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Art, Mental Illness and Frances Bean Cobain

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A little under two weeks ago Lana Del Rey was interviewed by The Guardian. The resulting post was titled "Lana Del Rey: 'I wish I was dead already,'" after one of the pop star's more provocative quotations. In the interview Del Rey spoke specifically about Kurt Cobain, which -- rightfully -- didn't sit well with the Nirvana frontman's daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, who is now 21. The younger Cobain took to Twitter to respond to the remarks and, in a series of tweets, wrote:

In all fairness, a fair deal has been written about this since Cobain's rebuttal, which was posted on Sunday. While the main thrust of the coverage has seemed to occupy the sort of basic tabloid hubbub that springs up when two celebrities disagree, a few writers (including the wonderful Tom Hawking of Flavorwire) have gone deeper to examine the emotional and conversational implications of Del Rey's comment.

Now, on the one hand, it would be easy to dismiss Del Rey's remarks as a sort of especially callous extension of the posturing that seems to form the foundation of her persona. As many have written in the wake of the release of the songstress' second album, Del Rey can easily be seen as a consciously false persona, an ever-evolving comment on what her critics and fans say about and expect from her. Even if this is the case, however, the outright and simplistic romanticization of suicide (and the issues that can lead some to consider it) is an issue that exists elsewhere in the world in high concentrations, and with uncomfortable sincerity. The archetype of the suffering artist is ubiquitous in our culture, and the ways in which both fans and emulators alike look to portray, understand, and interact with it is extremely troubling.

It's hard to attack a topic such as this without sounding moralizing. Of course, that is also the absolute wrong approach. Both moralization and romanticization occupy the same sort of spectrum of thought that drains conversation of empathy and makes any real acknowledgement of humanity or heft nearly impossible. Ultimately, that's what this topic and its hornets nest of cultural implications represents: a failure of empathy (as many have noted in their own discussions of the comments). To turn Kurt Cobain into a symbol of something -- to hold up his tragic passing as something other than personal tragedy -- robs his loved ones of their personal truths. It means that the discussion isn't about the fact that Frances Bean Cobain will never know her father but about some other capital-letter themes that become about art or figurehead outside humanity. And to try to discuss something artistic, much less something personal, without the necessary human currents is at best futile, and at worst irresponsible.

The idea of the tortured artist -- whether it's a member of the so-called "27 Club" (a notion that, in and of itself, distances discussion from any sort of compassionate discourse about the nature of suicide) or someone like Van Gogh or any of the many others who are remanded to this category of existence -- is reductive and tends dangerously close to questions of martyrdom. On the personal level it produces comments like Del Rey's and mindsets that neuter the conversation about suicide, transforming victims, survivors, and mourners alike into "others" who orbit the rest of the world in a distant valence defined by either judgment or worship. It forbids us from interacting with them as members of our communities, and from treating them as defined by something other than the act or the loss or -- in the worst cases -- the "sin." In the same way that Philip Seymour Hoffman's death seemed to bring about more uninformed criticism of some vague cultural concept of discussion than any actual human examination of who he was and what caused the tragedy of his passing, comments like Del Rey's will inevitably bring about more conversation about suicide as some sort of philosophical issue, some distant possibility to either be chased, or criticized, or ignored, rather than as a problem that faces a large number of people. In 2011 over 39,000 deaths were the result of suicide. That's not a small number, nor is it a number that's reducible to some sort of philosophical or theological or artistic question. We should not remand almost 40,000 people yearly (plus all those other wounded and confused friends and family) to some sphere of symbolic suffering. Even as so many use the question of "mental illness" as a way to redirect attention in the wake of school shootings and other outbreaks of random violence, we as a society toss it aside and ignore its victims and sufferers when the possibility for discussion isn't screaming in our ears. Much of this is because of off-hand comments like Del Rey's, which casually and gradually encode suicide and its surrounding issues to the vacancies of otherness.

To assume that the words exchanged (indirectly) by Del Rey and Frances Bean Cobain are some sort of tabloid squabble is irresponsible, apathetic, and lazy. It continues the pattern of treating real discussion of difficult topics as unworthy of attention. It lets us pretend that these issues that we either lionize or demonize exist far away from us, in some realm that we don't ever have to interact with. It makes it ever harder for those who then find themselves staring these issues down to ask for help, or to see themselves as part of a world that can and will provide it. Kurt Cobain was a cultural figure, yes, but he was also a father, a husband, and a friend. He was someone whose music fought to escape the objectifying walls of the rock-star persona as he opened his heart up to listeners and fought against the restrictive and dehumanizing notions of stardom. That Del Rey should declare him such an influence but then miss everything that he tried to do in one reductive swoop is certainly upsetting. That she should tear down scores and scores of people in the rush to see something complicated as something simple -- that any of us would -- is troubling in a vastly more damaging way.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.