For our parents it was Lennon and Cobain, for us it is Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse or, most recently, Robin Williams.
Chances are, everyone remembers what they were doing when they found out that these major cultural icons had died. The sudden and cutting realisation that such well-loved public figures as these — capable of weaving their individual talents into the world’s cultural fabric — were ultimately just as vulnerable, unpredictable and, importantly, just as human (if not more so) than everyone else, never fails to leave its mark on our memories. And as it does so, it dislodges the sense of their being removed from day-to-day existence; the idea that somehow they were transcending life’s sordid realities through the beauty of their art.
It goes without saying that, even after the initial social media storm has calmed, an unexpected death like those that I have mentioned, particularly if it was by suicide, will have a permanent and inescapable effect on the reception of their living work.
From that moment on, everything they have sung or written or performed is tinged with tragedy — distorted by the filter of hindsight. We suddenly see shreds of sadness in even the most upbeat and celebratory of their creations. But to what extent does this occur to the detriment of what they leave behind? Is it unfair to cast the shadow of death over a life’s work?
In 2008, David Foster Wallace, author of modern American epic Infinite Jest, was discovered to have hanged himself at his Los Angeles home, the unfinished manuscript of his final novel, The Pale King, arranged neatly on his desk waiting to be found. Since then, readings of his magnus opus have either focussed on, or pointedly shied away from, addressing the facts of his passing.
In turn, this self-conscious response sparks questions as to the potential value of, or problem of, interpretation in the context of personal circumstances; of trying to understand the art through the artist, and vise-versa. Ultimately, it reveals a dangerous tendency on the audience’s part to conflate the two.
This is magnified when a premature death is involved. All at once, we cling with a peculiar kind of panic to the music, literature or films that have been made, aware that their life’s work is now in its entirety, never to be added to again. Just remember how Jackson’s album Number Ones spent a solid six weeks at the top of the charts in the wake of his death in 2009. Is this reaction simply born of wanting what we can’t have or could it be down to a desire to keep alive the voice on the recordings, the face in the photographs, to resist the finality of their demise? Either way, it cannot solely be caused by a surge in media coverage and publicity.
Crucially, the tragedy of a talented life cut short feeds into the glamorised notion of the tortured artist — the myth of the depressive genius, unrecognised in their own lifetime. The long list of famous musical names, including Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, and Jimi Hendrix, who died mostly drug-related deaths at the same age, or ’The 27 Club’ as they are popularly known, implies that a crucial aspect of life as a musician is a struggle with that life, or a desire to escape it somehow, a suffering that should be anything but glamorised.
November 24th of this year will mark 40 years since Nick Drake’s death. Only 26 years old and still relatively unknown, Drake’s overdose in 1974 deprived the world of an infinite number of potentially incredible records in addition to the three we are fortunate that he did produce. But his death also brought with it a mythology that has remained with his music to this day and helped to lift his soft-spoken poetic songs out of obscurity.
The death of any kind of artist is all the more poignant because it lifts them further out of our reach towards the near-deified status that they may or may not deserve. It is painful to acknowledge the irony that some of these famous figures may not have been anywhere near as well known or appreciated had they lived, while most would never know the level of prestige that awaited them after their deaths.
From Whitney Houston to Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams, it is difficult to reconcile two inseparable images of these individuals. The first being the glorified, cultish and pedestalled idea conjured by their name alone; the second being the relatable and normal person who struggled their way up to the heights of their fame, and often paid the price of their freedom along the way. Their deaths have served as a reminder of the artificiality and toxicity of the culture of fame at the same time as contributing to and redefining that very fame and renown.
The inextricable relationship between death and art is both too saturated and too complicated a theme to be pinpointed, except in terms of their both being a form of escapism and both enhancing our appreciation of the world around us.
It could be said that artistic preoccupation with mortality is at odds with the timelessness of the art itself, unless you see the art, music and entertainment as the only way to defy death’s inevitability because it will — we at least hope — endure indefinitely, long after its makers have passed away.