Gen z is killing the tortured artist myth (finally)

Studies show that drugs, alcohol and mental illness don’t make us more creative – so why do we still believe in the tortured artist myth?

Hero image in post
photo: Whiplash / Blumhouse Productions
Hero image in post
photo: Whiplash / Blumhouse Productions

Studies show that drugs, alcohol and mental illness don’t make us more creative – so why do we still believe in the tortured artist myth?

By Sophie Lou Wilson15 May 2023
11 mins read time
11 mins read time

It’s 3am and you’re hunched over your laptop frantically punching away at the keyboard. You pause, take a drag on the half-finished cigarette resting in the ashtray, knock back the dregs of the bottle of red you started earlier, lean back and read what you’ve written. “THIS!” you think. “This is my masterpiece!” This was worth finishing that bag of coke you had left over from a night out for. You don’t usually do drugs alone, but you’re an artist and you’re making art so it doesn’t count – right?

After peeling your face from the pillow the following afternoon, you reach for your laptop and squint at the screen through a piercing headache. Your heart races as you realise the masterpiece you wrote last night just isn’t that… good. The late night dreams of bestseller lists, literary millions and Twitter fame fall away and the comedown lodges itself in your brain where it stays for the rest of the weekend.

But something isn’t adding up. Names of prolific artists who used substances and made beautiful art roll off the tongue: Vincent Van Gogh, Amy Winehouse, Alexander McQueen. Rightly or wrongly, their troubled biographies only add to the cultural curiosity surrounding their work. When you were 13, you read that Ernest Hemingway said, “write drunk.” The “edit sober” part was left out – that just didn’t seem as glamorous. Later, you memorised Hunter S. Thompson’s daily routine (Chartreuse, cocaine, grass, Chivas, coffee, Heineken, clove cigarettes, gin.)

You read how Van Gogh would down glass after glass of absinthe with fellow artists in Paris – it’s believed that might have led to the episode where he cut off his own ear. Your A-Level English teacher told you how Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote 'Kubla Khan' while addicted to opium. A former head of Givenchy publicity claimed that Alexander McQueen would send his assistants out to get vitamins (read: cocaine) to fuel his frenzied, creative all nighters. Meanwhile, the number of famous musicians who’ve battled with, and lost against, substance issues is too numerous to count; the so-called '27 Club', which includes Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain, being the most notorious example.

The tortured artist myth is everywhere, telling us that all good artists must live in a state of constant suffering, struggling with mental illness, substance issues or, more often than not, a combination of the two. The trope has been romanticised, glamorised and commercialised to death. It’s the reason why you can buy erasers in the shape of Van Gogh’s ear or why Amy Winehouse is still the subject of endless ill-advised biopics, books and documentaries. It’s behind the romanticisation of Sylvia Plath on TikTok and the t-shirts with Kurt Cobain’s suicide note scrolled across them. Suffering, it seems, is a form of currency.

But the negative repercussions of the tortured artist myth go beyond the commercialisation of famous, dead artists. If we learn at an early age that artists live chaotic, destructive lifestyles, then it’s possible we’ll internalise this and try to emulate them. People don’t become addicts because they want to be artists – the reasons for addiction are far more complex – but the tortured artist myth can be a driving reason behind experimenting with substances in the first place and a justification once an unhealthy habit has begun.

The death of the tortured artist

The tortured artist myth is not only damaging. It’s also not true. That’s not to say that artists don’t suffer. Artists do suffer, but that’s because (shock!) artists are people and people suffer. Great art has been made under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Great art has been made during periods of mental illness. However, research suggests that mental illness does not enhance creativity. Likewise, a new study found that drugs and alcohol don’t make you more creative either. Instead travel, meditation, training and exposure to culture have a greater impact on creative output.

The research, led by Dr Paul Hanel from the University of Essex’s department of psychology, collated 80 studies that looked at the effects of substances on creativity, including tests that asked people to do the most creative thing they could think of with a paperclip. “We read stories about artists who take drugs,” says Hanel. “We always hear about the time they made a painting, but we don’t hear about the time they passed out.” He points to research suggesting that people who take drugs believe they’re more creative, but scientifically speaking, they’re not.

However, creativity can be difficult to measure by a scientific, quantifiable metric. What’s more, studies on the impact of drugs on creativity are fraught with potential ethical complications – you can’t get someone hooked on heroin, for example, just to see how it affects their creative output. Yet you don’t have to look far to find artists who are dispelling the myth that drugs and alcohol are necessary to make good art. NHS statistics from 2021 revealed that 38% of 16-24-year-olds in England either don’t drink or haven’t drunk in the last 12 months. That figure includes artists, writers, designers, and other creatives who are redefining what it looks like to live an artist’s lifestyle.

“I used to always say, ‘Oh, I write so much better when I’m drunk. I write so much better when I’m on drugs’, but I don’t really know if that was the case,” says 24-year-old writer Rebecca who’s been sober for almost a year. She recalls seeing Tumblr posts about Bryan Lewis Saunders’s haunting self-portrait series, ‘Under The Influence', where the artist took a different drug each day to see the results various substances would have on his art. The experiment included over 50 different legal, illegal and prescription drugs, including heroin, opium and crystal meth. As a teenager, Rebecca wanted to emulate that in some way, but now she says that “Doing a bunch of drugs just makes my mind and body feel like shit. It doesn’t make me suddenly creative and have all these great ideas.” Saunders himself suffered mild brain damage from his creative experiment.

