A common misconception that can lead to deadly consequences.
The mad artist is a common trope: Van Gogh cut off his own ear, Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with rocks and walked into the water, Sylvia Plath put her head in the oven, Kurt Cobain shot himself, and most recently, Keith Flint, iconic frontman of The Prodigy, hung himself.
While bandmates and fans reacted to the news of Flint's suicide with shock, there were plenty of signs pointing to this eventuality. In an interview with FHM in 2015, Flint said, "I'm not saving up for anything… I'm cashing it all now. I've always had this thing inside me that, when I'm done, I'll kill myself." It's difficult to imagine a blunter expression of intention than that, which would also explain the air of inevitability, and even admiration, surrounding many people's reactions to Flint's death. Many of the tributes to the dance music pioneer posted to social media seemed to imply that this was almost a fitting death for an off-kilter artist of Flint's caliber– that creative geniuses, like Flint, inevitably give in to their demons. Some even seemed to celebrate his fate as the embodiment of the dark art he created.
But this point of view is dangerous. It lends itself to the misconception that misery is a necessary symptom of creativity, leading people to romanticize mental illness. While this may seem like a better alternative to the long-fought stigma surrounding these afflictions (perceptions that mental illness is equivalent to weakness and should be ashamed of and largely ignored), it can be just as toxic. People tend to conflate despair and neurodivergence with some unique perspective on the true nature of the world.
Writer Jonathan Franzen writes in one of the essays in his collection, How to Be Alone: "Depression presents itself as a realism regarding the rottenness of the world in general and rottenness of your life in particular. But the realism is merely a mask for depression's actual essence, which is an overwhelming estrangement from humanity. The more persuaded you are of your unique access to the rottenness, the more afraid you become of engaging with the world; and the less you engage with the world, the more perfidiously happy-faced the rest of humanity seems for continuing to engage with it."
The Prodigy - Firestarter (Official Video) www.youtube.com
Essentially, Franzen is saying that because mental illness breeds isolation, those afflicted may begin to believe that they've somehow seen the "truth" of the sad nature of the world, and feel a level of superiority to people not afflicted. This can become a vicious cycle that further breeds isolation and despair, particularly when married to the idea that this special perspective is a sign of creative genius.
Instead, it's important for those in creative industries to perpetuate the idea that while creative people may be slightly more prone to mental illness, they are by no means defined by it. Van Gogh was not a great painter because of his struggles, but in spite of them, and Keith Flint's death was not a necessary byproduct of helping to create a genre, but a tragedy that robbed the world of an extraordinary musical voice way too soon.
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