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Does Glamorizing the Tortured Artist Kill Creative Souls?

09/05/2012 08:13 EDT | Updated 11/05/2012 05:12 EST
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When Tony Scott jumped to his death "without hesitation" earlier this month, rumours immediately surfaced that the famed director behind such films as True Romance, Domino and Top Gun was suffering from an inoperable brain cancer.

His family denied it. Instead, Scott's friend Julian Bray told NBC News that Scott may have suffered from depression at the time of his suicide, something he apparently battled throughout his life, but hid behind the scenes. Scott did not provide a motive in the brief suicide note he left in his car.

Scott could be deemed then a "mad artist," a term that dates back to Aristotle, who claimed there was never a genius without a touch of madness. It's a term that is romanticized, shadowing the mad side behind the end product of the art.

For those in front of the lens, it's harder to hide. The troubled creator as a character has become glamorized, its talents celebrated but its pain ignored. Society vicariously lives the life of the troubled and famous through tabloids, but the combination of fame and mental illness takes its toll.

It's why the world mourned Kurt Cobain's suicide and Amy Winehouse's overdose. Public fascination projects sickness into the spotlight, as if addiction and mental illness is some sort of reality television show.

American Electropop rockers Passion Pit recently admitted a string of cancelled tour dates was due to a decline in singer Michael Angelakos' mental health. In candid interviews, Angelakos confessed to Pitchfork and Rolling Stone that he could no longer bare the weight of hiding his bipolar disorder.

The resulting material was painful to read. "Creativity essentially leads to suicide," he said. In great detail, he described a past suicide attempt, the crimson water in the tub inspiring lyrics on the band's Gossamer album, which dropped in July. In "Where We Belong" he sings, "Then I'm lifted up/Out of the crimson towel/The bath begins to drain/And from the floor he prays away all my pain." It sounds so pretty when he's singing it, it's easy to let the meaning slip by.

The Centre For Addition and Mental Health reports that one to two per cent of the population suffers from bipolar disorder. The disorder is characterized by extreme mood swings that switch between episodes of depression and mania, different from the highs and lows typically experienced in one's day. The American-based National Institute of Mental Health reports that almost half of sufferers attempt suicide, with a 10 to 20 per cent success rate. Men commit almost 75 per cent of all suicides, but women are twice as likely to attempt them. On top of this, it is estimated that 60 per cent of people with bipolar disorder abuse substances.

The articles documenting Angelakos' tortured past were shared via social media hundreds of times. Shortly after, he was admitted to a mental health facility in upstate New York. The band has since resumed touring.

For all his madness, Angelakos is touted as brilliant. Revered as one of contemporary music's most innovative bands, Passion Pit is trailblazing new creative elements into their music. Last month, the band released an interactive app designed by industry leader Scott Snibbe, the same man responsible for the groundbreaking iPad release of Bjork's Biophilia album. The app lets users remix Passion Pit tracks through touch. Before this, the band's music video for "Take A Walk" was a first to use heli-cam technology to create a short film, theirs from the perspective of a bouncing ball.

Then, last week, the band announced they'd be incorporating interactive visuals combined with augmented reality into future concerts. Guitarist Ian Hultquist told Rolling Stone it would be the first app custom built for live shows. Fans that tag Passion Pit's handle in Instagram will have their photos automatically printed and given out for free after the show.

Pop culture journalist Christopher Zara explores how turmoil and pain fuel creativity in his new book, Tortured Artists: From Picasso and Monroe to Warhol and Winehouse, the Twisted Secrets of the World's Most Creative Minds. He notes how the admiration of subjects appears on par with their adherent madness.

Take Cat Marnell as an example: the troubled, pill-popping beauty writer who infamously quit/lost her job at xojane so she could instead pursue evenings of angel dust. Soon after, she launched a weekly column at Vice entitled "Amphetamine Logic," documenting her escapades with drugs and depression. It has quickly become Vice's most vastly read regular features.

Marnell's readers are quick to judge, but whether they like her or not, they return week after week. It's as if all you need is talent, anorexia and an Adderall addiction and an audience will be waiting for you when you cross the line. Waiting for the train wreck, the OD, the suicide. All of which readers comment and place bets on each week as if she's a horse in a sick race.

There is no hiding madness' dark side. Marnell documents the "glamorous" side of the associated nightlife, but she also writes sadly about locking herself in the dark of her room for days on end, not eating, with nothing but pills to console her. She writes of failed rehab stints and spur-of-the-moment rash decisions. She writes of tarnished relationships and of never being in love. Like Angelakos, she narrowly avoided a public meltdown at the face of her demons. Instead, she chose to talk about it. Though she has begun to submit pieces less frequently.

When I contacted Passion Pit, Angelakos didn't feel like discussing his illness that day. He had had enough recent press and needed a break, his publicist told me. I sympathized. You can take a break from talking about it, you can take a break from reading about it, but you can't take a break from living it.

The danger of glamorizing mental illness is the failure to acknowledge this.