The Archetype Of The Suffering Artist Must Die

by Mandy de Waal

Click on over to the New York Times and you'll find a gallery of tortured artists. First up is a youthful, but ghostly looking Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud. The caption for the dark painting on the NYT site reads: “The Poet Rimbaud. Serial runaway. Absinthe and hashish benders. Shot by poet-lover Verlaine.”

Born in October 1854 in the Champagne-Ardenne region of France, Rimbaud started writing poetry in primary school. By the time he was 16 he'd already written Le Dormeur du Val [The Sleeper In The Valley].

“It is a green hollow where a stream gurgles,” the poem begins, before telling the story of “A young soldier, open-mouthed, bare-headed, With the nape of his neck bathed in cool blue watercress,” sleeping stretched out on the grass under the sky.

Written during the French-Prussian war, the denouement of this piece is tragic:

“No odour makes his nostrils quiver;

He sleeps in the sun, his hand on his breast

At peace. There are two red holes in his right side.”


Arthur Rimbaud – A poetic genius whose talent flowered early, but who turned his back on verse at the tender age of 21.

Rimbaud's life was no less grim. His genius flowered early, and then stalled. By the time he was 21 he'd stopped writing. Four years earlier he'd send Le Dormeur du Val to celebrated French poet, Paul Verlaine, who'd forsake his wife and child for Rimbaud. The relationship would end after a few short years after Verlaine discharged a gun at Rimbaud in a jealous, drunken rage. Rimbaud wouldn't die then, but at at the age of 37 after suffering many agonising months from bone cancer.

Also on display in the gallery of the artiste manqué is Frida Kahlo (1907 to 1954) who got polio at the age of six which withered her right leg, which was eventually amputated. It is also thought that Kahlo had spina bifida. When she was 18 the artist was in a freak bus accident. “The tram she was riding collided with a bus and the tram's handrail penetrated her vagina. In an extra and tragic irony, someone on the tram had been carrying gold paint which spilled over Frida and the other passengers,” Mike Gonzalez writes in ‘Frida Kahlo: a Life' for the Socialist Review.


Photographer unknown, Frida on a boat ride in the canal gardens of Xochimilco, n.d. Vicente Wolf Photography Collection. Via libby rosof on Flickr. Licensed through Creative Commons.

After the crash there was a long period of painful convalescence, and the Mexican painter would suffer from bouts of pain for the rest of her life. Then there was the emotional torment. The troubled, tempestuous relationship with Diego Rivera. His jealousies over her affairs, and her fury over his relationship with her sister, Cristina.

Others featured in the NYT's hall of hardship “The Composer Beethoven. Sixteen when mom died. Went deaf at height of his gift. Chronic pain.” You'll also find the Novelist Jean Genet. [“Mom a prostitute. As was he. Put up for adoption. Vagabond. Thief.”].

The underlying narrative of these and countless other stories that underscore the archetype of the suffering artist which pervades and permeates the psyches of today's creators and makers. The narrative goes like this: if you want to be a Van Gogh you've got to cut off your ear. You've got to suffer for your art.

But thankfully, there are those who think that the notion of the anguished artist is bullshit, and I've got to say I agree with the wholeheartedly. Surrealist film legend David Lynch thinks that suffering doesn't turn artistic dross to gold, but says it hinders artists.


Photograph of David Lynch courtesy of _titi on Flickr – lisenced through Creative Commons.

“It's good for the artist to understand conflict and stress. Those things can give you ideas. But I guarantee you, if you have enough stress, you won't be able to create. And if you have enough conflict, it will just get in the way of your creativity,” writes Lynch in his book Catching the Big Fish.

“Some artists believe that anger, depression or these negative things give them an edge. They think they need to hold onto that anger and fear so they can put it in their work. And they don't like the idea of getting happy — it makes them want to puke. They think it would make them lose this supposed power of the negative,” Lynch writes.

But torturing oneself for some kind of creative return doesn't make sense, now does it? Where's the logic in that? Or as Lynch writes: “It's common sense: The more the artist is suffering, the less creative he is going to be. It's less likely that he is going to enjoy doing his work and less likely that he will be able to do really good work,”

In South Africa, educator and digital luminary, Dave Duarte, is no fan of the starving artist archetype either and is actively doing to disrupt it. The CEO of learning and teaching company and a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum believes “the story of the struggling artist has gone on long enough.”

“We don't treat the artistic and creative disciplines with the same current economic respect as we do so many other disciplines, and yet artists can be just as impactful and transformative as entrepreneurs and businesses – if not more so,” says Duarte, who together with Elaine Rumboll [managing director of The Creative Leadership Consultancy] teaches artists how to reject the myth of the ‘starving artist' by becoming successful creators and makers.


Dave Duarte

“Each year we get about 30 to 40 artists from a range of different disciplines – from sculpture and fine art to Graphic design and product design and video or writing or comedy. People with a diverse range of disciplines come together to learn the basic business skills that aren't taught,” Duarte says. “This problem was identified by Elaine [Dave's muse and life partner] as critically important because fundamentally, practicing artists are creative entrepreneurs – they enter the business market and have to fend for themselves.”

