The Angsty Artist Myth

First off, I have to admit that I watch some bad tv shows. Just getting it out of the way, because I'm about to mention Desperate Housewives. It's one of those ridiculous train wrecks that you just can't stop watching because is so... intriguingly bad. Usually I enjoy watching my bad tv because it's a bit of an escape into silly drama, and it's a nice distraction while doing things like laying down mini hardwood floors in a dollhouse... (there's a hint for an upcoming dollhouse post for you), but as an artist and art teacher, a side plot that has been unfolding recently is driving me insane.

It's the old "real art is angsty" concept. "Real art is about passion, rage, anything deeply emotional. Real artists are tortured inside." I have heard this strange theory way too many times. 

(A small aside: ironically, when I googled the word "angsty" to make sure I was spelling it right since my spell-check is a little upset at me about the word, the fifth result was titled "True Art is Angsty -  Television Tropes & Idioms." That site was talking more about the artsy factor of books and films, but the point is the same.)

from my "angsty" google search

This whole concept annoys the pants off me. I mean, really? You're going to tell me that art can only come from one emotion? That art has to be incredibly emotional to be art? That just pisses me off. I believe that everyone experiences art-making in their own way. What depressed and lonely artist decided that only people like them could be true artists? And why did anyone listen to them?? To them I say, who are you to tell me what it should feel like to make art? Art is expansive. Art is infinite. Only I can determine what my art will be. 

On the show, one of the main characters is taking an art class with a teacher whom she admires as an amazing artist, and he turns out to be a complete jerk who has some lovely comments about what it means to be a "real" artist, such as:
  • "But see, when you say art, you mean a hedgehog with a stethoscope, and to me art means reaching down your throat, tearing your guts out and smearing it all over a canvas. Anger. Passion. That's what interests me."
  • "You're hiding something, and I'm going to pull it out of you, and when that happens there is a chance, the remotest, slimmest, wisp of a chance, that you might actually become an artist."
  • "Every time you sit down to paint, and don't paint the fear and pain that's in you, you're lying."
  • Teacher (very serious): "You need to know something about being a true artist. This gift, this curse, whatever it is, it consumes you and blots out everything else: friends, family, everything."    Susan (shocked): "I would never let that happen to me."    Teacher (dramatically): "You may not have a choice."

I mean, really?? I would have a hard time saying these lines without getting overdramatic in a very "are you kidding me? who wrote this garbage?" kind-of way. Or else angrier and angrier until this so-called great artist character would tell me I was finally ready to make some "real" art. 

But the best part is when Susan goes all crazy and starts throwing paint, painting with her hands, and ripping up her canvas with her bare hands, and you just know the viewer is supposed to say, "ah yes, she must be a real artist!" Like so:

You'll have to imagine the whiny yelling: "You know, I am not some shallow soccer mom! I have done things that you can't believe! I have anger, and I have pain! I have secrets in me that I wish I could get rid of and I can't!" It's almost too good...
And later:
both screenshots from hulu
Hilariously, I think they may have used a hand double for the second scene because it flashes back and forth between the actress's emotional face and the hands moving frantically across the canvas, first with a brush, and then (when she can't take the pain any longer!) with her bare hands. Apparently Teri Hatcher wasn't good enough at painting with her hands for this scene. Ouch. 

Back to the point...
Yes, some great artists do come from this angsty, angry, emotional perspective, and it can be done well. Just look at Francis Bacon:

(click on images for link to source)

Or even one of my favorites, Willem de Kooning:

from here
 Now that guy had some lady issues, if his series of angry, over-sexualized women is saying anything about his emotional state.

But, there are many many more artists who paint, draw, collage, etc. in countless different ways, with various emotions, points of view, or whatever you want to call it.

Just look at this emotionless painting of a woman by another one of my favorite artists, Wayne Thiebaud:

from here
I actually painted a self-portrait based on this painting when I was in high school, and it was basically the beginning of my love of painting people. But that's a story for another day...

Or here's a completely different take:
from here, by wonderful Etsy artist/illustrator Katie Vernon of Chipmunk Cheeks
I love this! It's carefully executed, it's joyful with the explosion of flowers, while also a bit pensive with the strange expression on that anthropomorphic whale's face. Yes, it's an illustration, a dirty word for some artists (including the awful artist on the show), but I say, why not? 

My point is: there is no right way to make art. It amazes me that proponents of the tortured artist don't realize they are actually doing the opposite of what they claim: rather than tapping into some endless internal well of magical art-making emotion, they are boxing in artistic expression into a neat little package of angst. So I can just say, "ok, I want to make some art... time to get angsty! I hate this, I feel terrible about that, this aches in my soul! Now I throw paint, I rip canvas, I use lots of black! There, it must be art!" Whereas if I am precise, if I work slowly and carefully to craft an image that is aesthetically interesting, then it doesn't count. Or fill in the blank with any other equally valid artistic process. 

The angsty artist theory does a disservice to the whole concept of ART. It tries to limit something that is inherently limitless. I'm not saying that I personally like everything that has been called art. I have my own preferences, as everyone should. No one is required to like everything. But NO ONE is allowed to tell me that something is not art because it does not come from a place of angst. Art can express every emotion from joy, to anger, to hope, to confusion, the list goes on and on, and ends with art that is neutral--devoid of emotion, purely about the form, the color, the line, the aesthetics. 

But I have to say, the worst thing about the jerky artist on Desperate Housewives is that when he insults her home decor, instead of commenting on all the terrible boring happening in the space (yes, boring is now a noun), he insults her ceramic elephants:  "Now excuse me, this is about as long as I can spend in a room decorated with ceramic elephants." Really? They weren't the best, but at least they were interesting!

What do you think about tortured artists? Can artists actually be happy? Anyone have a great reason to disagree with me? I would love to hear it!
Or anyone else want to fess up to watching some bad tv? I bet you do...


  1. You need to watch Art School Confidential!

  2. Desperate Housewives is ridiculous and is doing artists a disservice by showing this crazed art teacher, who wants everyone to be angry. This character just fit into their plot of trying to show that Susan has a lot of guilt and anger about helping cover up a murder. This show has way too many murder mysteries!

    It is unfortunate that this national TV show continues the myth that real artists are all crazed, angry people.

    It also continues the US public's thought that art does NOT belong in the public school curriculum, because it's somehow 'bad'.

    Anyway, I like beautiful art and putting together colors, textures and shapes. I'm not an angry person at all.

  3. what I don't agree with is your statement that Desperate Housewives is so bad. Its so good!!

  4. I'm guilty of watching some train-wreck T.V. Teen Mom... Yeah, I said it. And the Real Housewives... of Jersey, NY, OC & Beverly Hills. I told ya. It's bad. And I didn't even mention the E! shows... Eek.

  5. She should know, I can tell she's a girl just by the prose, and then her name Julia confirmed it. You are already emotional, and that makes you an Artist. Don't deny it. That True Art is Angst is true, because it is driven by desperation to bring out the best of anything. Factor in; An Evolution

  6. Honestly, I agree with you. To hell with the thought that art can only be angsty and full of pain.


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