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Is Art Sometimes Exploitation?

Is Art Sometimes Exploitation? At the tail-end of my previous piece, I quoted singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston and referenced the common (if somewhat mistaken) belief that his fans enjoy mocking his mental illness – exploiting him for a laugh or two.

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The misconception goes that his “fans” don’t genuinely like him, that they don’t listen because they appreciate his songs – rather, that the pain of others is a source of joy, and that mental illness is a stand-up comedy routine.

That this would even be a common perception among detractors seems like a hilarious concept in and of itself, but it’s not a novel concern. Folks have been addressing this issue for decades. With mental illness and the mindset of creative people having been linked for as long as we can remember, it’s impossible to escape the question: when does appreciation become exploitation?

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There’s certainly a fine line between creativity and insanity (which, for the record, is only a thing in criminal defence; there is no psychiatric term called “insanity”), and many artists are afflicted by any number of mental illnesses. Even those not formally diagnosed are rumoured to have something “wrong” with their psyche.

Is Art Sometimes Exploitation?

Classical composers from centuries before psychiatry began studying the mind in the mid-20th century are diagnosed by Internet psychiatrists on their smartphones. The same for writers and painters before recent times.

But for those who are diagnosed (or seem unhinged), it can be hard, or downright impossible, to separate the artist from this aspect of their personal life. Much like with creative people who have become known for substance abuse, it can seem like a bizarre form of idolization to enjoy their songs, writings, or movies. We come to view them as nothing more than the sum of their faults. At least in the view of critics.

The contrary is true, I’d argue. I’m sure there are many fans of Johnston, Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and others, who see their ability to produce despite their troubles (even if Winehouse and Cobain had only two and three bona fide albums, respectively) as a sign of promise for their own lives. We listen to a song like “Rehab” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and think, “If they could make a great piece of art while struggling, I can get through my day.” It’s the farthest thing from exploitation.

I think if you’re an artist struggling with any sort of mental disorder or addiction, you have a duty to create as much as you can. In the case of Cobain and Winehouse, their flames burned a bit brighter and died out quicker than others, but at the same time, they made fantastic music while they were here.

As for the fans, I’ve seen almost no one of sound mind and mature age idolizing anyone simply for having personal issues. Sure, the topic comes up in conversation, but it’s part of their life stories. You can’t dodge the issue.

Singer-songwriter Lou Reed had this issue of exploitation crop up in his performances. Fans would come up to him after shows and gush about injecting drugs. I’m sure for a time I could have been one of these troublesome fans. Their stories bothered him so much that, for years, he dropped one of his most well-known songs, “Heroin” (which, by the way, doesn’t have a pro- or anti-drug message) from his concerts. It merely documents the use of it. But, when you feel like you’re actively contributing to something harmful, it’s probably pretty easy to make a choice to gut one track from your larger repertoire.

A stronger case for exploitation could be made for fans of murderabilia, which is essentially art made by murderers and artefacts related to grisly events. This is about as literally exploitative art as one could ask for. There isn’t any way to separate the art from the situations that led to its production. Perhaps with someone like

Charles Manson (who was an aspiring songwriter before the Tate-LaBianca killings) you could, but it’s hard to imagine someone like John Wayne Gacy becoming a famous artist without being better-known as a multiple murderer. It’s hard to imagine Manson being a successful songwriter, but perhaps he might have done something else if he weren’t a cruel and manipulative person. But this is the world we live in. People are strange, and death fascinates us.

Being a fan of off-kilter musicians and folks who make darker breeds of art can lead to accusations of exploitation, an image we try to shed as best we can. And the claims will most likely exist as long as the mentally ill make art – which will be a long time. The best we can do as folks who appreciate their talents is to try to dispense with the myth that one must be mentally ill to be an artist. It’s the only thing we can do. 

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