Contrary to Cliché, Misery May Inhibit Creativity

New research finds visual artists do not do their best work during periods of bereavement.
By Tom Jacobs ,

Vincent van Gogh's self-portrait.

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The tortured artist is a familiar archetype. But does misery really produce masterpieces? A 2016 study that examined the lives of three major classical composers suggests as much. But a new paper that focuses on painters comes to the opposite conclusion.

It finds works they created while mourning the loss of a loved one sell for less money than those generated under happier circumstances. Those works are also less likely to be in the collections of a major museum.

"Our study reflects that artists, in the year following the death of a friend or relative, are on average less creative than at other times in their lives," said economist Kathryn Graddy of Brandeis University. Her analysis, co-authored by Carl Lieberman, is published in the journal Management Science.

"It is well documented that individuals deemed geniuses were more likely to have suffered a parental loss as a child or adolescent," the researchers note. But while a profound loss at a key developmental stage can compel the sort of self-examination and rebellious spirit that inspires great art, dealing with death as an adult could have very different consequences.

Graddy and Lieberman point out that contemporary theories of creativity often focus on the notion of "flow," a state in which artists and other creators experience "intensity of awareness, heightened consciousness, and oblivious to the environment." The emotional process of coming to terms with the death of a loved one could make it harder to sustain such a state, thereby hindering creativity.

To test this thesis, they conducted extensive research on 33 French Impressionist painters, and 15 American artists born between 1910 and 1920. They compiled auction data on more than 12,000 works offered for sale between 1972 and 2014. Using online indices and information culled from biographies, they collected the year of death for the artists' parents, spouses, close friends, and (in a few cases) children.

Crunching the numbers, the researchers found "the value of a painting decreases by about 35 percent for paintings created in the year following the death of the artists' friend or relative." This "negative bereavement effect" was not found for prior or subsequent years.

Further digging revealed that 1,730 works by those same 33 Impressionists are in the permanent collections of five major art museums: the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.

Analyzing the dates of their creation, they researchers found a clear pattern: "Works that were painted in the first year after the death of the artist's friend or relative were significantly less likely to be included in the collections."

The aforementioned study of Beethoven, Mozart, and Liszt used a different metric for presumed misery. It looked at the emotional tone of the letters written by the composers during a given period, and compared it to the quality and quantity of their compositions.

For those three geniuses (an admittedly tiny sample), anguish apparently did stimulate artistic greatness. But it's important to note that, unlike the painters studied here, the composers were allowed some lag time.

That research compared the musicians' moods during one year to the art they produced the following year. This new one analyzes the painters' output in the same year they were touched by tragedy.

No doubt different artists process emotions differently; the same feelings that energize one may enervate another. But this research suggests that, if grief does inspire greatness, it only does so with the passage of time.

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