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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

as the knife stopped spinning the answer came: you're going to have to save yourself

Q: Can someone be a brilliant artist without being seriously fucked-up? Can someone be a brilliant artist and be completely sane and well-adjusted? Can the sane and good create art that is meaningful and not simply bland or pretty to look at? —Isaiah Technician

CP: Here's my theory: Anyone who makes a career in writing, music, painting, or whatnot succeeds as being a constant witness, always harvesting from the world. Any "artist" makes a living by expressing what others can't—because they're unaware of their feelings, they're too afraid to express those feelings, or they lack the skills to communicate and be understood. Being fucked-up isn't required. In fact, it tends to cut careers short.

So goes an answer to a question recently posed to author Chuck Palahniuk. I completely agree with his answer, but I'm curious why certain people think great art must come from great tragedy.

Be it Bukowski, Pollock, or Cobain, there's been no shortage of internal strife in people that have created masterworks. It seems to play into the fantasy/one-in-a-million nature. Looking beyond the drive to create, when there are elements like drugs, alcohol and/or painful childhood memories involved, they seem to reinforce this idea of the tortured artist. So when the thought of getting some sort of professional help is brought up, there are those who think that's a bad idea. A really bad idea.

A recent example is Jeff Tweedy. He suffered from migraines starting at an early age. Along with suffering from depression and panic attacks, he checked himself into rehab to treat an addiction to painkillers. His decision delayed a tour promoting a recently-released Wilco record, A Ghost is Born, and things seemed very up in the air. Would the great talent behind such songs as "Misunderstood," "She's a Jar," and "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" be able to create songs as good if not better? Well, seeing the wide variety of opinions out there about this year's Sky Blue Sky, some want to blame his decision to get healthy as to why this record doesn't resonate as well as previous Wilco records. Frankly, I find that to be a load of bullshit.

We want our friends and family to be healthy -- live long lives and live to their fullest potential -- right? So why doesn't the same apply to our favorite musicians, painters, and authors? Maybe because our relationships with our friends and family are quite different from the ones with our favorite artists. It's easy to forget that artists are humans too. But that idea doesn't always make for the best copy. In the case of Tweedy, he recently said this:
. . . I do think that there's a lot of different reasons for the myth that you have to suffer or you have to have some horrible friction or turmoil in your life to create. Primarily because it makes a lot better ink. People are much more willing to write about it when it's framed within this mythology that has existed since people began making art.

Yes, stories can sound more interesting/compelling when there's a tortured angle, but we're mere observers here. Fans don't know Tweedy's sleeping or eating habits. Most fans know him solely from what's on Wilco and Uncle Tupelo records. Those records are snapshots and mean a lot to those who cherish them. And once there seems to be a drop in quality of future records, certain personalities love to break out the knives and rip this stuff apart.

Frankly, I think the ones who fear getting professional help themselves are the worst purveyors of this myth. They can't face their own demons so they strike down the ones that choose to face their own. I can't say that's how I've felt before, but I know what it's like to be afraid of this kind of change. Will all my creative juices get zapped and make me some tree-hugging Jesus freak? Thankfully, this hasn't been the case for me. Far from it. As a matter of fact, if it weren't for choosing to get better, I probably wouldn't be writing at all. I'd probably still be in my old cramped apartment living in a mental jail cell.

Sure, it's easy to think you have to go through hell to create something beautiful. But I argue you shouldn't have to stay in that hell for the rest of your life.

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