The Tortured Artist: Why Art and Pain Go Hand in Hand

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The War of Art" by Steven Pressfield. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the tortured artist? What is the connection between art and pain? How can you learn to accept misery as part of the creative process?

The tortured artist is a common trope used to describe an artist tormented by their own creativity and the world around them. In order to be a successful artist, you must learn how to accept the frustrations and problems that come with the creative process. Understanding the inevitable link between art and pain will help you to surpass obstacles you might face as a creative person.

Find out more about the tortured artist below.

Understanding the Tortured Artist

The tortured artist is a creative person plagued by emotional turmoil and frustration. Their misery might arise from troubles in the world around them, or from the difficulties of creative talent.

When you’re an artist, you live in a world fraught with resistance. Fear, doubt, passion, vulnerability, and struggle are present every day of your life. These feelings make you miserable, which resistance is counting on. If you feel miserable, you won’t want to dwell in that world for very long. You’ll search for ways to self-soothe or get instant gratification. But the tortured artist understands that his world is a living hell and accepts it as part of life. In order to be a true artist, you have to accept the inevitable link between art and pain.

A typical day of your professional life as an artist may follow the sequence below:

  • You wake up each day feeling unsatisfied. Fear follows shortly behind and lodges in your gut. 
  • You perform your daily rituals: breakfast, children, day job, laundry, emails, etc. You are physically there, but your mind is not. However, you aren’t focused on your artistic work. You’re focused on resistance, and you will be until you start your work. 
  • You can busy yourself all day with menial or urgent tasks, but your subconscious knows this is not the work you should be doing. It’s not what’s important to your ultimate survival. If you don’t do the work, you’re basically a tiger tied to a leash.
  • You muster the courage to face resistance. You settle into your artistic work, strapping on your muck boots and armor for the battle ahead. 
  • At first, the road is muddy, the conditions are harsh, and your feet and back hurt. But you have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. As you get farther down the road, the conditions improve. You make better time. You still feel pangs of discomfort, but you know how to keep moving despite them. 
  • You make it to your destination after a few hours. You feel satisfied and accomplished. Your heart and soul are full. Resistance is gone. There is nothing more you need to do. You finish out your day with ease and go to bed content. 
  • Before you fall asleep, you feel a pang of fear. In the morning, resistance will greet you again, and the battle will continue.

If this life sounds unpleasant, it’s because it is. When you commit to following your true spirit, every ounce of resistance will place roadblocks in your path that you must overcome. There is no getting around it. You have volunteered to be miserable, and you must learn to love it. This is the struggle of the tortured artist.

Learning how to be miserable is essential for any artist. You will have to give up things in your public life so you can be present in your artistic life. You have to come to the battle every day knowing you will be tired and possibly injured from doubt, humiliation, and rejection on a regular basis. But you can wear your scars like a badge of honor, because at least you were in the battle and fought. You are a soldier in the war to fulfill your artistic calling. You win the war every time you show up to the front line. The key to becoming an artistic success is to accept the connection between art and pain.

The Tortured Artist: Why Art and Pain Go Hand in Hand

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  • Why creative people feel resistance when approaching their true work
  • How to break down the wall that holds you back from reaching your potential
  • How to tap into your creative power and honor the genius you were born with

Elizabeth Shaw

Elizabeth graduated from Newcastle University with a degree in English Literature. Growing up, she enjoyed reading fairy tales, Beatrix Potter stories, and The Wind in the Willows. As of today, her all-time favorite book is Wuthering Heights, with Jane Eyre as a close second. Elizabeth has branched out to non-fiction since graduating and particularly enjoys books relating to mindfulness, self-improvement, history, and philosophy.

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