I recently finished watching The Queen’s Gambit, and the thing I found most striking was the protagonist’s substance abuse, and her dependence on drugs to be able to perform her best in the matches. This reminded me of the ‘tortured artist’ trope and its public perception.
The most well-known tortured artist referenced in pop-culture is probably Van Gogh and his seminal piece of work ‘Starry nights’, associated with him having painted it during his time in an asylum. Many other creative individuals are categorized under the same trope, such as Beethoven’s musical genius as a result of him descending into madness for losing his hearing, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s writing prowess resultant of a traumatic childhood. Other authors such as Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf often have their writing abilities linked to their struggles with mental health. This kind of trope becomes more rooted as other instances of master pieces being produced due to emotional turmoil such as Frida Kahlo’s ‘Two Fridas’ come to light.
The list is endless but goes to show that although many creative individuals struggle with their mental health, their brilliance is attributed to their mental health issues, giving rise to the ‘tortured artist’ trope. Although The Queen’s Gambit depicts the protagonist overcoming her substance dependence to peak in her career, and is a welcome change, time and again, film and other forms of entertainment have been profiting off of this notion. Be it the portrayal of John Nash’s brilliant capability to compute as a result of his schizophrenic hallucinations in the movie ‘A Beautiful Mind’, or the portrayal of Natalie Portman dying in the pursuit of perfection to compete for the star role in a ballet production in the movie ‘Black Swan’. Both these films perpetuate a dangerous notion that brilliance and madness must go together.
Historical correlations of masterpieces with their mad creative geniuses, combined with romanticized portrayal of the same in mass media, normalizes such issues in the public psyche. This almost places an individual struggling with mental health issues a rite of passage for achieving brilliance. This is dangerous as it is at the expense of such individuals and puts them at risk of premature deaths. Art is a great cathartic outlet, and very often is a reflection of intense emotions, but it should be never used to justify the trope of a tortured artist, and it is time we start addressing associated mental health issues separately and more seriously.