In the past, communities of artists have drifted towards heavy drinking and substance use partly in response to conservative norms. In postwar America, for example, emerging countercultures were strongly associated with young people increasingly using mind-altering substances like marijuana, amphetamines and LSD. In right-wing media, a caricature of the artist emerged as a hippie drug addict, leading the groups described to double down on that identity. “It feels like you’re breaking some kind of societal boundary when you get wrecked,” says writer Bella, 25, who quit drinking four years ago. “You know you shouldn’t, but you just do it anyway.” A common fear among artists who are struggling with substances is that sobriety might mean living a conformist, non-creative life. But if you’re surrounded by other people drinking and doing drugs, sometimes the most subversive thing you can do is choose to be sober. Intoxication has started to lose its cool. Now, creative rebellion sometimes looks like not accepting the predominant drinking and drug-taking culture as the norm.

Romance versus reality: why artists really use drugs and alcohol

The tortured artist myth does hold a certain romance. It can make us feel like we’re part of a long line of artists who have lived, loved, drunk and suffered for their art. To live and die with such intensity can seem appealing – until it becomes your reality. And the reality is that there are many real social, psychological and material factors that contribute to the drinking and drug-taking habits of artists.

While studies have shown that mental illness doesn’t enhance creativity, being an artist or working in a creative career may make you more susceptible to certain anxious or depressive symptoms. Factors such as tight deadlines, high expectations, fierce criticism, economic uncertainty and regular rejection can all contribute to low mood and high stress which could contribute to mental health issues or exacerbate underlying ones. “We’re asking artists to do a lot,” says 24-year-old fashion designer Eerie, “especially considering the cost of living crisis. People can’t afford to eat, let alone make art. I think we’re asking people to be pushed to their physical limits which means it can be hard to get sober even if you want to.”

For Eerie, associations between substances and creativity became inescapable once they got to fashion school. “The culture was making friends in the smoking area, constantly getting through packets of tobacco and bottles of wine,” they say. The workload and pace of deadlines meant that all nighters were pretty much a given. “The human body is not made to do 48 hours in a row of being awake and working. It makes it really hard to be sober in those spaces because a sober body can’t do that.”

Eerie went sober last summer and would have done so sooner, only they thought drinking was necessary for their job. In some creative industries, drinking and drug-taking isn’t only tolerated, but rewarded. Creative success isn’t only about making good work, but knowing the right people and being in the room. Networking events complete with open bars come with expectations to stay out late, talk to people you don’t know and prove you’re fun to be around. Being sober in these situations can be daunting and substances can easily become a crutch, especially if you’re an introvert trying to come across as more extraverted than you really are. Eerie’s advice for navigating this sober? “Listen to your body. Get a tonic water. If you don’t feel comfortable in a space, you can just leave.”

Kill your darlings: finding healthier role models

Something that’s been instrumental in Eerie’s sober journey is surrounding themselves with a community of sober or sober curious artists who are defying the tortured artist archetype. So, changing the relationship you have with substances and creativity might require changing your role models and who you spend time with. You need to killing your darlings, whether that’s the tortured artist ideal you have in your mind, or your drink or drug of choice. After all, the impulse to create came before our introduction to alcohol. It started in childhood, the first time you held a crayon or played fancy dress.

While the tortured artist lifestyle is destructive, creativity is the opposite of destruction. Perhaps part of the tortured artist appeal is that, even in the depths of pain, there’s still hope. Of course, bad experiences can be turned into good art. Sometimes that’s the only consolation. But if you find yourself actively seeking out misery and chaos, it could have a knock on effect on your wellbeing. It’s possible that the artists we admire made art in spite of their substance issues rather than because of them.

That’s not to say that drugs and alcohol never have a positive effect on creativity. Many artists have spoken anecdotally about how substances have inspired their work. Harry Styles took magic mushrooms while recording Fine Line. Grimes made Visions during an amphetamine binge. However, a new archetype is also emerging. Musicians like Tyler, The Creator, Julien Baker, Florence Welch, Jack Harlow and Pharrell are proving that you can be sober and still make great art. Visual artists and writers, too, are increasingly speaking about how their sobriety has influenced their work for the better.

Rather than stifling creativity, many who go sober report feelings of greater mental clarity, self-discovery and, above all, more time to actually finish the creative projects they start. “I have so much free time and mental space from not going out from 5pm to 5am,” says Rebecca. “I can focus on enriching myself. I can watch a movie. I can read. I have a daily writing practice. I’m so much more creative in the morning. I could never have done that before when I was drinking.” Sobriety doesn’t mean the end of all suffering. If anything, it requires spending more time sitting with that suffering instead of seeking out chemical distractions. Learning to really feel your emotions rather than running away from them could help enrich your art.

Lastly, if you still want to indulge in the occasional wine-fuelled art session then that’s ok. Creating while drunk can be fun sometimes, even if it doesn’t always produce the best results. But no work is worth ruining your health for. If you want to cut down your substance consumption, or go sober completely, know that your identity as an artist isn’t tied to sitting outside cafes chaining cigs, drinking wine and spurting drunken, pithy epigrams. There are plenty of sober artists making art that’s just as mind-bending, cool and subversive as those who drink and take drugs. So, go outside, move your body, read books, fall in love, revel in the beauty of the world as well as the pain. Because the pain will pass. And when it does, you’ll still make good art anyway.

If you're struggling with your relationship with drugs or alcohol please visit Talk To Frank.