I used to be addicted to the biographical stories (and the various myths that grew up around them) of various wounded and gifted artists. I learned all I could about Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, the poet Arthur Rimbaud, John Lennon, Vincent Van Gogh, Syd Barrett, and so many others. I had the sense that I was staring into some kind of oversized mirror, which offered me a reflection of a more cinematic self, as I read about these people.
When I was younger, it never even bothered me that so many of these artists had died young, or even that the time they did spend here on Earth was often filled with suffering and dominated by unbalanced behavior. The otherworldly art that they created seemed to justify such sacrifices, and it seemed appropriate that such incredible bursts of inspiration could only be sustained for so long. Of course, our society typically assumes that suffering is the inevitable companion of the creative process anyway. It may be that our self-destructive artists are merely living up to our expectations and playing out a script that we’ve prepared for them ahead of time.
It’s only been in recent years that the ugly contradiction inherent in the journeys of so many tragic artists has become obvious to me. If creativity is meant to be life affirming, then why do we expect that the creative impulse will inevitably destroy whoever serves as a conduit for it? And why do the stories of countless burnt out artistic lives seem to prove that theory?
We need our artists to demonstrate how one can live with a creative vision, even thrive because of its presence in one’s life. Thus far, as history has demonstrated, the arrangement has seldom worked out that way. Is this failure symptomatic of some dysfunction within the artists, some lack of self-love or belief, or rather a consequence of a society that gives them little space to breathe and feel at home?
Perhaps this sad situation can only be remedied by a pronounced transformation in both areas. When society learns to recognize and appreciate the gifts brought to it by its artists, and artists accept that their calling is as natural as any other vocation in the world, then the two can perhaps nurture each other.
Still, we might have to consider the possibility that these great creators planned their destinies this way all along. Perhaps they never intended to be long for the world. It may have been their soul missions to express what they needed to – in one conflagration of inspiration akin to the passing of a comet before our eyes – and then disappear before the world and its ways began to make too much of an impression upon their peculiar innocence.