Thursday, February 7, 2008
Can Art Kill?
While millions anxiously awaited the results of toxicology reports regarding the death of Heath Ledger, twisters reeked hell through the southeast, people were being blown up in Mogadishu, and babies were being thrown out of windows of burning buildings. Indeed, it seems silly that one of the top stories for the past 2 weeks has been the death of just one handsome, well-off artist in the wake of worldwide turmoil. But it begs the questions of why we become magnetized to such stories. I would not just write it off as the habit of a shallow, celebrity gossip-obsessed culture; I think there is something more. Something that is forgiveable. When we see someone who embodies “living the dream,” and then a seemingly drastic, disturbing turn cuts it short, we wonder whether the wishes we have been making have been falling into the right wells or not too. We see parts of ourselves in these celebrities, who become people after they have had something happen to them that could foreseeably happen to any of us, or those close to us.
I remember the first time I saw a performance by Heath – he played a disturbed son in Monster’s Ball. I didn't like the film much, but really, it was his performance that stood out even though his role was minor. I remember thinking to myself that I could never watch it again because of the sheer intensity that he projected from his time and space, through the camera, and into the mind and heart of the viewer. There was an honesty and a vulnerability that was nearly too difficult to watch. The rare and unabashed display of raw emotion can cut right through the paper armor we often wear.
He was an incredible artist. Although I never had a personal encounter with him, his gentleness and naivety were so apparent, seeming almost out of place in a world that mostly views the arts as fun and trivial – not infused with meaning and energy as it does for many artists. For the artist, regardless of the craft, there is a constant pull to create, to produce, to reach inside and then extend what he finds outwardly. The preoccupation is to translate the language of the heart and soul through some form of physical media. Ledger was that kind of artist. Method acting is a scary place to venture, because getting lost in one’s art is a high possibility. A constant battle for an artist can involve deciding how much to let the artistic energy control, and how much to control IT. Some may feel that it is ok to die for one’s art - an ideal I would never advocate. I have utmost respect for those who dedicate themselves to creating art that is truthful and helpful either to themselves or to others. But I think that once it becomes more of selfish endeavor for self-gratification, it can have a detrimental impact on others. In other words, artists like Heath Ledger risk dying for their craft at the expense of others that they owe a responsibility to. Was his role as Joker, however amazing as it likely will be, worth putting himself into such a fragile state that his daughter will cry over the memories of a personal hero she hardly got to know? I really don’t think so. Did he owe it to himself and his forever-shattered parents to take care of his anxiety and sleeplessness even if that meant taking a hiatus? I really do not think maintaining a “Joker Diary” and drowning oneself in his art is heroic. I just think it’s sad.
Sad because it’s understandable. He, like many other dedicated creatives, handed the reigns to the high-speed, runway artist in an effort to realize his full creative potential. The problem is that we live in a world of consequences where logic must be inserted and limits must be set at the proper moments in order to survive. The world is not all clouds and imaginary characters where emotions are king and creative expression of it is queen. Oh, I do wish it was. But it involves moderation, and without moderation in any endeavor, unintended destruction is often the final destination.
Something universally beautiful is truth; when we see it manifest itself through someone who is genuine, it captures and inspires us. That was something else that an artist like Heath Ledger offered to many. Perhaps he was suffering a great deal from anxiety and chronic pain among other things. If you have seen anyone going through that, you know that it can lead to irrational and reckless behavior – like concocting a lethal drug cocktail. Maybe it was something else altogether. Whatever the case, there still must have been a better alternative, even if it was more difficult to undertake. Taking a faster, more dangerous route to relief is simply not a risk worth taking in the end.
Love art, but please, don’t becomes its slave.