The Death of Chatterton, an 1859 painting by Henry Wallis, has come to represent all that we expect of ‘the tortured artist’. The young Thomas Chatterton, having poisoned himself with arsenic, lies dead. A gentle yellow dawn creeps over the cityscape seen through the open window. There is something irresistibly romantic about this depiction of an ephebic seventeen year old with a loose and ruffled white shirt, his long, curly ginger hair, his death pale face, and the ripped up poems scattered on the floor beneath him.
His suicide was, for many, the ultimate Romantic expression: If I cannot be an artist, then I will not live. At the age of twelve, the precocious genius had written forgeries of medieval verse, under the name of Thomas Rowley, which we accepted in contemporary anthologies. Chatterton is referenced in Shelley’s Adonais, Wordsworth’s Resolution and Independence, Coleridge’s Monody on the Death of Chatterton, along with Keats’ To Chatterton and Endymion. The most important of the Romantic poets felt it necessary to pay testament to him. But why? His poetry, though remarkable, had little impact on literary society. He is remembered now because of his expression of the aforementioned Romantic ultimatum. We like him, find him Romantic, because he killed himself? Isn’t that a little bit odd?
The idea of ‘the tortured artist’ has become increasingly popular. From Plato’s statement that ‘all of the good poets are not in their right mind when they make beautiful songs’, through to the Romantics and Chatterton, to Rimbaud and Verlaine, through to our contemporary delight in the supposed 27 Club. The presence of this idea is a parasite which, I feel, infects our understanding and appreciation of art and of the artists themselves. What’s more, it has made it a requirement for the great artist to experience mental illness. We, the public, have a voyeuristic desire which has led to the premature deaths of countless artists, who could have been saved had those around them truly considered the artist as human rather than a curiosity. If there is the possibility of good art, we seem to say, then why help cure the artist?
Our fetishisation of this concept is dangerous. A 2014 study by Wijnand van Tillburg, a psychologist at the University of Southampton, discovered that we see a work of art as ‘better’ if we are informed of the artist’s mental struggles. 38 students were shown Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Half of them were told of Van Gogh’s self-mutilation and his battles with mental illness, whilst half of them weren’t. When asked what they thought of the painting, their hypothesis was proven true: those who had been informed of his ‘eccentric’ behaviour viewed the works more positively.
We see the creation of ‘the Tortured Artist’ as possessing more value than that of a more mentally stable one. How old were you when you heard of Van Gogh’s ear, for example? I was seven. I immediately associated artistic merit and success with mental illness. Whilst often those artists who are ‘tortured’ create great art, by celebrating this as an ideal we reinforce a negative stereotype that can have damaging effects on the artist’s life. It should not be in the Artist’s predicament that we find value, but in the paintings or writings themselves. How sadistic are the arts, then, if all we want is to see the public self-annihilation of the artist instead of reaching out to help the artist.
We must strive to change our approach to art. We must think of what we might have gained had Chatterton lived to middle-age, had Sylvia Plath had sufficient help, and had countless young artists not been fed on the ideal of ‘the tortured artist’. Credit must be given to certain artists and collectives emerging at the moment, such as the Lost Bond Project, who use art as a way of educating others about mental health and recovery. Let’s hope that a sea change is coming.