The Crossroads - Musings On Archetypes, Depression & Arts Practice Pt.1

You can run, you can run, tell my friend Willie Brown
You can run, you can run, tell my friend Willie Brown
That I got the crossroad blues this mornin’, Lord, babe, I’m sinkin’ down
— - Robert Johnson

I was recently asked by a colleague to offer up some reflections on the topic of depression, and I seek to offer some initial musings on the subject below.

In typical style, these are more a selection of personal conjecture, grounded in curiosity, anecdote, speculation.
I speak primarily from personal experience as a performer, though now also as a curious academic, navigating my way through a very real, complex bunch of conditions. I hope you'll forgive my verbosity.

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The myth of the 'tortured artist' is intimately enmeshed with the official histories of the Colonialist / Judeo Christian arts canon.

From St John Of The Cross to Vincent Van Gough, the image of an isolated practitioner (usually male), battling an eternal 'dark night of the soul' is a familiar one.

It's also a myth effectively repurposed, in subtle, but somewhat different light by the multitude 'liberation theologies' across the African Musical Diaspora, which have quietly derailed 'white spiritual individualism' from the vantage point of a marginalised majority.

Examined elegantly in books like Lewis Hyde's "Trickster Makes This World" (for those interested in further reading) we encounter the archetype of the 'trickster / shaman', cosmically fucking with the earnest and morally assured - usually with pants around his ankles, laughing loudly all the while.

On one side of pop history we might encounter the sorts of self-negating archetypes embodied by Sid Vicious, Leonard Cohen, Metallica or Hillsong Church.... on the other, George Clinton, Sun Ra, Fela Kuti, Drexciya, Linton Kwesi Johnson - and (of course!) so many nuanced shades in between, particularly in emergent digital community.

I realise I'm painting very clumsy brush strokes here, but you get the idea... I hope.

These individuals are far richer, more complex and nuanced than their public personas might suggest - and this is central to my thesis. The public persona of the artist is a product of industry, as much as reality. And this industry needs blood, hysteria and drama in order to fund itself.

I'm fascinated by examining projections -  spectres of the real; in diving a little deeper beneath the surface waters to discover richer cultural oceans they've sprung from.

"The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness. The chemico-biologization of mental illness is of course strictly commensurate with its depoliticization. Considering mental illness an individual chemico-biological problem has enormous benefits for capitalism." - Mark Fisher, from "Capitalist Realism"

I think it could be worthwhile to unpick how populist archetypes frame and condition our experience as arts-workers, as I believe that the exercise might help offer up useful tools for self-reflextion, as we examine the reality that sometimes 'music' might actually be making us sick...

I'll touch on industry economics in subsequent posts.... though studies like the above from helpmusicians.org.uk are indicative of real systemic problems and workplace realities facing many arts-workers.

I contend that this culture of real-world struggle is in fact fed and inflamed by the sorts of 'transcendent' narratives embedded in contemporary music culture - many the results of a particular flavour of post-war individualism.

Is there an alternative paradigm beyond the 'vocational / transcendent' we might imagine? I think so.

For musical traditions (eg Sufi, South American, Japanese) beyond the direct influence of the 'gospel' legacy, the image of the artist 'martyr' is often supplanted by that of an artist 'shaman' - two very different embodiments of performative suffering - and perhaps even subsequent collective 'deliverance'.

The former archetype sits alongside its twin sibling of the Buddhist 'hungry ghost' - both the martyr and hungry ghost seeking deliverance through either deprivation / isolation or over-consumption / grandstanding. Twin heads of the "Janus of illusory separation", to mix somewhat awkward metaphors.

The latter shamanic archetype of the might in fact be deemed a community asset - part priest, yet less invested in personalisation of, 'art as moral product', leaning instead toward 'art as process'.

In a public arts (read performative!) roll, many of us find ourselves embodying / exploring both incarnations at various times .....at least when it comes to writing press-releases....

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Guilt and shame.

