Monday, July 25, 2011

Amy Winehouse and the tortured artist myth

Everyone is familiar with the idea of the tortured artist. Of course it's a bit of a cliche. But there's also a lot of truth to it. There have been many undeniably talented artists who were deeply troubled souls.

Associated with this is the belief that their talent is commensurate with their inner turmoil. That is, the more of a train wreck the artist's personal life is the more searingly brilliant his art will be.

You can definitely see this in the case of Amy Winehouse. When she was alive, superlatives were often used to describe her work. Now that's she's popped her clogs this tendency is even more pronounced. Hacks, critics, celebs and Facebookers are all saying what a genius she was.

Now, I don't know much about music. But I know what I like. And from what I've heard of Winehouse I would never say she was a genius. You could say that about Louis Armstrong, or Ray Charles. But the chick who sang "Rehab"? She was good. But she wasn't that good.

Frankly, I think this whole tortured artist myth has a lot to answer for. A helluva lot of cultural and artistic taste-makers and trendsetters really seem to get off on it. They'll sing the praises of an artist who is screwed up but mediocre over one who is brilliant but emotionally stable every time. If you're a performer of some kind it's a pretty good career move to have a raging drug habit and a history of failed, dysfunctional relationships. Then all your work will be seen through this "tortured artist" prism. So even if it's just some crap you cranked out in a few weeks to fulfill contractual obligations to your record label it will still be seen as some kind of brave artistic experiment that ultimately failed. 

I'm not saying that this myth causes sane and normal people to go off the rails. But it certainly exacerbates the troubles of those who had some serious issues to begin with. Amy Winehouse was one such person.


  1. Well said, I've put a link on my blog to this.

  2. Agree with your post 100%.

    For a picture-perfect example of the perpetuation of the "tortured genius" myth, see this opinion piece in the Telegraph (UK):

    "Inevitably, the price of genius includes a certain synaptic mapping where the world tilts slightly to the left most of the time and the most common remedy to that skew is drink and drugs [...]

    "You show me an addict and I’ll show you a genius at something, be it music, art, writing, communicating, sport, cooking or anything else creative."


    Anyway - you said exactly what I was thinking when I read that Tele piece, but better than I could have. Thanks.

  3. Thanks for kind words. And I just read that article. Yep, he actually thinks the two things are mutually inclusive. The attitude is wrong in so many ways I wouldn't know where to start.