Tormented Selves: The Social Imaginary of the Tortured Artist and the Identity Work of Creative Workers

Ana Alacovska*, Dan Kärreman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


This article examines identity work in the creative industries as a type of identity formation that has been underexplored in the literature on identity work to date. Based on interviews with performing artists in music and theatre, we show how creative workers feel compelled to perform negative (tortured and despondent) identity work in order to attain a positive (coherent, self-sustaining and self-affirming) sense of artistic self. We argue that the dubious link between mental illness and creativity, propagated not only by popular media and pseudo-scientific accounts but also by art history and the creative industries themselves, has served to undergird a social imaginary of the artist as a ‘tortured’ creator. This imaginary in turn provides discursive resources, behavioural cues and affective stimulation for the performance of occupationally desirable yet perilous tormented creative selves. We identify three distinct identity work strategies undertaken by creative workers, namely self-analysis, self-diagnosis and selfmedication, in which social imaginaries purporting an overlap between mental illness and creativity in artistic work play a constitutive role. Our findings contribute to the emergent interdisciplinary literature on identity work in the creative industries and the arts. Moreover, we caution that the negative forms of identity-building practiced by our interviewees, underpinned as they are by social imaginaries of the artist as anguished, dejected and agonized, may in fact be dangerously counterproductive for creative workers coping with the higher rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse found in precarious creative professions.
Original languageEnglish
JournalOrganization Studies
Issue number6
Pages (from-to)961-985
Number of pages25
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2023

Bibliographical note

Published online: June 28, 2022.


  • Creative work
  • Identity work
  • Creative industries
  • Social imaginaries
  • Mental illness
  • Tortured artist
  • Mad genius
  • Precarity
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

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