TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #6: Artists Are Mentally Ill, Alcoholic, Violent S.O.B.s.

MYTH: Artists are crazy people who are willing to starve for their art, and they drink too much, and, oh, they cut off body parts, too.

REALITY: Normal people are artists, too.

We love a good story, don’t we?

“Van Gogh cut off his ear and sent it to the woman he loved. Or maybe it was his dealer? Jackson Pollock was a drunk and a wife-beater. He was crazy, too. Or depressed. Whatever. Gauguin abandoned his wife and children and ate kiwi in Tahiti. Warhol was just weird, right? And what’s with that soup can thing??”

The list goes on.

No matter that there are plenty of people with mental illness, with alcoholism, with abuse issues who aren’t artists. But “crazy” and “artist” just seem to go together, don’t they?

No wonder our families freak out when we start talking about making art. They’re terrified we’re going to smoke dope and drink too much wine and hang out with fast women and loose cars. Er….loose women and fast cars. Loose men. Whatever. (Actually kinda sounds like fun…)

Artists wear black clothes, especially black berets, and if they’re men they have funny little mustaches, and if they’re women, they not only wear black clothing and black berets and black eye shadow, they also like black underwear. I’m not making this up. (Yes I am.)

Of course, many artist wanna-be’s are actually hoping that’s the case. We all knew artist-types in high school and art school who studiously practiced being moody and odd, who drank their coffee very very black very very late at night, and who tried to grow little mustaches, with varying degrees of success.

And of course, we rarely hear about the artists who simply do good work, who are good parents and loving spouses, and who in general behave like grown-ups.


Because that would be boring.

Human beings are drawn to the novel, the strange, the outre. We love a good thrill. That’s why the news is filled with stories of disasters in places you’ve never heard of, stories of murder and mayhem in cities thousands of miles from where you live, stories of oddities that are….well, odd.

In fact, if you imagined the world depicted by the news, you would never know there are any ordinary, reasonably happy, healthy people going about their business, taking care of their families, being nice to their neighbors, attending PTA meetings or going on vacations without international incidents.

The artist-as-crazy-person makes a good story. Good stories make good fodder for best-selling novels and blockbuster movies. We tend to remember the good stories, too. Ooooh! Ask anyone about Vincent Van Gogh. They know he cut off his ear. And maybe they know he painted sunflowers. Never mind that he seems to have had a decent childhood with a loving, supportive family. (In fact, I’ve studied his work in my art history classes, and I didn’t know this about him til I looked him up just now.) Few people know of his brother Theo, who ceaselessly supported and encouraged him. We focus on the last ten years of his life, as an artist with mental illness, and we feel we “know” him.

An artist friend with mental illness does not “cherish” his condition. He did not give everything up for art. Mental illness took everything from him–except art. And he would give it all back to have some degree of normalcy in his life.

(For the record, my friend strongly objected to the phrase “wild and crazy assemblages” in that essay. It angered him because it sounded like I called his art “crazy.” I’m sorry I can’t access that site anymore to change the offending word.)

But reality usually makes for a more boring story. Most artists are just ordinary people. They just happen to want to play with paint, or clay, or an oboe, or a new dance move.

They want to use wood to carve a bowl instead of hammering it to make a house. They want to throw clay to make a pitcher instead of using clay to make bricks. They want to create beautiful landscapes instead of creating blueprints for a building. They want to play music instead of playing baseball, or write books instead of writing grant proposals.

In fact, look a little closer, and the line between “normal life” and “artistic life” gets a little blurry.

I bet you could find creativity in almost anything people turn their minds–and hands–to….

Of course, it is fun to dress like an artist at cocktail parties. I’ll be sure to try it if I ever get invited to one.

Author: Luann Udell

I find it just as important to write about my art as to make it. I am fascinated by stories. You can tell when people are speaking their truth--their eyes light up, their voices become strong, their entire body posture becomes powerful and upright. I love it when people get to this place in their work, their relationships, their art. As I work from this powerful place in MY heart, I share this process with others--so they have a strong place to stand, too. Because the world needs our beautiful art. All of it we can make, as fast as we can! Whether it's a bowl, a painting, a song, a garden, a story, if it makes our world a better place, we need to do everything in our power to get it out there.

7 thoughts on “TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #6: Artists Are Mentally Ill, Alcoholic, Violent S.O.B.s.”

  1. Actually, there’s some evidence to suggest that Van Gogh did NOT cut off his ear but rather lost it in a fight with Gaugin. Gaugin was already in dutch with the Arles authorities, and supposedly Van Gogh claimed self-mutilation rather than see his friend go to jail.

    So maybe not even that crazy….


  2. Cynthia, thank you for sharing that story. Sort of a two-for-one, because now we see another reason for Gauguin to leave the country, too!

    Kerin, that’s too funny! I can see that getting dressed in the morning would be a lot faster. Matching ensemble in a second! :^D


  3. I know I found this post a little late, but I wanted to reply anyway because this myth is so familiar to me. My parents did tell me, when I was a kid, that “Artists are crazy.” Many times. In those exact words.

    So, of course they also said “You can’t be an artist” when I said I wanted to be an artist.

    And I was told that no, I could not have financial help for college if I majored in art.

    So I majored in something slightly more “reasonable” and eventually went to law school . . . and now I’m back writing and doing art full time. I guess it was going to happen, whether family agreed with it or not. Unfortunately, I think it made me crazier not being able to pursue art than if I had in the first place.

    Anyway, the point is that these myths can be very dangerous for kids. It’s heartbreaking to still hear stories about parents who don’t “allow” their kids to get serious about art because of them.

    Thank you for writing this series and helping to bring these issues to light.


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