What Experts Got Wrong About The Relationship Between Suffering And Art

We’re all familiar with the myth of the tortured artist.

Historically, this vision might take the form of a white dude dripping in booze, locked up in his studio, with only a paintbrush and a photo of his long lost lover to keep him company. The archetypal suffering artist, of course, is Vincent van Gogh, who battled mental illness from a young age and officially secured his spot as suffering artist par excellence when he, as the legend goes, chopped off his ear with a razor blade.

Recently, Kathryn Graddy, professor of economics at Brandeis University, completed a study suggesting that the myth of the tortured artist was little more than that: a myth.

In a study titled “Death, Bereavement, and Creativity,” Graddy analyzed sales data and museum acquisition histories for 12,000 works from 48 artists, made between 1900 and 1920.

Specifically, she looked at how artworks made shortly after the death of a loved one fared in comparison to artworks made by the same artist in supposedly happier times. All of her subjects, as stated in the study, “experience loss through death of a close relative or friend at some point in their lives, geniuses and superstars included. This paper seeks to measure the effect of this loss on creative output.”

Graddy found that artworks made during times of duress fared worse than works made in more stable periods — meaning, they sold for significantly less at auction and were less likely to be included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection.

For example, Graddy cites the fact that Pablo Picasso’s iconic Blue Period is often thought to have been a direct result of his friend Carlos Casagemas’ suicide. But this fruitful period in Picasso’s career still pales in comparison to his “Les Femmes d’Alger,” painted over 50 years —> Read More