David Berman. Credit: Edd Westmacott via Pitchfork

Saying goodbye to the starving artist

By Otto Hampden-Woodfall

It’s time to unpack one of the worst cultural misconceptions: that the best music comes from suffering

Content Warning: contains discussion of suicide and mental health issues.

David Berman was a poet more than a musician. He spent much of his time without his guitar, writing song lyrics for his band – Silver Jews. His potent, dry tone is captured haphazardly by rustic and lo-fi country guitar-work. On Random Rules, he sings: “In 1984, I was hospitalised for approaching perfection”, set to an unapologetic blues progression. Silver Jews seem to avoid pretence and flamboyance, not because it would be unnecessary, but because it would be better than the reality contained within Berman’s words. On 7 August 2019 he committed suicide. He left behind an album under the name Purple Mountains, and was acutely concerned with the idea that he would be seen as a depressive, having spent his career limiting the promotion of his music. In Pitchfork Magazine, he was described as “a man too brilliant for his own health”.

The stereotype of the starving artist, the bohemian living in rags on the edge of society, is endearing and pervasive. Especially through film and TV, it’s a kind of archetype that lends more credence to the artist’s social status: the assumption is that suffering gives them wisdom or value. This is a strangely Catholic conception to be so ubiquitous, and despite mental health awareness coming on leaps and bounds in recent years, the idea that valuable art emerges out of misery has yet to be challenged in the minds of many.

David Berman is, no matter what he might have wanted, a famous songwriter, and he is beloved for his misery. Indeed, it often seems as if listeners want to be sad. Deemed “the sadness paradox” by researchers Liila Taruffi and Stefan Koelsch, listening to sad music is associated with high empathy and memory retention, and the experience is often as pleasurable as it is miserable. There is a perverse value to the human psyche in the artistically realised pain of others. In this sense, the idea that a musician might have to suffer for their art is deeply rooted and a fact of psychology. It’s a terrible irony that human brains, as a songwriter like Berman might intuit, are strange and miserable enough to find joy in suffering.

And worse, people like to aestheticise this suffering, especially when given the right social circles. It’s funny to exchange strange in-jokes about the music of Elliott Smith, a beloved bedroom singer-songwriter of ‘sad indie boys’. It’s less funny when you acknowledge that he, too, killed himself in 2003. Maybe, these are real people who are really suffering, and Berman’s anxieties about how his music was perceived – haunting and intelligent and beautiful as it is – were caused by a striking disconnect between the realities of writing about suffering, and the behaviour of those who get to listen in. Even those who do share that pain might accommodate its necessary harshness in awkward or unhelpful ways.

Moreover, artists are generally not supposed to live well. This is partly because the idea of artists flaunting their wealth seems insulting or crass (hip-hop music is the exception since it emerges from systemic injustice: to ‘make it’ is a sign of personal struggle and triumph). That’s why there is a lyrical obsession with ‘real’-ness, because flaunting what you’ve always had would seem borderline offensive.

Due to the exclusion of collective struggle or, in the case of most pop music, a rampant commercialism that absolves artists of being artists via ghost-writers and cults of personality: the sense that someone earning according to, or god forbid in excess of, their labour as a composer or producer is intuitively strange (and of course, if artists earned more, they would probably be less sad less often). Art isn’t quantifiable: you can’t fetishise its use-value like you can with things, so working artists are afforded both a privileged intimacy with the products of their labour, and alienation from the general machine churning in the minds and hands of their fans.

As mental health becomes a more prominent issue in the collective conscience, and hawkish tech companies scramble to put together apps claiming to bless you with peace of mind, a pressing health concern becomes an object of capitalism and artists are, once again, de facto isolated from the process. The more that mental health falls under a capitalistic lens, the easier it is to preclude the actual work of musicians from the ‘product’ of people’s mind and the ‘product’ of people’s health, in the sense that their work has no bearing on a labour process.

But of course, it does. These are working people, workers whose labour conditions are in part determined by a mad, aestheticised social gambit, and it seems that as listeners we ought to do better in advocating for respect and fair treatment. It’s a fair exchange for their life’s work.


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