Not With The Band: The Problem With Mentally Ill Artists

Written by | December 10, 2013 0:09 | No Comments

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Daniel Johnston

After reading this article in the AVClub, asking if Daniel Johnston is really a great musician or a victim of hipster exploitation, I realized the provocation behind the title, while wondering… One thing is sure, if Johnston has been a victim, it is from mental illness: He spent a great deal of his life institutionalized or at his parent’s house, unable to take care of himself, unable to have what we call a normal adult life. Does it make him less of an artist? I don’t think so but there is a stigma attached to severe mental illness, because in this case we aren’t talking about depression, a very common thing in the artistic world, we are talking about a really bad case of bipolar disorder mixed with schizophrenia.

Johnston has demonstrated in the past he can’t really control much what he says or thinks… Did he even realize he said bad anti-Semitic jokes as if he had Tourette syndrome? Did he even realize he ended his shows with ‘die die Satan’ (he has a real obsession with everything evil) ‘Thank you ladies and gentlemen, Heil Hitler!’ And I don’t even think he was using the Nazi imagery, as it was often used by punks, for shock value or even to get the attention! He is just ill, he has no mental filter, he is totally isolated from the rest of the world and totally awkward on stage. That’s why his art is hard to get, his music has a very low production quality, his recordings are scratchy (most of them are recorded in his parents’ basement on a basic boombox) and his lyrics, devil-obsessed, unrequited-love obsessed, are just too obsessed and seem to be the direct result of his mental problems,… it’s very difficult to consider Johnston like your equal when you see him live, his die hard fans are overly protective and can’t tolerate a critic, but there are also these obvious condescending comments, as if people were encouraging a child?… still his songs have touched tons of people (me included), and this is what defines him as a true artist.

But Daniel Johnston is an extreme case, I wouldn’t certainly place her in the same category, but Susan Boyle was just diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a sort of mild case of autism, which certainly affect the way these people socially interact and communicate. I have never appreciated her as an artist, but she has become a top selling recording artist and has touched millions of people! There is no doubt she has always looked awkward on stage, and like Johnston, she has often been labeled ‘childish’; this diagnosis explains a lot, let’s hope she won’t get stigmatized for this.

Adam Ant, Kurt Cobain, Ray Davies, Sinead O’Connor (among others) were diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson has a schizoaffective disorder and Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett was speculated to have either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Each case is different and these artists certainly managed to have a career of their own (even short) but it is difficult to not feel a bit uncomfortable in certain cases, when the artist can’t obviously control his behavior: Michelle Shocked going on a homophobic rant, Sinead O’ Connor having a serious breakdown, or even Britney Spears shaving her head and totally losing it.

The case of Wesley Willis is even more worrisome, he was a sort of black Johnston, a schizophrenic and underground singer-songwriter/visual artist from Chicago, admired by the punk scene, who wrote songs with often obscene lyrics. I have never seen him but, according to what I’ve read, Willis was mostly performing for white audiences, who were asking him to bash their heads into his, resulting in a permanent bump in his forehead. Weird and certainly disturbing.

There was certainly something true in the AV Club title, mentally ill artists are hard to handle, fragile and vulnerable, they are often patronized and exploited one way or another,… but aren’t all artists exploited in a way? And it doesn’t matter whether they become famous and mainstream like Wilson, and O’Connor, or stay underground with a huge cult following like Johnston and Willis. There’s no doubt these people made true art, but it’s difficult to not see a form of exploitation when artists are socially isolated by mental illness.

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