We are killing our artists


In the wake of Michael Jackson’s death, I keep thinking about two videos. The first is the South Park episode pictured above, in which it is revealed that Americans must ritualistically sacrifice Britney Spears by photographing her to death:

Kyle: What is going on?! Why do you want Britney Spears to die?!
Bob Summers: Well nobody wants her to die, little boy. We all simply… need her to. Do you understand?
Kyle: NO!
Paparazzo 8: Look, kid, throughout history people have found it necessary to engage in… human sacrifice.
Bob Summers: In ancient times, humans would commonly pick one lovely girl, adorn her with jewels, treat her like a goddess, and then… watch her die.
Paparazzo 9: We like to think we’re more civilized now, but the truth is our lust for torture and death is no different than it was in gladidator times.
Paparazzo 10: Only difference is that now we like to watch people put to death through magazines and photographs.
Canadian Paparazzo: It’s a damn shame too. Old ways were bettah. Used to be we just picked someone by lottery and then stoned them to death.
Woman: Stonin’ to death was too violent. Rather have the sacrifice kill itself.
Kyle: You mean everyone has been wanting Britney Spears to kill herself?
Man: Britney was chosen a long time ago, to be built up and adored, and then sacrificed. For harvest.

In typical South Park fashion, our society’s obsession with celebrity, especially celebrity “meltdowns,” was comically exaggerated in a most unsettling way. Everyone knows that a big part of why famous people exhibit self-destructive behavior is the pressure imposed by fans and “the media.” Michael Jackson was subjected to this pressure for virtually his entire life, not to mention his father’s treatment of him.

The other video touches on a similar theme in a much more thoughtful way. At the most recent TED conference, Author Elizabeth Gilbert gave a fantastic talk on creativity and how it is conceptualized in different societies. The bottom line is that in western culture, our focus on individualism puts an incredible amount of pressure on talented artists to live up to their best works:

[In] ancient Greece and ancient Rome – people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings back then. People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons. The Greeks famously called these divine attendant spirits of creativity “daemons.” Socrates, famously, believed that he had a daemon who spoke wisdom to him from afar. The Romans had the same idea, but they called that sort of disembodied creative spirit a genius. […]

[During the Renaissance] people started to believe that creativity came completely from the self of the individual. And for the first time in history, you start to hear people referring to this or that artist as being a genius rather than having a genius.

And I got to tell you, I think that was a huge error. You know, I think that allowing somebody, one mere person to believe that he or she is the vessel, the font and the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile, human psyche. It’s like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance. And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.

I highly encourage you to watch the full video below:

And to bring it around full circle, here’s a portion of the 2003 documentary Living with Michael Jackson. This segment begins just moments after Jackson infamously dangled his baby son from the balcony of a Berlin hotel.


Update (2009-06-29): This isn’t to say that I consider Britney Spears an ‘artist.’ Rather, the fact that Michael Jackson was both a huge celebrity and a gifted artist created a unique set of pressures that, at least in part, led to his downfall.