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Too Creative To Live? Chris Cornell, Suicide and the Myth of the Suffering Artist

chris cornell
Jason Dias
Written by Jason Dias

From Ernest Hemingway to Chris Cornell, artists, depression and suicide seem linked. But are they? Psychologist Jason Dias says no. Here’s why …

jason-dias-a-cure-for-wellnessaNewDomain — Artists see the world with a different perspective than others. Their work stands out because of this eye. It can draw us in or repel us; it can created devoted fans like Thomas Kinkade (love him or hate him) or devoted enemies, like Sally Mann.

But there’s a myth created by high-profile cases that this perspective comes exclusively though suffering. Case in point: the bulk of commentary regarding Chris Cornell’s suicide.

People like to believe in the tragic idea that artists are too creative to get along in life, that their intricate, sensitive minds just can’t deal.

But the truth is that everyone suffers. And most everyone handles it more or less well, studies show. It’s true rates of drug abuse, depression and suicide among artists are higher than the national average, but there is no evidence that the art is related to these factors.

Moreover, artists, performers and athletes are No. 7 on the list of at-risk professions. At the top of the list: Farmers, fishermen, lumberjacks. Then carpenters, miners and tradesmen, mechanics, production workers, architects, and police.

We tend to glorify the suffering soul of the artist.

Yet we do not at all suggest that the fisherman needs their angst in order to be good at harvesting fish; we even less suggest that drug abuse is necessary to the life of the police officer.

The point is, there are tens of thousands of entertainers, artists, dancers, writers and athletes who are perfectly functional, at least within the usual boundaries of that definition.

Their lives are banal and ordinary. They make things and flog them online like the rest of the population. They own cars, struggle to buy health insurance, eat at restaurants and watch basketball on TV, have relationships, gossip and pay taxes.

It is easy to list famous people who have died by suicide or drug overdose simply because they were famous.

This has always been true.

Hemingway was a famous drunk who ate his own shotgun. But few writers indulge in alcoholic despair — on average anyway.

And we only seem to care about them when they die.

Consider Robin Williams. He was in decline well before his suicide. He was down to making shit movies like RV. If he were as beloved as people claimed after his suicide then he would still have been headlining edgy comedies and sneaking into more serious work as the serial killer.

Prince and Michael Jackson were past-tense popular. Their deaths reminded most of the world of their existences.

This isn’t about crapping on the memories of famous people. It’s to point out our tendency is to see them most clearly when tragedy strikes.

Back to the unexpected death of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell.

When I heard the news, I was hardly touched. I ran through a catalogue of great music in my mind and thought, “Well, that’s shame.” But when the shoe dropped that this was a suicide, a much stronger feeling was pulled from me, right from the chest.

My work puts me in close touch with people who suffer. Any suicide is a tragedy.

In the bigger picture, another high-profile celebrity suicide might add to this myth that artists need drugs, alcohol or despair to fuel the off-kilter perspective that drive their artistry. I didn’t know Chris.

I don’t know his family but, for what it’s worth, they have my most sincere sympathy. He was a person.

For the rest of us, well, try to maybe have empathy for the man we lost rather than glorify the problems. They are neither necessary nor sufficient to art. Try to take stock of the many great artists who are still among us, growing old in the most banal ways. Fred Rogers always said to look for the helpers after a tragedy and I’m saying something similar here. The dead draw headlines but are vastly outnumbered by the living.

For aNewDomain, I’m Jason Dias.

Cover image of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell: KIRO7.com, All Rights Reserved. 

 

About the author

Jason Dias

Jason Dias

Jason Dias, PsyD is an existential psychotherapist who breathes words. He's a senior columnist at aNewDomain.