As I’ve mentioned before, one of the things I find interesting about the bible is that it collects mythic stories over such a large span of different time periods and cultures that there’s actually some really noticeable and interesting philosophical switches that go on across the book. Most notably the switch from Abrahamic stories where people don’t think about individual life and death but only about cultural and personal legacies, where having descendants means more than life itself, and the messiah is destined to restore Israel, to the later Old Testament and New Testament books where life and death matter and the messiah comes to bring eternal life.
One of my favourite books of the Bible is both a good example of this and a wonderful story: the book of Jonah. It’s generally a story that’s misread about a cruel and vengeful God but that was mostly made up to scare sailors and doesn’t really appear in the text, although it’s possible it’s a revision of an earlier Babylonian myth about angry gods, and exists as a “twist” on that story.
See, the story of Jonah begins by God telling Jonah to go Nineveh and tell them to stop being wicked or God will punish them. Jonah doesn’t want to, because, as he explains later to God, that when you say things like this, people immediately clean up their acts and then nobody gets smote, and then eventually they’ll be wicked again. Jonah is angry that there’s no accountability (and he’ll look like a twit) – in many ways Jonah is a story about why good things happen to bad people. So in the bit everyone knows, Jonah runs to the sea, and a great storm brews up, and Jonah says “look, this is my fault, drown me and it’ll all be over because God wants me dead”. And they throw Jonah over the side, and he is swallowed by a fish.
And here everyone gets it wrong and thinks that the fish is part of the punishment, but this is akin to an old Persian story about a sailor being SAVED by being swallowed by a fish. And that is indeed what happens: Jonah doesn’t drown. The fish saves his life. So Jonah, thankful (but confused about why God didn’t kill him) goes to Nineveh and says “God’s gonna smite you” and just as he predicted, they change their ways, and God relents and nobody gets smote. Frustrated, Jonah goes out into the desert to ponder this, and while he’s there a tree grows in the desert, gives him shade and coolness and food, and then the tree dies. And Jonah is angry that the tree died and yells and stamps about how unfair life is. And God appears to explain the Very Important Lesson: Jonah didn’t do anything to make the tree grow, but he really liked that it was alive. God made the people of Nineveh personally, so far more than the tree, he doesn’t want to squish them. Yes, they’ll probably go back to being wicked again, but God would rather have them wicked then dead.
I mention all that because it’s typical of humans to get a story about how important it is to be alive confused and turned into a story about how angry Gods will murder you with fish. Because even today, a long time from Abrahamic culture, we’re still very confused about whether we want anyone dead or alive. People become sacred when they die, their sins forgotten, their memory inviolate. And when we lose people we don’t know, we mourn for their art. Which is absolutely natural, because art is a wonderful expression that extends beyond ourselves to touch other people. We never knew Prince or David Bowie. We’re not really mourning them. We’re mourning – and celebrating – what their art gave us. And it makes sense that us symbolic humans get the art and the artist combined in our heads. But sometimes we take that too far, and we think that the art is the important part. Art, after all, makes your immortal and universal. It is all too often, in our culture, a religious fetish designed to assuage the fear of death.
And like every religious object, boy howdy is it dangerous. Because people will value it above life.
I mention all this because yesterday was R U OK day, an Australia health initiative about helping people open up about mental illness and suffering. And by coincidence, not by malice, I saw an internet meme say “make art, it’s cheaper than therapy”. It is not an uncommon sentiment, just as trite as “everything is a learning experience” or “everything happens for a reason”, and just as common. And on that day of all days, it filled me with rage and reminded me again that our society, if it had its choice, prefers you dead with a masterpiece than alive without. We do it by minimizing the nature of mental illness as a debilitating disease, and we do it by conflating that illness with artistic minds, and we do it by pretending art is a kind of therapy.
There is art therapy, which is where, through VERY SPECIFIC EXERCISES, you use art for therapeutic purposes. But to suggest art is therapy is ludicrous and insulting and insanely dangerous. Art is art. Therapy is therapy. And what’s more, art is the very antithesis of therapy, in the sense that most of the time you need the therapy to make the art. Nobody would tell someone who’d broken both their legs to take up jogging, because it’s cheaper than having their bones set. But we do.
Don’t get me wrong. Mentally ill people can make art, and beautiful art. And people without legs can run marathons. And art is a way to express ourselves and communicate which are helpful activities for the mind, body and soul. But mental illness is not to be romanticized or belittled by suggesting it can be cured or ameliorated by art. That dishonours and disrespects the suffering under one of the main things mental illness does, which is rob us of the ability to make art.
I spent thirty years of my life wrestling with mental illness, and it cut my artistic abilities to the core. It broke them as surely as if it had shattered a painters’ fingers or cut the throat of a great singer. And I thought the problem, for the longest time, was my art itself. That it wasn’t worthy, that my passion was dead, my imagination weak, my diligence non-existent. It is only now, through medication and hard work and ten long years of therapy, that my art is finally starting to flourish and come easily – as easily as it always should come.
To suggest art to the mentally ill is therefore a great cruelty. To demand it, as we do to every human being, as proof of life, as a religious fetish against death and religious sanctification of worth, is barbaric and merciless. It is is also dangerous, for there are ferw things so dangerous to the mentally ill as art. Art makes you an open vein, an exposed nerve, drained of all sense from the need to create, burned by jealousy and comparison, driven mad by self-doubt and confusion and left vulnerable, unshielded, to the demons in your own head.
Again, I’m not saying do not do art if it helps you. Nor am I saying everyone should grow up to be stockbrokers. But art is dangerous enough on its own. We must stop turning it into a fetish. We must confusing it with life itself. We must stop wearing it as our identity. And above all, we must stop confusing it with therapy. Medicine is real and important and needs to do its work. Medicine is what allows art to exist, because we can only make art when we are well. It is sickness that takes our art away, and health that gives it to us. Let medicine be medicine – the pillar of our art. The platform that lets us create. And – which is far, far more – it keeps us alive. And let that, more than everything else, be the value. Let us always strive to value life first and foremost. Let us prefer people alive without art then dead with it.
One of the themes that emerged in my recent RPG work Afraid of the Dark is how the young often feel betrayed by their parents because adults can’t remember just how vulnerable children feel. It is, in a very real sense, an expression of me dealing with some of the issues of my own childhood. And I’m glad I can see that, and I’m glad I can express that, and I can take some therapeutic remedy in that.
But far more so, I look at me writing that, I thank the ten years of therapy that let me write it, that I could never have written it without, that gave life to the art within. Let art be art, and therapy be therapy, because otherwise, we murder both. And then we murder people.