Refuting the Myth of the ‘Destructive Artist’
One of the most popular myths that has been promoted about – and adopted by – artists is that we must somehow be “destructive” to be brilliant. That we must somehow live painful or sordid lives to create great art. And that we must somehow let our dark sides become our default realities so that we can generate ideas that will move humanity forward.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Although it is true that there are artists who have spoken about the “benefits” of drug use, immoral behavior, sketchy relationships, and dangerous emotions for improving creativity, the reality is that these behaviors are not only unhelpful for our souls but they are unhelpful for our art.
We’ve all heard of a few famous artists who got high or abused women or generally were unpleasant people but were still nevertheless “successful.” And unfortunately we’ve often excused their character because we were blinded by their creativity and blinded by their gifts. If we like their art, for example, but don’t condone their destructive personal behavior we say to ourselves, “well that’s just an artist for you.” We convince ourselves that we can separate our enjoyment of their work from their character. We think, who are we to judge their baggage since we all have a little baggage ourselves?
While this perspective might make sense and be comforting to us, it is very dangerous for artists for several reasons:
First, it enables these artists to continue abusing themselves or others and consequently adds more unnecessary misery to the world (how many more overdoses, domestic violence cases, and other negative things do we really want to see because artists mistakenly believe their destructive behavior is ok as long as it is being validated by the market?).
Second, it doesn’t encourage (living) artists who are engaging in destructive behavior to seek the help they truly need (they don’t need more needles or turmoil or success, they need more therapy and love).
Third, it sends the signal to impressionable up-and-coming artists that it’s okay to be destructive for the sake of their art. It says to them, “the great ones are all this way.”
And fourth, it runs counter to the reality of what actually makes a good artist.
The truth is that the few artists who are destructive and happen to be successful are the exception to the rule, and not the rule itself (most successful artists are not destructive and data shows this). The reality is the vast majority of would-be artists who engage in destructive behaviors get stuck in these behaviors and never live up to their potential. The reality is, most of the artists who live in these destructive ways wind up living short, tortured, and tragic lives.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
We don’t have to encourage (or at least condone or excuse) destructive behaviors that lead to substance abuse, poor relationships, and terrible mental health in artists.
We don’t have to condone artists selling out their souls so that society can be briefly entertained by their work.
And we don’t have to condone the myth that pain and tragedy (i.e., destructive things) are the most important ingredients for artists’ creative genius.
Instead, we should do something entirely different than we’ve been doing when it comes to artists:
- We should encourage artists with potential to seek to live healthier lives and adopt beliefs and behaviors that, according to science, will actually improve not only their creativity but their productivity.
- We should encourage artists to read more broadly and engage in more diverse art forms to spark their imaginations (instead of believing that shooting up or wallowing in selfish behaviors are the tools they need to get creative inspiration).
- We should encourage artists to engage in more healthy reflection about themselves (not just reflections about how they are different or misunderstood or are a victim in society, but reflections about how they are real human beings who deserve peace, happiness, and wholeness like everyone else).
- And we should encourage artists to immerse themselves in communities of people who are not self-harming (either physically or emotionally) like they so often tend to do.
If we start to more actively refute the myth of the destructive artist, we can not only save many artists from hurting themselves but we can save many artists from hurting others. If we do, we’ll enable more of them to do what they were sent to this earth to do: create art that will lift up humanity that doesn’t require them to sell their souls.
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