“We're disrupting the ‘starving artist' myth by dealing with misconceptions that are deeply ingrained in the culture of arts. One of these fantasies is that being commercially oriented undermines the integrity of one's work. Myths like these are deeply held misconceptions that are perhaps even taught at art and/or design schools and become criticisms of art or artists. Culturally artists who are commercially successful can be seen as sell-outs or lacking integrity, which is nonsense,” Duarte says.

Duarte – who serves on Endeavor's Venture Corps and in so doing helps the organisation achieve its goal of supporting high-impact entrepreneurs across the world – explains that it doesn't make sense for society to enable athletes or lawyers or accountants to be professional, while expecting artists to suffer and starve. “We are conscientising and changing the creative space by showing people how making money is not the opposite of doing good art,” he says.

“The first thing that artists need to realise is that as an artist you are a creative entrepreneur essentially, and that what you want to do is to create financial constancy for yourself so you can focus on your work at the very least,” says Duarte, adding that artists need to create platforms for their business that enable scale.

What are the first things all artists, makers and creators need to learn? “Things like cash flow are really important to understand but are not well understood business concepts in the arts community. In creative spaces we don't talk about deal flow leads; how to negotiate; how to make sales; or how to close deals. All of these conversations are really important for creating sustainable businesses,” says Duarte.

Other important lessons artists need to learn speak to sales and marketing. “Sales is like hunting and marketing is like farming,” says Duarte, who then explains: “Sales will give you a quick win. You get a quick win, but this requires a lot of energy because artists must go out and to get these quick wins.” Being in a ‘sales oriented mode' is very different to creating art, and is almost a separate part of an artist's work.

“Sales can take you out of your process. This is fine, and this is necessary, but to be sustainable as an artist in the long run, creators and makers should be thinking about the branding and marketing perspective, which is more about being a farmer. Being a farmer is about taking a long view on things,” says Duarte. Just as farmers plant and nurture and nourish, so too artists need to consider and do that which grows their brands.

Farming is about of investing in the creative brand, the artist's reach, and the artist's community which enables a pull, rather than a push type marketing strategy. “Farming as an analogy for branding means artists don't have to go out to their markets that much and disrupt their creative work and process. Farming is about creating branding that enables an artist's market to come in and meet them a lot more often,” Duarte says.

Rumboll and Duarte's key teachings for artists also include the basics of branding. Sensory consistency shows creatives how to look and sound the same online as in the real world, and there are teachings in experiential consistency. “For instance if your work is provocative, hopefully you are as provocative in your marketing of the work. Emotional consistency is how you make people feel around your work and you,” Duarte explains, stressing that it is important to have an underlying consistency and to communicate consistently to the marketplace, because this is what grows brands. “In other words don't consider marketing as something that is separate from the act of producing your work. It is an extension and a part of your creative product that that you need to imbue your philosophy into,” he says.

The thinking behind this speaks to a concept articulated by the founding executive editor of Wired magazine, which is that of ‘a thousand true fans'. In a wildly popular blog post written in March 2008 the author of New Rules for the New Economy: 10 Radical Strategies for a Connected World Cand What Technology Wants states: “The long tail is a decidedly mixed blessing for creators. Individual artists, producers, inventors and makers are overlooked in the equation. The long tail does not raise the sales of creators much, but it does add massive competition and endless downward pressure on prices. Unless artists become a large aggregator of other artist's works, the long tail offers no path out of the quiet doldrums of minuscule sales.”

The Long Tail is an expression used to articulate the market shift from mainstream products to the niche, a shift that was enabled by the democratisation of economies and markets by the internet. The best thinking on this phenomenon is captured in a book written by the current editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine, Chris Anderson called The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More.

Kelly says that rather than “aiming for a blockbuster hit” artists should escape the long tail by finding 1,000 “true fans”. “A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author – in other words, anyone producing works of art – needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living,” writes Kelly. “A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce.”

“They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can't wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans,” Kelly writes.

In short the thinking is that to become sustainable businesses, artists should aspire to have at least one thousand true fans.

Elaine Rumboll

Elaine Rumboll

Why do we want our artists to survive and thrive? “For innovation to thrive in a country, you need artists,” says Rumboll on a YouTube video that promotes Business Acumen For Artists. “You need that creativity to drive any innovation. Without artists, innovation cannot happen. Rumboll says that in a coming paradigm shift, artists will be known as creative entrepreneurs.

Rumboll declares: “The absolute starting point is the knowledge that what Andy Warhol said is true, and this is that being good at business is the most fascinating kind of art.”

The archetype of the artist who must suffer for society is as flawed as it is outdated. It is time for that myth to depart. Long live artists who create, and contribute to society, and who make a sustainable, happy livelihood doing this.

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Read more:

Why I hate the myth of the suffering artist by Al Kennedy at The Guardian.

The Myth of the Tortured Artist at The Daily Beast.