The trope of the tortured artist: Can it be emotionally harmful to let pain inspire creative work?

Bad experiences are said to fuel great ideas, and expressing them has long been lauded as therapeutic (Picture: Getty)

Vincent Van Gogh, Silvia Plath, Frida Kahlo, Kurt Curbain, Chris Cornell and Amy Winehouse – these are just a handful of history’s ‘tortured’ artists.

Winehouse was known for singing about her personal strife with love and addiction, while Plath wrote a semi-autobiographical novel about her experiences with depression.

These artists, moved by their own struggles, bore pertinent work that has inspired generations since.

But, for creatives putting out work, where is the line between what is helpful to share, versus what is harmful emotionally?

Bad experiences are said to fuel great ideas, and expressing them has long been lauded as therapeutic.

There is still a prevailing idea that says that creatives could – or should – draw on their pain and turn it into something abstract, meaningful, beautiful even.

Why not make it useful, at the very least, if you had to endure the worst of it?

The risk is, you become more vulnerable.

Claire Coleman, a freelance writer, believes you should look to personal pain to inspire creative work with extreme caution and consideration.

‘I’ve slightly railed against the idea of the tortured artist,’ she tells

‘The idea of having to be miserable in order to create great art is dangerous and I feel to a certain extent it devalues work, because there is this sense this is something within someone that has to be got out in some form of creative process.

‘I slightly worry about the fetishisation and romanticisation of mental health problems. If you need therapy – go and get therapy. Don’t pour your heart out in an article.’

The reason for her ‘worry’ about people who do this, despite enjoying reading confessional work still (after all, it is very engaging), is in the vast way culture is consumed today.

Rather than art live in a quiet corner of a gallery or column in a zine, social media and the internet has meant that work can be shared anywhere – sometimes in places it was never intended to go.

Baring your soul is now available for all to see.

‘I’m not saying these stories shouldn’t be told,’ Claire adds, rather the issue is in how they are told.

Adele recently admitted some of her newest songs make her cry (Picture: Vogue / YouTube)

In a video interview with Vogue, Adele, who has been open about how her divorce informed her upcoming album, said: ‘I do to quite a few of my new ones yeah,’ when asked if she cries to her own songs.

Hopefully, some aftercare is involved post-performances of them.

Caroline Plumer, psychotherapist at CPPC London, says this is important when your work elicits an emotional response, because ‘it can be really cathartic to direct difficult feelings into your art.

‘However, if this is your only outlet and you’re not working to fully process your pain or experiences, and looking at healthier ways of dealing with issues in the future, it is more than likely you’ll become trapped in unhealthy patterns that can ultimately be very self-destructive.’

These patterns might include oversharing, exposing, and even trauma dumping.

Despite this concern, Adele has been hugely successful in part because of her deeply personal song lyrics, which people can connect to.

The same goes for writer Dolly Alderton, whose confessional book on her love life, Everything I Know About Love, brought new heights of success to her career thanks to fans who could relate.

This is of course one of the main cases for letting ‘bad’ moments inspire work.

Delphine Diallo, a 44-year-old photographer, is also keen on making use of her life experiences when shooting for projects.

Frustrations with patriarchy and personal encounters of the male gaze inform her photography in particular.

‘I think it’s very empowering,’ she says, when asked why she lets her personal life inspire her art.

‘Storytelling is very important and my personal story can empower a lot of women.’

Ever confessional, she draws on her ‘fear, pain, failure’ and a traumatic period of her life in which she discovered her ex-partner of 14 years had been cheating on her.

‘It activated something in me’ – and that something gave her both ‘courage’ and exposes itself in the way she works.

She recognises it’s a ‘regular story’ in that cheating is a common yet painful experience, and yet that doesn’t diminish the uniqueness in her personal story – this is where she feels she has something to offer.

‘If it’s happened to me, every human being has this in them … people can relate,’ she adds, believing it’s her ‘mission’ to communicate and express things authentically.

Her heritage drives this feeling too, as she wants to stay away from tired representations of the Black women she photographs.

‘Storytelling is very important and my personal story can empower a lot of women for sure.’ (Picture: Delphine Diallo)

‘I’m going to make history of black women being healers and warriors,’ she passionately says – and for Delphine, it’s something she can achieve through getting personal.

This idea of bettering what’s existed before you through exploring memories arguably makes the exposure worthwhile and vital.

Kathryn Dombrowicz, a psychotherapist at The Soke says there is something to gain from blurring the boundaries.

‘There are times when we can have difficulty expressing ourselves verbally and we might need to find our voice in a different way.

‘Creativity can be accessed in myriad ways such as through painting, writing, dancing, drama, sculpting, making jewellery, singing, playing music, and so on.

‘It is not the medium that is key here, rather it is having the means to allow organic self-expression and emotional release via a medium which can bypass our logical minds to access deeper feelings, awareness, flow.’

But for all that good willed openness, how does this leave the individual doing the work?

Delphine’s manager, Marine Tanguy, who works for a leading art agency, says when sensitive topics do come up, it’s her job in part to make sure the artist is able to handle the possible realities that can come with being open.

Caroline says this is key because art can be criticised and anything stemming from a potentially traumatic place is going to sting more.

‘It is worth bearing in mind, that once you put your pain into any art form that is going to be publicly consumed, you are potentially opening your innermost feelings and thoughts up to be critiqued,’ she notes.

‘This is fine if the pain in the art has already been processed in a healthy way and you are feeling resilient enough to ignore or hold lightly the opinions of others, but it can be very painful to have something that is deeply personal and born of your darkest experiences, commented on and even criticised.’

As generations go, Millennials are far more open than their predecessors – and now it seems things are swinging back the other way again, as Gen Z are said to be more cautious about what they share online.

It’s long been noted that age groups tend to defy the one that came before them, but perhaps Gen Z are doing so with good reason.

Claire, when having ventured into personal territory a couple of times over her career, adopted a pseudonym.

‘You have your story, you can use it and it’s unique to you, but I think you need to think carefully before you do,’ she tells us.

‘There are parts of my life that are really rich fodder for stuff that could make me a lot of money and I’ve decided not to write about them.’

The moment that solidified this approach of hers was when she spotting someone next to her on the Tube reading one of her stories.

‘It made me realise, this wasn’t something I was doing in a vacuum.’

There is a real generosity in being emotionally open in any mode of art that should be praised – but the repercussions shouldn’t be ignored.

Choosing to let pain inspire art is a complex thing.

To chat about mental health in an open, non-judgmental space, join our Mentally Yours Facebook group.

Follow us on Twitter at @MentallyYrs.

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