It’s no surprise that the words Tortured and Artist are enterally connected. Flip open any page of an art history book and you’ll find a main character filled with turmoil or surrounded by chaos. There’s Jackson Pollock, famous for his huge canvases and paint-drip work who, at his peak, was considered the greatest living artist in America. But Pollock is equally notorious for self-destructive behavior fueled by alcoholism and depression. His own drunk driving killed him at the age of 44.
There’s the artist and revolutionary figure, Frida Kahlo — a painter who gave an identity to Mexican art and became a symbol for political conviction. She was hit by a trolley at the age of 11 and broke almost every bone in her body, bringing her inches away from death and leaving her with chronic pain. Kahlo was able to channel this trauma into art, but her tumultuous and violent marriage to the painter Riviera Diego filled her life with stress and conflict. She once remarked, “There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.”
She died at 47 from mental and physical overwhelm brought on by her chaotic relationship.
And then there’s perhaps the most infamously tortured artist of all, Vincent Van Goth — a creative genius whose existence was so wracked with paranoia and suffering that he cut off his ear in a fit of mental anguish.
Turning chaos into art may be creativity at its finest. But to believe that chaos and turmoil are prerequisites for being artistic? That’s an inaccurate myth that is as dangerous as it is pathetic.
Creativity has the power to infuse our lives with meaning and untangle much of the existential dread that comes with existence, but there is a great divide between inspiration and action. And while heartbreak, chaos, and regret might stir a creative heart, it will almost certainly be those same factors that prevent creativity from being fully realized and shared.
Chaos may inspire, but it’s peace that helps produce.
Our Brains On Chaos
Our ancient brains still interpret stress and anxiety as danger. When stress signals flood the mind, the brain redirects its resources toward basic survival. Our limbic system (the part of the brain responsible for creative thinking) evolved during periods of safety and security. But our reptilian default — fight or flight — is still programmed to take over when chaos starts chasing us down.
And because our hardwiring hasn’t fully updated with all the ways of the modern world, our brains have a hard time distinguishing the difference between a hungry leopard pouncing out of a tree and an angry spouse storming the house.
Ever notice how your heart beats faster and when anxiety comes along? That’s extra increased blood pressure. It’s not there to help you think up witty dialogue for your screenplay. It’s there to help you outrun that leopard.
Creativity may be a pillar of what it means to be human, but it’s not necessary for survival. And when our brains are in fight or flight, creativity is the first thing that suffers.
The Top of The Pyramid
One common criticism people have toward self-help books and speakers is, “People with ‘real-problems’ don’t have time for philosophies and platitudes.” It’s a fair point. Journaling might help identify personal issues, but it won’t stop the bill collectors from calling. Meditation may bring clarity, but it won’t save a failing marriage. And, unfortunately, years of unresolved trauma won’t be healed through Positive Thinking alone.
There are many emergencies in life that require more than a creative outlet or a personal development pep-talk.
Creativity and Self-Actualization are at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid for a reason. Creative output is going to suffer when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from. If you’re trying to build a business while working a full-time job, is fighting with your spouse isn’t going to give you the confidence and clarity you need to succeed.
If you’re out drinking every night, living the “life of an artist,” when are you going to have the mental bandwidth to bring your work into the world? Those people who stay busy living like drunken writers or rock-stars before actually making something? They’re the ones who end up with stories in their heads. Not words on the page or music in the world.
Shape Your Art, Save Your Mind
Was external chaos or inner turmoil responsible for the world’s most profound works of art? Or was it what prevented some of our greatest creatives from reaching their highest potential? How many more masterpieces would we have if they had put their art on hold and sought help? Or, had done the work to outrun the chaos of their lives?
We can’t know for sure, but it’s safe to assume their sons and daughters, husbands and wives, would gladly trade any piece of work for one more day with their favorite artist. Surely Frida Khalo would have rather kept supporting the revolution instead of landing in an early grave from emotional breakdown.
The writer George Borges once wrote, “All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.”
If there’s one thing we can learn from history’s greatest and most troubled artists, it’s that chaos can provide beautiful clay. It is possible to mold our heartache, misfortunes, and deepest regrets into masterpieces. But that doesn’t mean we should seek it out, or fool ourselves into believing we need it to fuel our work.
Perpetual chaos is not the path to great art. Personal safety and good mental health are not the prices of admission for a creative life.
We should celebrate those who can tame a tortured mind through creative work because pain is enterally connected to growth. Eventually, chaos comes for us all. No one makes it through life unscathed by some degree or hardship or heartache and no one should want to. This isn’t about waiting for the seas to fully calm before ever setting sail. It’s not about reaching enlightenment, peace, or any other buzzword. It’s about moving toward it. Doing what we can to cultivate stillness and clarity. Giving our brains a fighting chance at self-actualization.
And isn’t that what being creative is really all about? Finding creative ways to get the most out of life.
Check the boxes on basic survival. Seek professional help when needed. Work for your sanity. And if you wake up one day to find that your life is on fire, put your art on hold. It can wait.
It’s when we create space between the drama and chaos of our lives and ourselves that we can see our hardships for what they really are. That’s how we turn pain into art and not just more noise in our head.
That’s how we stay creative.
That’s how we stay human.