunate emotions. 

Nowadays, artists are working against the romanticizing of mental illness in art. In his song, 1-800-253-8255 ft. Alessia Cara,  Logic famously promoted the suicide hotline number and encouraged listeners to call in if they were struggling with suicidal thoughts. Furthermore Kanye West stated in a recent interview with radio personality Charlamagne tha God, that he’s attempting to remove the stigma of the term “crazy”. Many artists are now lifting their voices to address the issues around mental illness.