Expressing the Value of Artmaking: How Shame and Stigma Hold Back Creatives


Artists have always been subject to stigmas and social pressure. In Ancient Greece, Herodotus dismissed master craftsmen and artists as “mechanics.” In the Middle Ages, art was rife with censorship and confined to religious settings for monasteries, manuscripts, and mosaics. In the Romantic period, artists and poets like William Blake were simply considered mad.

However, artists have always found a way to represent themselves and their world through various artistic mediums — and we have been the beneficiaries of their creative output.

Unfortunately, some folks still put off artmaking, even today. Social stigmas like “starving artists,” perfectionism, and the pressure to pursue “practical” careers deter hobbyists and professional artists alike.

The “Starving” Artist Stereotype

Somewhere along the line, we were all hoodwinked into believing that you can only make good art if you are — almost literally — starving. This stigma does have some grounding in reality, as artists like Robert Mapplethorpe and Claude Monet really did live much of their lives in poverty and only struck upon wealth in brief moments during their careers. However, many claims about artists living in squalor for the love of their craft are trumped-up stereotypes that have little basis in truth.

When dealing with the “starving” artist stereotype, it’s tempting to dismiss the claim that artists suffer through life with a shrug of the shoulders and say “Who cares?” — after all, the life of a “starving” artist is often seen as more fulfilling than a life spent stuck in a cubicle. In reality, few artists have to choose between their passion and wealth.

That’s because more workplaces today embrace a professional culture that supports creatives and outside interests. Instead of being seen as a liability, artists benefit from changing cultural values in the workplace. They are more likely to be embraced as they bring creativity and critical awareness to a working environment that thrives on positivity and collaboration.

While the pressure to “make it” might still exist in the imagination of worried parents and peers, the reality of life as an artist today means that few artists are genuinely forced to live at or below the poverty line. Instead, having a creative flair and artistic skills is regarded highly amongst hiring managers who are looking for graphic designers, videographers, managers, writers, and other creative professionals.

“Artists Are Strange”

Artists are often regarded as ephemeral, strange creatures who struggle to maintain normal relationships and lead a “tortured” existence. This kind of stereotype probably originates from figures like Salvidor Dali and Louise Bourgeois, whose lives were as surreal as their artistic projects. But there is a not-so-subtle subtext underlying the claim that “artists are strange” — only folks who are dissociated from reality or mentally ill can produce art.

It’s important to recognize that art can provide a wonderful refuge for those who are suffering from mental illness. But in reality, few artists lead lives that are as troubled as Vincent Van Gogh’s or Georgia O’Keeffe’s once were.

Instead, artists today have to overcome the “tortured” artist stereotype. Comedian Hannah Gadsby even recalls how after a show she was told, “You shouldn’t take medication because you’re an artist.” This kind of logic is nonsensical and more than a little patronizing, yet it’s one that many artists have to deal with in pursuit of their artmaking.

But conflating mental illness with creativity is not just illogical — it’s also harmful. Artists who would otherwise benefit from therapy or medication may avoid getting the help they need to maintain their “spark,” even though there is no real link between positive mental health and reduced creativity.

In fact, as Gadsby explains in her “Nanette” special, Van Gogh did seek help and regularly take prescribed medicine. It may have even helped Van Gogh produce “Sunflowers,” as the medication may have intensified his experience of the flowers’ yellow coloring.

Ksenia Chernaya on Pexels

Perfectionism in Art

The imagined “tortured artist” is largely imposed by society and doesn’t resonate with most artists’ experience of their day-to-day work. However, many artists do struggle with anxiety and low self-esteem caused by a more self-inflicted standard: perfectionism.

For most artists, perfectionism is self-imposed. That’s not to say that artists aren’t held to unrealistic standards by their peers and families, but for most creatives, it’s the gap between their own creative output and that of their idols that can cause consternation and shame.

It’s easy to dismiss perfectionism if you aren’t in the throes of a creative project yourself. However, perfectionism can take a real toll on an artist’s well-being and can even lead to serious physical and mental health issues, such as addiction. That’s because perfectionism and addiction are linked through negative thought patterns and low self-esteem.

This means that folks who struggle with perfectionism may be more likely to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol to numb their emotional pain and forget their creative woes. Of course, self-medication and addiction are never the answer to any of life’s problems, and anyone suffering from addiction should get help to overcome substance abuse.

For some artists, perfectionism can become a muse in and of itself. Questions about self-worth and the internal value of artistic production can provide introspective, artistic inspiration that frees artists from perfectionism and the pressure to be “right.”

The Pressure To Be “Right”

Art isn’t necessarily meant to have a particular purpose or outcome. However, many artists are drawn to social and political issues and have used their mediums to change the way we think about the world and our place in it.

But for the regular artist, the pressure to live up to politically progressive pieces like Banksy’s “Balloon Girl” or Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” can feel overwhelming. The demand to make the right political gesture at the right time can stifle creative output and leave the pencil or paintbrush in a perpetual hover over the artist’s canvas.

Instead, a much better approach to art is to simply feel it out. In many ways, practicing art gives artists access to insights and thoughts that most folks don’t have the time or energy to explore. Seen in this way, the pressure to be “right” dissolves and is replaced by a less burdensome desire to simply create. This allows artists to set boundaries and avoid the burnout that so often comes with creative pressure.

Art Without Stigma

Making art can broaden a person’s horizons, improve their mental health, and provide folks with a hobby that lasts a lifetime. Yet many people put off ever getting into art due to stigmas and stereotypes that have no grounding in reality. Getting over these stigmas is a challenging stage in any artist’s career, but as the great Bard once wrote, the only objective of art “is to give life shape.” By putting aside stigmas and shame, artists from all walks of life can explore new ideas and truly benefit from the value of artmaking.

About the Writer

Miles Oliver is a growing writer working to expand his portfolio. He has learned a lot about creative best practices as a freelancer and hopes to write pieces that may be helpful to others in similar fields!





5 responses to “Expressing the Value of Artmaking: How Shame and Stigma Hold Back Creatives”

  1. Ruben Jasso Avatar

    I guess the main thing is to be creative. I have been drawing all my life. I have not made too much money with my art though I try. I especially like the media of Acrylic and watercolors with color pencils. A cheep set will do. the artist make the art come to life. My web site is I talk about mental health and Art.

  2. Monebi Adenike Francess Avatar
    Monebi Adenike Francess

    The struggle to live out of these stigma’s: the “starving”, “troubled”, “perfectionist”, and the “pressure to be right” is real. Many artist suffer these; whether self inflicted or otherwise. Just a handful really do not bother themselves on these or use it to get better by building themselves.

  3. Vernon Steinkamp Avatar
    Vernon Steinkamp

    The background of my art stemmed from being a sign painter then a billboard artist. These professions requires one to make what the customer requires, not much creativity involved. Now that I’m retired, I continually produce art pieces (oils on canvas). No customers involved, no time lines or schedules. My work is mostly realism and someday I hope to sell some of it because I’m running out of room on my walls and no, I don’t depend on my art for income.

  4. B Avatar

    How about the stereotype that successful artists are gays? Think Andy Warhol, Maxfield Parrish, Caravaggio, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Because I exhibited interesting art content as a pre-adult, I was never singled out by my teachers. The best word my classmates had for my stuff? “Queer!” This is 1974. It’s not difficult to see the link: many successful galleries in neighborhoods associated with, ahem, gays.
    Of course, my classmates’ idea of art was Archies’ comics.
    The only other “successful” artists in my community were always tortured or superlative in some way. Yet they all had thriving families!!

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