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We Need to Talk About Art’s Obsession With the ‘Tortured Genius’

Does the correlation between creativity and mental illness ultimately do us harm?

This article originally appeared on i-D

Last week, acclaimed photographer Ren Hang took his own life at the age of 29. While any passing is painful, the loss of someone so young often welcomes a specific kind of reflection. Ren's work was frequently the conduit for conversations around sex, censorship, conservatism and the role of art to challenge the world around us. But when asked about his motivations, he himself was far less grandiose. Usually he explained that it was about nothing, rather a way to feel less lonely and manage the emptiness that followed him from room to room, show to show and celebration to celebration. With this echoing in our minds, it feels vital to follow his own train of thought following his loss and challenge ourselves to interrogate the way we weave mental health narratives into the stories of artists.


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The image of the tortured artist is resilient, and all too often, romantic. The pain harboured by those who lead creative lives is presented differently to others. When an accountant is depressed it's psychology, when an artist is depressed it's poetry.

It's an idea we've all bought into, freely and resolutely for centuries. Creativity and mental illness are often linked, as if they can only exist in some delicate balance, and to tinker with one could destroy the other. Artists whose work is shaded by depression and anxiety themselves often present it as a tithe for their own gift. Edvard Munch once noted "My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art."

The tie between creativity and depression does in fact exist in our chemistry. A 2015 Icelandic study found 25 percent of creative people are more susceptible to bipolar disorder or schizophrenia due to specific genes that they carried. Writers were 121 percent more likely to live with bipolar disorder, and 50 percent more likely to take their own lives.

But the scientific evidence that these qualities naturally crowd together shouldn't serve as an excuse to accept  this is just how it is. The persistent idea that one must be unhappy to truly be open to absorbing and translating the human condition is both artificial and dangerous. Francis Bacon, one of the most celebrated painters of the last century, wasn't immune to this fear. He once reflected, "the feeling of desperation and unhappiness are more useful to an artist than the feeling of contentment, because desperation and unhappiness stretch your whole sensibility." We're not usually in disagreement with Francis, but we have to argue there's more to it than that.


The debate over whether happiness and melancholy are in fact vital ingredients in creativity is ongoing and complex. Happiness researcher (yes, it's a real job) and Harvard lecturer Shawn Achor has made a career out of the study and pursuit of glowing emotions. He seeks to show that we're at our most creative when we're happy. Speaking to Inc, he explained that in his research he's found when we're in an optimistic frame of mind, our brain is able to perceive more possibilities. When researchers from the University of California San Francisco performed scans of the brains of jazz musicians while they played they found the parts of their brain that controlled creativity were more active when they looked at images that brought them joy.

But even this reasoning oversimplifies the cadence of creativity, reducing it to the sum of a few parts that can be corrected or destroyed. Arguing either way fails to recognise that creativity is an innate gift, one that's extremely difficult to truly lose or disturb. So while we must be careful to not flatten such an incredibly enigmatic concept, we still need to recognise that celebrating any form of pain threatens to act as another barrier in people seeking or being offered help.

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We don't know if Ren Hang's friends knew about his mental health struggles. Considering his work was a love letter to their lives and bodies, a celebration of their beauty presented as a balm to his own pain, one assumes they loved and supported him completely. But for many other creatives the signs of mental distress are too often ignored, or worse expected, by those around them. Their struggles become obscured by our own assumption over what is and isn't normal and acceptable; and the collective impact of such reasoning is an under examination of endemic mental health and welfare issues within the arts in general.

Artists aren't only suffering because they're the recipients of some mythical burden that gives and takes at will. They're suffering because they work in an industry that provides huge stress with minimal job security or long term fiscal guarantees. By eternally turning to the image of the soulfully melancholy artist we ignore very real workplace health and safety failures that so often leaves them feeling alone. Speaking to the Standard last year, Cal Strode from the Mental Health Foundation reflected that conditions in the arts regularly undermined employee's mental health due to "insecure contracts, low rate of pay and anti-social working hours." He added that these issues are compounded by expectations to work for free or for dreaded "exposure," leaving the work itself feeling dismissed or devalued.

Artists aren't only suffering because they're the recipients of some mythical burden that gives and takes at will.

Similarly, a 2015 report by Victoria University in Australia found that people working in performing arts were 10 times more likely to experience anxiety, and five times more likely to experience depression than the general population. This time the figures weren't linked to some inborn predisposition, but were directly attributed to financial insecurity and poor working conditions.

When we buy into cliches and archetypes we numb ourselves against the realities as they're unfolding around us. By allowing a pained creative to melt into a thousand familiar images and assumptions we not only let down the individual, but we weaken the creative community in general. For too long a real disease within the arts has been able to germinate because we were told it was how things have always been. But as we allow the rest of our lives to be touched by mental health discussion we need to lend the same support and understanding to artists. After all, pain is pain, no matter how pretty.