The Observed Life


Today was a strange day. Today we lost something, we lost a great talent. And yes I know that he was a stranger to me and yes I know that there are people dying everywhere, but still.

Good night, Mr Hoffman.

It’s times like this that you wonder about being an artist. As I wonder about the sea of troubles that eventually subsumed Mr Hoffman, I wonder how he felt about what he did, what he was so masterful at. Did it bother him, as a man of intelligence and conscience, to be rewarded so well as part of the Hollywood mechanism for turning resources into art?

It feels presumptuous to wonder, but I do. Anyone who’s put a lot of their life into the creation of art has to wonder whether it’s worth it when the world has so many terrible and pressing problems, problems that could use any mind and body willing and able to apply themselves against them. Even if you believe in art, in its innate power to reveal parts of the world usually left hidden, to redefine worldviews and expound upon new ideas, even then it can be tough to balance all that against the concrete problems that emerge everywhere we look.

Here’s the part I keep coming back to, though. Art has made me mourn the passing of a man I never met. And, in each of the roles he has played, I felt something for each of the characters he inhabited. We, as a species, are so impoverished of empathy right now, and that really lies at the root of so many systemic problems. These connections, even made under false pretenses between people who have never existed, are good for us, are important to us.

Art is part of it. Art is part of what we need. We need our worldviews dashed by the weird and unexpected, the irrelevant and irreverent, the eternal truth and the garish lies. We need to see humans being human through a screen, because through a screen is the way we’re probably going to be seeing almost everything we see from now on.

This is why as artists we have an obligation not to be lazy, not to be obvious, not to be stereotypical, not to be pandering. Whether we choose drama or tragedy, reality or cartoonishness, we have a duty to make our art true to itself and true to us. Though some people want to consume empty calories that just reaffirm everything they think they already know, anyone who is willing to produce only that is contemptible as an artist.

You’re not doing art if you’re not seeking. You’re not doing art if you’re not digging deeper. You’re not doing art if you’re peddling a simplified stick figure world. Even if your characters are literally stick figures, they must be human to each other.

Here’s the truth: Doing the right thing isn’t easy.  Doing right by yourself and your art is an impossibly difficult task, and even the greatest sometimes falter.

I don’t want anyone to die pursuing art. I don’t ever want anyone to die as a consequence of art in any conceivable way. I just want the world to know that, though people do die in its pursuit, there’s a reason why we keep doing art.

It’s important.

  1. The problem with making art at the PSH level is that it’s effing *scary*. He had to find the similarities between himself and the characters he was playing, which meant deep-sea-diving into the Jungian shadow – and, even more challenging, he had to put that information out there to the world without interposing any of his own ego. Which means no safety net, no irony, no wink to the audience to say “I’m really not this bastard – I’m Phil, I’m a nice guy.”

    I can tell when I’m getting close to the truth of a piece of writing when it starts terrifying me. He lived on that high wire. I can see how a needle would offer a pleasant vacation from it.

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