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Grief May Not Make Artists Better

New research shows that bummed-out artists aren’t necessarily better ones

A Brandeis University researcher studied paintings by Edgar Degas and other bummed-out artists to see if grief affected their sale price. (Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Do artists become more or less creative when they’re grieving? Popular depictions of artists as suffering souls who turn tragedy into lasting masterpieces abound, but that may not be the case.

Kathryn Graddy, a Brandeis University economics professor, collected and studied information on over 15,000 paintings to see if bereaved artists were more successful. She matched up auction data on paintings by French impressionists and American artists to the death dates of significant figures in their lives. Paintings that either sold for high prices or had a place in the Metropolitan Museum of Art were considered successful.

If you subscribe to the tortured artist theory, you’d think that paintings produced close to the death date of an artist’s beloved family member or friend would be more successful. But Graddy actually found the opposite.

“You don’t have to suffer to produce great art,” she tells Hyperallergic’s Carey Dunne.

Paintings created within a year of a significant figure’s death sold at prices 52 percent lower than the average sale price for that artist and were less likely to appear in the Met’s collection. The art of French impressionists suffered slightly more than Americans: On average, their paintings were 10 percent less valuable if they were painted the year after a significant figure’s death.

Graddy admits that the research is dependent on biographers, who may de-emphasize the deaths of important figures in accounts of artists’ lives. It is also important to note that her work was presented as a working paper, which means that it didn't undergo the rigorous peer-review process scientists use to vet research. Even so, her work emphasizes the need to do more research on how grief affects art. “Employers in creative industries should perhaps take note of this death effect and may wish to provide counseling,” she writes.

Graddy’s work is supported by other studies that show the effects of grief on people’s daily lives. A 2003 study estimated that grief costs employers $2.4 billion in lost productivity each year, and scientists have long argued about the line between grief and depression. Though researchers spend plenty of time looking for the connections between creativity and mental illnesses like schizophrenia, there’s a less nuanced understanding about how universal emotional experiences like mourning affect the creative mind.

Should artists pack up their paintbrushes and throw out their pencils if they’re feeling sad? No way: Formal art therapy has been shown to reduce anxiety and stress reactions, and there’s no reason to make art just for the sake of sales. But Graddy hopes that her work will take a bit of pressure off of artists who feel the need to do their best work at all times or to suffer for their art. 

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