2016 has already been a devastating year for anyone remotely interested in popular culture. Bowie, Rickman, Wood: all hugely influential players in their fields. To list all those lost in the past four months across all creative platforms would be too lengthy and saddening for any publication. Debates over whether public outcry over the death of someone they don’t personally know is entirely appropriate, but in general it seems to be from a place of compassion rather than jumping the bandwagon.
However, with the exception of Bowie’s Blackstar, released in such close proximity to his death that the link is undeniable, we don’t tend to look through a deceased artist’s career through the lens of their physical illness.
This is not the case for artists struggling with mental illnesses.
Depression and mental illnesses are wholly indiscriminate in the same way as many other illnesses. But only mental illness tends to change the perceptions of an artist’s work. We see songs and albums as manifestations of struggle and inner turmoil, rather than works of art created by talented individuals.
Take Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York, the first record released after Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994. Articles continue to circulate over the mythology of it being a sort of suicide note, with the grinding tone of Cobain’s voice indicative of his approaching end. Such comments as an insult, suggesting that Cobain’s talent in performance is only a result of something he doesn’t have control over. It robs him of his artistic voice.
The argument here is that because art appeals to emotion and is often an expression of emotion, an artist who is somehow emotionally troubled is more capable of creating superior art due to having a bigger well to draw from than neurotypical people. From here comes the “tortured genius” archetype, with examples like Van Gogh, Charlie Parker, and Sylvia Plath commonly cited.
The problem in this argument is that it suggests the best art is only created by those who are troubled. Art is a discipline like any other, and those who are gifted artistically are gifted in their discipline in the same way that a talented athlete or economist is. They’re normal people, some of whom suffer illnesses much like the athlete or economist, but many don’t.
Art can absolutely be influenced by its creators suffering, but vitally, the pain is not the art. To conflate the two is to discredit the artist’s talent and the creative process. If a songwriter feels that the context of the song is crucial then it should be up to them to disclose that information, otherwise we should allow the art to speak for itself and not speculate on any individual’s private affairs. To say that the struggle is the work itself is as absurd as saying an athlete’s performance is their breakfast.
We should care for the well-being of artists in the same way we would care for anyone. But we shouldn’t reduce their hard work to a sort of narrative which we use to enjoy the soap opera of celebrity. By all means take an interest in those you find influential, but remember that the person that is presented to you through their art is not the person they truly are.
[Jimmy Donaghy – @JimmyDonagee]