Joe Alterio's blog on illustration, comix, design, animation, and other bouts of total awesomeness.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Big Mutation

This discussion is a bit long in the tooth, but there's plenty of great sites that give you commentary on things as they happen. This is not one of those sites. You come here for my sublime wit and charm. Sit. Have another mohito.

All glib comments aside, the untimely recent deaths of artists Teresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake have been rolling around in my head like a marble in a tin can. I knew neither of them personally, and I only knew Blake's work professionally; Duncan's was either too high brow for me, or I don't keep up with the art scene (prolly both). I'm not a big fan of notching one person's life above another, even for art's sake. On the day Duncan was found dead, 35 Iraqis were found hogtied, tortured and killed. This doesn't make the loss of Duncan and Blake any less unfortunate, but it also doesn't make it more so. Nevertheless, the story bugged me in ways I couldn't put my finger on, like a popcorn kernel in the back of my throat.

The puzzle piece fell into place a few days ago, on a flight back from Boston, when I was reading the August 13th issue of the New Yorker. Within is a very disturbing article by Richard Preston titled 'An Error in the Code' The article concerns a rare disease called Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, which, besides having horrific symptoms, is the result of a very tiny alteration of the genetic code. Literally a one-letter switch dooms the victims to a life time of self-destructive behavior of Herculean proportions.

What is depression, and more specifically, what is depression when it comes to artistic vision? There's a insistent and hotly debated claim about the link between depression and artistic aptitude, and, truth be told, it's pisses off a lot of serious depression sufferers. The romantic vision of depression is that which Poe called "the insistent demons": the storm that rages inside and forces out the needles that pierce our banal reality. To be linked so closely to ones emotions, it could be argued, is to be closest to that which makes despair as well as joy.

How far away is a meaningful painting away from a suicide note? How much of a glimpse of the dark side do you have to see to write a great novel? And where is that line
between being a great artist and going over the edge? Is killing yourself when the demons go a step too far?

Harper's this month related the story about Hemingway, and a theory, and just a theory, as to why Hemingway shot himself. Norman Mailer, a close friend of Papa, proposed that Hemingway thrived on being close to death to to stimulate his synapses into creativity: thats where all that big game hunting and bull-running bullshit came from. Every night, Mailer theorizes, Hemingway would sit at his writing desk with a glass of booze, put the shotgun in his mouth, and see how far he could pull the trigger: July 2nd, 1961, he went a click too far.

This pleasant little anecdote suffers the same problem as most of the starry-eyed tales spun late at night by Ginsberg wannabes who drink their blackberry wine by the jug: it creates a mythos of romantic desirability around a real disease that tears apart lives and families. Having the additional information now at my fingertips in a battered copy of a New Yorker that a disease with symptoms that, 100 years ago would classified as "straight-up crazy", and is now known to be caused by a few genetic typos: it makes my head spin.

Follow me here - Depression can be classified as a disease, and evidence points to a genetic prediposition. And as depression and art are linked, as apocryphal evidence so strongly suggests, is the creative impulse just a genetic typo, too? Are we wired to blissfully ignorant of some of the more sublime ironies and observations about life? Are we forged to ignore creativity, and it's only by random mutation that we get Chekov, Strummer, and Tezuka?

Man. I need a drink.


Matty G said...

This is a great take on a difficult subject. Mailer also said in the interview (presumably whilst stabbing an ex-wife or two) that the act of writing is in itself self-destructive for many. I don't think he was talking about J.K. Rowling here.

Charlie Parker, Sylvia Plath, Elliot Smith and so on leave little doubt that a lot of artistic talent comes in the form of a medical condition, and the pain that drove these immense talents must have been incredible. The real question for me is how we can justify the cost of even this great art, and I admit that I sometimes feel guilty that some of my favorite artistic works are nothing more than snapshots of a great mind ferociously imploding. Still, the justification will always be that long after our greatest minds have jumped from high bridges into shallow waters, the work they've left us transcends and defeats the great pain that gave birth to it. At least, I hope it does.

(On a more uplifting note, there was an article in the July 23rd New Yorker about Tony Cicoria, a surgeon who was struck by lightning and now likes to compose music on his piano. No word yet if he's working on his own Requiem Mass)

Kevin O said...

There's another way to look at this.

Maybe people are inherently creative, maybe EVERYONE gets pleasure from making things from scratch, whether it's a pie or a cabinet or a novel.

But the conditions of modern society are such that most of us don't make much anymore - because it's more "efficient" or "cost-effective" (or something) to buy a fiber-board dresser from IKEA than to build a real one in your garage.

Depression and creativity don't have to be linked, on a genetic level - it's just as possible that severely depressed people, for generations, have cultivated their creative talents as a survival mechanism, to keep them from pulling the trigger.

I mean, Poe and Hemingway died young and miserable, but can you imagine how shitty their lives would have been if either man hadn't, early on, picked up a pen and noticed how much it helped?

I bet they would've been carted off a lot sooner, to the asylum or the morgue, if they hadn't discovered the refuge of the page.

Joe Alterio said...

As always, my commentators humble me with their intellect.