The Art of The Tortured Genius

In this post I explore the image of the tortured genius - talented individuals plagued by self doubt and inner torment. You can see my previous ''Interview With An Alcoholic'' here.

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All artists are willing to suffer for their work. But why are so few prepared to learn to draw?

To me, the concept of suffering for your art means going the extra mile to put out something worthwhile, and putting your neck on the line for it. Like I am doing here with this blog. Will anyone care to read it, slate it, ignore it?. I’ll have to suffer the unknown, at least until it’s out there. Suffer, ha ha, would you ever go and…

Think of any public figure you may look up to. An athlete or musician with long, storied careers and achievements left right and centre. Chances are that it didn’t come wrapped in a bow.  That’s how they fill up the autobiographies. Unless you look up to the Kardashian family, enough said. Caitlyn Jenner was an athlete though…I know they’re an easy target and having a go at them is cliche at this stage. But we all know what Kim did, and what happened next. The camera doesn’t lie 😉

And of course it’s not just public figures. Apply it to your own life. It doesn’t even have to be ”art”. You may be working in a career you don’t want to be in just to fund your breakthrough into another one.  And you do it to get where you want to be.

On a heavier note, I am going to zone in on some notable figures who struggled in their field, like Cobain,  Van Gogh and Sylvia Plath. They fall under the trope of the tortured genius. I’ll be exploring these cases in some detail,  while trying to come to a conclusion as to why these individuals are often a hotbed of insecurity, self doubt, depression and ultimately tragedy. Is it the fame, or the sheer level of creative genius they were blessed with a burden?

Kurt Cobain

My featured image, does he need an introduction? This man has always fascinated me. Why did he do it (if Courtney didn’t)? And how did he conjure up the image of the tortured soul he is often associated with?

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Let’s look at his early life. As a youth, Cobain struggled to find peace, amid a troubled, abusive family background and alienation at school. He showed empathy and sensitivity from an early age by siding with gay students who were also targets of bullying.  Though he asserted that ”he didn’t like people”, he showed a social conscience in that he despised homophobia.

He discovered music as his calling, having played instruments since the age of four. He formed Nirvana, a grunge rock band with Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, and set about on a path that would change his life. Going from a quiet, sensitive lad from Aberdeen to the ”voice of a generation of youth, Generation X”.

In the course of his career, Cobain developed a drug problem and suffered with depression.  He also had complications from a stomach condition.

Kurt’s songwriting had a dark, often personal and abstract edge, reflecting the inner world of the man. Anything from rape to the human body were themes. He was a lover of poetry, and this lent itself to the creation of the classic Nevermind.

With Nirvana, Kurt became a multi million selling artist. Their music was praised for it’s uniqueness and unconventional themes , and pushing forward a new movement of grunge in the 90s.

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Personally, I love the out there nature of the band’s expression, namely the lyrics.  ”I’m so ugly,  that’s okay cause so are you, we broke our mirrors‘. A humorous celebration of the imperfect. ”Nevermind” the odd screaming , the aggressive strumming, this was Nirvana, take it or leave it.

Cobain took an overdose a month before his actual death, before dying of a gunshot wound in 1994. The circumstances of his death are still widely debated, including his wife Courtney Love’s role in the incident. There are frequent calls for the investigation to be reopened.

A note was left behind which he detailed his disillusionment with fame, not being able to feel the buzz of performance as Freddie Mercury did. He refers to himself as ”an erratic moody baby, a miserable, self destructive, aging death rocker‘.  He refers to his hatred of humans since the age of seven. Though worrying, the note was at least telling of his mental state.

His personal journals were published years ago,and are said to give more of an insight into what made him tick. I haven’t read them , nor am I sure I have any intention to. But it’s out there for those who are curious.

Krist Novoselic on the man he knew, and his ”tortured artist” image:

 

”No I don’t have a gun”

Kurt died before I was even born, so I can only go by my own opinion/ analysis of how things ended up the way they did.  He certainly fits the criteria of the ”tortured genius”. His songwriting was intelligent and critically acclaimed. He had fans in every direction, perhaps in every continent. Yet it wasn’t enough ,the man was unhappy. Jaded by fame at odds with his personality. Depression and heroin took over his life.  He was sensitive, loving of his wife and child, yet bitter at the wider world. A contradiction of a man at odds with himself. To me, he is the depiction of the phrase.

Van Gogh, Plath & Science

Kurt Cobain was not alone in juggling artistic strength and inner turmoil. Vincent Van Gogh, the legendary painter, famously cut off his own ear in a fit of rage. He shared many of Cobain’s traits, sensitive and introspective.  Sadly he only came to prominence after his death by suicide. He is now seen as having formed the framework of today’s art styles.

 

Sylvia Plath, prize winning poet and author of the Bell Jar, was another notable figure whose life was shrouded in mental breakdowns, a troubled relationship and an untimely end at just 30, again by the all too familiar suicide. However, she was an accomplished writer, poet, teacher and mother, her children the subject of some of her work. She was the first ever to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize posthumously.  I even studied her poetry myself, Morning Song burned into my brain. Plath is seen as a feminist icon in some  ways.

How does this imagery of the struggling artist measure up against science? is there a link between creativity and mental health problems?

Recent research has indeed suggested that there such a link between creative professions and suicide, with suicides from people in creative roles significantly higher than the national average (England).

The image of the tortured, misunderstood genius has drawn criticism for glamorizing and romanticizing  mental illness and suicide. My intention was not to glamorize it, but merely explore it.  There is nothing glamorous in dying so young.

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I suppose if you are lucky to be blessed with a certain amount of talent, it must come at  a cost. It could be overwhelming. Yet there are some who say their illness has helped them.

My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness….without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder … my sufferings are part of my self and my art.” – Edvard Munch

What do you think? Is it bullshit? Are the actors, writers, poets, academics and comedians among us cursed with inner demons? Are we as a society just in our heads too much?

 

 

 

 

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