These twin currencies both tussle throughout the canon (I kissed a girl and I liked It!), and offer great grit for the pop mill. And yet.... I often wonder if the construct of the 'fucked up artist' invoking these notions is in part just self-actualising convenience -  a marketing construct designed to precluding mature engagement with them.

Drama, at its most base level, lubricates our new media economy - from Donald Trumps vitriolic Tweets, to speculations about Katy Perry's mental decline. It's intentional stuff, and it serves to further fortify existing arts archetypes - imbuing them with bankable neurosis.

You get the gist.

I offer this as someone whose life has been legitimately marked by actual 'depression', in addition to extreme privilege; the latter concession offered as a way of demarking 'vanilla' struggle from the kind of claustrophobic, illogical terror which pays heed to neither class nor circumstance.

I say this, also,  as someone who's made some decent work  from the bowels of mental exhastion*, yet who feels now that I have little interest in imbuing struggle with any implicit moral value.

No one has a monopoly on suffering - but it might just be in our collective interest to examine boldly why arts-culture tends to elevate it.

I contend that if we genuinely seek to unpick the romanticism of 'suffering for art', we might actually find some useful ways of ameliorating the struggles of actual depression - some very concrete tools and strategies. We might also benefit from some harsh scrutiny of the traditions (religious and economic) which perversely lionize 'struggle' for its own sake - or rather, for the sake of cultivating a sort of 'spiritual scarcity' - one satiated by consumption.

To cite a caricatured example, the central premise of talent shows like X-Factor, posits that those who 'succeed', or 'triumph', or 'win' (note the language of exceptionalism here) are inevitably validated due to their perceived struggles. These earnest struggles (be they suicidal inclinations, financial disenfranchisement, personal loss, health issues) are often legitimate, yet the exploitation of them by cultural industry feels indicative of malevolent shadow of "Capitalism 101"; a grain-fed dissatisfaction rooted in the curious legacy of notions like the Protestant Work Ethic .


"tell me why you've chosen that song?"

"....I lost my best friend 2 years ago...."

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A common fiction tacitly suggests that 'unless you know what it means to suffer, you can't make good art' - in fact, your work might very well be unworthy of trust.  This (to quality my statement) has frequently been my experience quarters of the electronic music world with personal investment in topographically specific 'urban' genres (eg. 'Detroit techno' or 'Newcastle Hardcore').

On paper, this sounds legitimate enough. But it's really a half-truth, hiding some profoundly elitist assumptions.

God is not a dj.

The real fallacy here is - of course -  that there are those (most likely 'non-artists') who somehow haven't understood the 'authentic' depression a rarefied arts class might spend lifetimes being railroaded into embodying. The fallacy consumers must be liberated by the work of a 'visionary' -  a sacrificial, tortured 'artist' - who possesses a preternatural insight beyond the scope of the everyman.

I don't find this a particularly helpful or liberating notion. I don't believe that anyone has a monopoly on suffering, or on the genuine gifts which arts practice can really offer us -  simple reminders of our shared journey, and our beautifully transient, gorgeously irrational human lives.

Producing work now on a weekly basis with genuinely marginalized voices, I have good reason to assume there might exist a different, more robust, pragmatic (perhaps even joyful) framing of 'the musician' and 'music practice' in our collective story. We need not romanticize or fabricate struggle for an artist's work to engage deeply with the cultural imagination, in it's many hues.

To be continued....

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*I remain a practicing artist invested in developing tools to navigate the quagmire of bipolar type B depression, generalised anxiety disorder and a curious history of mental-health struggle - one (in my case) marked previously by a hyper-vigilance which has thankfully softened over the years. It's manifested in multitude forms since my teens - from anorexia through insomnia, substance-abuse and self-medication, suicidal fantasies, panic attacks, claustrophobia and leaden fatigue. Subsequent to a decade of medication protocols (concluded over 3 years ago) I've found remarkable tools in the form of diet, exercise, and radical re-imagining of what a work/life balance might look like in a gentler light. I'll discuss these in future posts...

The Hungry Ghost of Buddhist mythology

The Hungry Ghost of Buddhist mythology