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History is littered with tortured artists. From Van Gogh to Ernest Hemingway to Kurt Cobain – brilliant artists who suffered for their art. These are all artists who had extraordinary gifts but were plagued by internal problems that often led to their premature demise.

Tortured artists

Does an artist really have to suffer to make great art? This common theory has developed over time due to the sheer number of tortured artists that the music industry in particular, has to answer for. But upon closer examination, that perception can be deceiving. Just look at two famous examples of the ‘27’ club.

Jimi Hendrix completely re-wrote the electric guitar handbook, taking it to exciting new realms and lived an outrageously lavish lifestyle that ended in his premature death from an accidental overdose in 1970.

Does an artist really have to suffer to make great art? This common theory has developed over time due to the sheer number of tortured artists that the music industry in particular, has to answer for.

The Doors’ lead singer, Jim Morrison became one of the most iconic frontmen of the time. Known for his erratic outbursts during onstage performances, Morrison subsequently developed an alcohol dependency, which culminated in another, untimely grave in 1971.

Notice a pattern? Apart from developing self-destructive habits, which led to their early demise, both legendary artists had troubled childhoods and struggled to develop meaningful relationships in their adult lives. Both artists also lived in a time when drugs were not only freely accessible and widely used; they were becoming heavier by the year, which culminated in the end of the optimistic ‘60s and crashing headfirst into the cynical ‘70s.

Self-nurturing artists

Not all musical geniuses die young though. Some not only go on to have great career longevity, they do so in very self-nurturing ways. Let’s look at two examples from a similar era, whose careers started to bloom at the turn of the ’70s.

With a career spanning decades, David Bowie was able to adapt to changing shifts in musical styles and tastes. As varied a career as you’ll ever see, he always managed to get the best out of himself as an artist. David Bowie is arguably the best modern example of this. Even on his deathbed he was recording music, right up until the end. The fact that he channelled his terminal cancer diagnosis into an album and even filmed the video clip for “Black Star” while in his hospital bed is a remarkably positive, creative outcome.

Tom Waits is another great example. Considered a booze-hound early in his career, he managed to inject new life into his music after collaborating with wife Kathleen Brennan on his seminal 1983 album, Swordfishtrombones. He has been re-inventing himself ever since, even taking inspiration from his own children who have had successful careers in their own right.

Both Bowie and Waits not only managed to survive the drug haze of the ’60s & ’70s, they’ve consistently raised the bar with each progressive release and added to the rich canon of musical history.

There is a certain ‘cult’ to being a successful musician that goes something like this: in order to make great art, one has to suffer. Dying young adds to this cult, of course.

Sure, pain and suffering can often be a catalyst for great art but the facts are misrepresented. All of the above artists created ground-breaking music but history always tends to place the tortured artist on a pedestal.

Sure, pain and suffering can often be a catalyst for great art but the facts are misrepresented. All of the above artists created ground-breaking music but history always tends to place the tortured artist on a pedestal. There are plenty of examples of artists who learned how to positively channel their creative energies to produce brilliant works of art despite the vast external or internal pressures ever present. You may have to search a little harder to find them but they are there.

The fact of the matter is, the more unburdened we are from our own inner torment, the freer we are to dip into our inner creative well and produce some truly remarkable works of art for an extended duration of time. Bowie and Waits are testaments to this fact.

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