The Self-Destructive Artist

morrison
A few years before he died, I had a very interesting conversation with my late brother. He’d gotten me in our annual Christmas grab-bag and bought me a live recording of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”, and we were sitting around afterwards jawing about music and musicians and how tragic it was that so many incredibly gifted individuals died so young: Jim Morrison, Janice Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon, and so on. I asked him why he thought it happened, that so many artistics tend to self-destruct, and he said he thought it was because creatives tend to have “a little more of God in them”, which makes them more sensitive to the evils of the world. I thought this was bunk, but the idea caught in a crack in my brain and has stayed there for years. Why is it that those we admire so greatly, who bring such joy to our lives, are often so miserable themselves?
I think the answer to this question lies in the nature and purpose of the arts. Any artistic endeavor, whether it be music or painting or dance or acting or whatever, is created or performed for the purpose of evoking emotion. In order to be art, I think it needs to make you feel something when you experience it. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a positive emotion: look at Stravinsky’s “The Right of Spring” or Munch’s “The Scream”, for example. But in any example, art brings forth emotion, and the more powerful that evoking, the better the art. That, I think, is why so many of the traditional art forms fractured after World War I. Many of the arts became more cerebral and less emotional, and people didn’t respond to it.

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So what does this have to do with musicians overdosing on heroine? In order for an artistic to create, they need to be able to grasp the emotion they intend to bring forth in their work. There has to be an intended response, a goal of joy or fear or sadness or rage or whatever that the wish their audience to experience, and so the creative needs to be able to feel the same emotion themselves to some extent. This is where things get dangerous, because too many creatives believe that they need to experience the emotion in order to truly represent it. They open themselves up to all sorts of emotional highs and lows, believing that doing so is necessary for their creativity to function. Thus the stereotypical artist: moody, angry, wild, and self-destructive.
Even if they survive this emotional rollercoaster, another trap lies ahead of them. While this society had done an adequate job of opening up avenues for creatives to learn the tools of their chosen trade (though how adequate is open to debate), what is completely neglected in this “education” is their emotional learning. This society places a great deal of stock in teaching young people intelligence, but almost nothing in teaching wisdom. Intelligence is understanding of other, while wisdom is understanding of self. This is bad enough for the average person, but for artistics such lack of self-learning is deadly. They have never learned how to deal with the very emotions they call forth from their creations, and as a result are far too often eaten alive by them.
Amy Winehouse
Is it any wonder that so many creatives turn to substance abuse to numb themselves? Too often, they are already addicts of a sort, hooked on their own creativity and the emotional highs it brings them, and the step from addiction to creation to addiction to a bottle or a pill or a powder is very, very small. To top it all off, we have the Cult of Celebrity our society has produced, which both glorifies and crucifies those “lucky” enough to have “made it” in the world as creatives. They are showered with riches, inundated with fame, and told that this is all they should need to be happy, that this is the Point Of It All. Then when they are not happy, they assume that there is something wrong with them, and the spiral continues.
So what to do? How can this situation be stopped, for the health of those we admire so greatly and the good of our society as a whole? Perhaps the place to start is in the education of our young, teaching them wisdom as well as intelligence. Maybe the place is in our popular culture, promoting healthier ideas about entertainment. Or the place to start is to teach our creatives an psychically healthier way to tap into their emotions. Perhaps there is yet another place I don’t personally see yet, I don’t know. But something needs to be done.
For all of our sakes.
Janis-Joplin
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