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The ‘Unproductive’ Artists

Blogger: Anurekha Deb

(Artist, Art Writer)

(Trigger Warning: This article deals with topics related to mental illness)

We have dealt with the very unprecedented times of pandemic in the past year in whichever possible way we could. Pandemic has been a very difficult time in unexplainable ways, but the interesting thing about privilege is, it enables people to look at the brighter side of the worst things. I have come across some people, mostly people belonging to artistic fields to be precise, found pandemic to be a ‘blessing in disguise’ as some of them really had the privilege to treat the pandemic as a long holiday which enabled them to get a lot of free time to focus on their creativity and artistic productivity.

I too have been at the receiving end of the burden of continuous artistic productivity from people around because of the luxury of ‘free time’ the pandemic had offered to some people. In fact, staying at home is wrongly associated with idleness. This particular experience has opened me to a variety of thoughts and questions, and here in my article, I wish to discuss certain ideas, myths and prejudices which are often dangerous, that surrounds around an artist’s practice and persona throughout their lives, which has been constant since ages till the present times and has been affecting the artists’ community.

Regarding productivity, there have been many popular ideas and myths shoved down on our throats since years. One of the most common tropes is, the burden of converting ‘pain’ into ‘art’. Art has always been considered to be a medium of self expression, to such an extent that art is often mistook as therapy. Sure, art can be therapeutic to some people, but ‘art’ and ‘therapy’ are two different things.

Therapy is a medicated treatment of healing or helping people get relieved from certain mental illnesses or disorders. The disciplines of art and therapy have also been clubbed together in various instances where colouring books, mandalas, making origami etc. have been used as coping mechanisms to help people heal. Art therapy might have worked well for some people, but I would like to make a distinction between ‘art’ and ‘therapy/art therapy’.

We cannot leave artists with failing mental health to fend for themselves by expecting them to deal with their inner demons through art just because they have the knowledge and skill of art, and having the wrong impression that their art is supposed to ‘heal’ them. This is a deeply harmful and an unfair practice.

Because of this dangerous trope, the mental health of artists have often been ignored and the failing mental health of an artist has been considered to be a stimulant of their creativity. One of the biggest examples of an artist who has been considered to be a classic example of ‘the tortured artist’ is Vincent Van Gogh.

Vincent van Gogh, ‘Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear’, Oil on Canvas,1889

Apart from his art, the stories about his vulnerabilities have been widely discussed and studied upon, the most (in)famous story being of the self mutilation of his left ear. While people talk about his conflicted journey with himself, they often associate his failing mental health to be a trait of ‘genius’.

This trope has not been practiced only by people around artists, but also by artists themselves. Many artists refused treatment because they felt that might interfere with their creativity. Like Van Gogh, many artists from different creative fields like Edward Munch, Sylvia Plath, Kurt Cobain, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf to name a few amongst the innumerable number of artists who have been silently suffering from mental illnesses or addictions. No, mental illness is not exclusive to only artists, and it is definitely not art which can ‘treat’ fatal illnesses which requires medical intervention.

Edward Munch, ‘Anxiety’, Oil on Canvas, 1894

For ages, there have been repeated cases of artists who have died succumbing to mental illnesses, till today. Maybe their lives could have been better if they had received proper treatment and attention to their mental turmoil, rather than their failing mental health being constantly gaslit and romanticised.

In popular media narratives, and also in many artists’ works, there has been ‘romanticisation and glamorisation’ of suffering and mental illnesses. Such depiction of pain does not act as the real depiction of illnesses, but it simply paints a rosy and unrealistic picture of mental illness which has proved to become a catalyst to the systematic invalidation of mental illness.

As opposed to the popular opinion about the ‘depressed artist trope’ which carries the narrative of an artist being most productive when depressed. Well actually, most of the time, productivity takes a downward spiral when people are not at their most stable self.

Frida Kahlo, ‘The Broken Column’, Oil on Masonite, 1944

Interestingly, it brings me to the contrary example of Frida Kahlo, who hasbeen an excellent example of an artist expressing their inner turmoil in the form of art. She has had a painful journey in her lifetime, and her art acted as a medium for her processing her own feelings and experience.

The major distinction which I would like to make here is, art can be helpful to many people in order to process their emotions, but it is not necessarily applicable to everyone. People can use art as a medium of therapeutic release, but it is not a necessity.

One does not necessarily need to suffer in order to qualify as a promising artist.

Artists too, deserve to rest.

About the Author:

Anurekha Deb is a visual art practitioner and an independent writer from Guwahati, Assam. She is deeply interested in performing arts, namely acting and dance, and she always tries out ways to incorporate her performative persona into her art practice, whilst talking about the social issues she is deeply involved with such as body image, mental health, gender politics, womanhood, healing, sexuality, narratives of women in culture and history.


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