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Why the Suffering Artist Archetype is so damaging for creatives

The ‘suffering artist’ is a romanticised archetype that has been perpetuated throughout history in literature, film, and popular culture. Whether the creative person’s suffering is mental, physical or financial, society tends to place a higher value on art created by those who lack the means to create easily than by those who do not need to struggle. And with that comes the perpetual loop of inequality, unrealistic expectations, and exploitation.


I’ve been a published author for seven years, making my living either through writing (books, articles, copywriting) or consultancy (working with creative and marketing agencies). As a creative freelancer and author, I’m often confronted by the oversimplified notion that those who choose to work in the arts do so for the passion alone (I often wonder how they think we make our money).


This longstanding cultural fascination with the image of the ‘starving artist’, the creative who sacrifices material comfort for the sake of their craft, has led to a distorted idealisation of suffering within an entire industry, thereby leading people to perceive artists who struggle financially as more authentic and committed to their art than those who are financially successful.


Society tells artists that Poverty + Suffering = Art. A convenient equation for those out to profit from the dreams and talents of those who simply long to tell stories for a living. Believe me, there is nothing romantic or virtuous about being unable to pay your bills. How do I know this? Because I am the result of the transgenerational trauma caused by such a mindset.


In the 1940s, amidst the Spanish civil war and second world war, my grandfather was imprisoned (and nearly executed) for being a painter. He was so obsessed with his art that he risked his life for it. From then until the day he died he went without money, without food, without adequate accommodation. He put his work before his children, his wife, and his future.


Did his suffering make his art better? I doubt it. Did he and his family also suffer as a result of this normalisation of poverty in the arts? Most certainly.


Yet when I tell his story it’s met with awe and fascination, and I’m told it’s the perfect example of the sacrifices required to create art to such a high standard. This cognitive dissonance has never sat easy with me, and as a writer myself I vowed that I would never perpetuate this myth of suffering for my art equalling talent and success.


As artists we deserve to be mentally healthy, treat our families kindly, and earn a fair wage for our art. No other industry would expect anything less. Yet while society continues to idolise creativity as something that emerges from adversity and hardship, artists will continue to be forced to choose between art or a comfortable lifestyle.

Artists who come from humble backgrounds or face financial challenges may be seen as more "authentic" or "genuine" in their artistic expression compared to those who come from more privileged backgrounds, but the truth is there’s rarely a happy ending in any creative’s story where they don’t receive the support or financial compensation they need.


The solution to this may well be to approach your art commercially. It didn’t do Dalí or Banksy any harm, did it?


Yet the flipside to being applauded for being a poor creative is that you’re also criticised when you finally earn money from your endeavours. Whereas artists who struggle financially are often perceived as maintaining their artistic integrity by prioritizing their creative vision over financial gain, artists who achieve financial success through commercial ventures or corporate sponsorship are often accused of "selling out" or compromising their artistic integrity for profit.


You can’t win. Yet this rarely happens in non-creative industries. Imagine criticizing a businessperson for growing their brand or telling a firefighter they don’t really care about the lives they save because they make a living from it.


Today art is viewed as a fundamental right by the consumer, but one that should be produced by someone who doesn’t do it for the money. With this mindset comes much wider, and damaging, implications.

Exploitation by profiting organisations


By romanticizing the idea that creativity is born from pain and suffering, this archetype perpetuates the notion that artistic work is inherently less valuable or deserving of fair compensation compared to other forms of labour. This belief undermines the skills, dedication, and expertise required to produce works of art, leading to a lack of recognition and respect for the contributions of artists and creatives.


The normalization of toxic work environments within creative industries, fueled by the belief that suffering is necessary for artistic success, creates barriers to fair wages and equitable treatment for artists and creatives. Employers may exploit the passion and dedication of artists by expecting them to work long hours for little pay while dismissing their concerns about burnout, exploitation, and inadequate compensation.


This is especially manipulative and insidious when the arts are a competitive and subjective business so many dream of working in.


Loss of talent


Most creatives are also freelancers, often facing irregular income, unstable job prospects, and financial insecurity. Fair wages provide stability, enabling creatives to pursue their passion as a viable career path rather than as a precarious side gig or hobby.


Without adequate financial support, many artists are forced to abandon their creative pursuits or seek alternative sources of income, detracting from their ability to focus on their art.


Silencing diverse voices


Additionally, the association between suffering and creativity can perpetuate harmful stereotypes that limit the diversity of artistic expression and reinforce oppressive power dynamics within creative industries. Creatives from marginalized communities, who may already face systemic barriers to entry and advancement, are particularly vulnerable to exploitation when their experiences and perspectives are reduced to stereotypes within the suffering artist archetype. This includes disadvantaged and working class voices, and those with dependents, who literally can’t afford to create without adequate and fair pay.


Normalising mental health difficulties


The normalisation of mental health struggles within the suffering artist archetype stigmatises their experiences, dismissing their need for support and fair treatment. When mental health issues are romanticised as essential components of creativity, it becomes easier for employers and society at large to overlook the well-being of artists and justify exploitative working conditions.


In conclusion, the suffering artist archetype is not only inaccurate but also harmful to the well-being and creative output of individuals in the artistic community. It perpetuates harmful stereotypes about the nature of creativity, normalises mental health struggles, limits artistic expression, creates unhealthy work environments, and undermines the value of the time and talent it takes for a creative to hone their craft.


So before you congratulate an artist for having had to struggle in order to gain recognition in their field, ask yourself why you feel the need for them to be martyrs for self-expression. Would you do your job better if you were paid less? Would the results of your labour be of a higher quality if you were suffering?


The answer is probably no. And artists are no different.



1 comentariu

Bean Aaron
Bean Aaron
11 iun.

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