Truth and Hope in Art

In my early adulthood, a favorite pastime of my friends was the creation of “Top Five” lists. It was the result of an unhealthy obsession with the movie High Fidelity. In the movie, the main protagonists often create top five lists of great songs, singers, etc. One of our often debated lists was the “Top Five Greatest Rock Vocalists of All Time.” Invariably, Scott Weiland of the Stone Temple Pilots and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden would make most everyone’s list.[1] I was always more partial to Cornell, so his suicide last week affected me. It feels like an end to a part of my childhood.

In the wake of his death, I texted one of those friends to commiserate on how these two great musicians that we loved in our youth were now dead. He responded rather coldly, “life must be terrible for the truly talented.” His remark is the latest in a string of events that has led me to ponder the role of despair (and redemption) in the art I consume and enjoy.

My friend’s text prompted me to reflect on the seemingly disproportionate number of talented creative minds that are susceptible to extreme anxiety and depression.[2] I do believe that talented artists are better attuned to see beauty in places where others of us do not. They possess an incredible ability to accentuate, illuminate, and sometimes create beauty for the rest of the world to admire. However, I think it is possible that the vision of the artist is a double-edged sword. They are also better able to see the darkness in the world. They see the world in full.

I want to be careful before I continue because I do not want to suggest that I understand why Cornell committed suicide. I also do not want to stand on sanctimony and suggest that Cornell should have introduced more balance into his artistic output. All I “know” about Cornell’s passing is that it makes me sad. I mourn the loss of an incredible talent. I am also thankful for the music that he gave us during his life.

With those disclaimers in mind, the situation has caused me to contemplate my consumption of art. Should my consumption and engagement with art reflect balance between light and dark; beauty and despair?

As I think about Soundgarden, I like the band for a number of reasons. Nirvana and Pearl Jam’s songs were “catchier,” but Soundgarden’s music was more interesting to me. It was simply more unique and original. I was also in awe of Cornell’s range and talent as a singer. I never really paid much attention to the actual content of the lyrics. I knew they were dark, but his recent passing has highlighted to me just how dark they were. Consider this verse from “The Day I Tried to Live” (one of my favorites).

Words you say, never seem
To live up to the ones inside your head
The lives we make never seem
To ever get us anywhere but dead

There is a hopelessness to the verse, especially in the last couplet. However, Cornell has given a stark voice to the sense of purposelessness that many of us feel, and he was brave enough to say it bluntly. It seems that Cornell was an artist more aware of the darkness in the world. That is at least my perception of the music that he shared in public. I do not pretend to be intimately familiar with Soundgarden’s entire catalog, but I am having a hard time recalling a song with “happy” lyrics. Most that I remember are pretty dark and foreboding.

Art that ignores the darkness present in the world is naive at best. It is ultimately unfulfilling as a medium to give voice to our experience of the world. However, art that concentrates solely on the darkness in the world is naive as well. It ignores that there is true beauty and good in the world.

I believe that the art we consume informs our intuitions of the world. It seems to me that our consumption does need balance if it is to truly represent and guide our experience of the world. This movement between light and dark does not have to happen within every song, movie, or painting. But the accumulated corpus of the art we engage with should probably reflect some modicum of balance. I do not expect the artist to achieve a perfect balance. To be honest, they must follow their muse. My perception is that Cornell and Soundgarden followed a darker muse. They occupy a darker wavelength on my musical spectrum. It needs to be balanced by something lighter.

Balance allows for a robust worldview that is not crushed upon the first arrival of trouble and opposition. Balance also staves off despondency when all seems dark. Art can inspire and inform. The ultimate balance may lie between truth and hope.

As for Cornell and his music, I will continue to enjoy it and remain in awe of his talent as a singer.

[1] For reference, my list (in no particular order) would be Thom Yorke of Radiohead, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, John Lennon, Scott Weiland, and Chris Cornell. It is a pretty cliche list, but I believe that they are as popular as they are because they are/were that good.

[2] It should be noted that I have not researched this thoroughly and my observations are anecdotal.

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