Widgets Magazine


Sad sells

Today, I found out that an artist I follow on social media committed suicide. In fact, she ended her life one month ago, on Oct. 1, and I only found out now because I happened to come across one of her old posts.

I didn’t know her that well. She was someone whose vision and work I admired, but I never did anything more than “like” her posts as I scrolled through my feed. Now I look back and wonder what I could have done, whether leaving a comment or sending her a direct message would have helped, even the tiniest bit. The hints were all there. I guess, in my mind, beautiful things are meant to last. But here is what I do know.

She was 22. She was Vietnamese, born and raised in Hanoi. She was sad, and talented, and resilient, and eloquent, and beautiful, and creative, and weird, and absolutely fearless in her art.

She is a self-described “half assed dancer / shitty writer / garbage piece of fashion blogger” on her Instagram bio @plaaastic. Her art may not be for everyone, but there’s nothing else like it.

She had just published a book in Vietnamese that sold out everywhere. She had her own clothing brand. She graduated from university in Singapore in 2015. She recently shaved her head. She had depression, OCD, bulimia, anxiety and schizophrenia. She had just gone through a divorce, had no money and had been assaulted and robbed several times.

So much of her life was put out for us to see. If I could give it back, I would. I feel like I have been both an intruder and a bystander, peeking behind the curtain at something excruciatingly personal yet doing nothing to help. I’d always assumed a permanence to art, an infinitude, where mortality did not apply.

When does art stop being about art and start being about living?

There is something deeply disturbing about the way we treat artists and their art. The high correlation between artists and mood disorders has been known and studied for decades, yet it is still something we accept as normal or expected. We find something tragically romantic about it, like Romeo and Juliet on a canvas. Creativity is just another word for insanity, isn’t it? Shouldn’t all great art come from a place of suffering?

Hemingway, Plath, Tolstoy, Woolf, Munch, van Gogh and Dickens — all were victims of some sort of clinical depression or anxiety. All were celebrated artists and writers who hold masterpieces to their names.

I don’t believe there is anything wrong with appreciating art, nor do I consider all art a result of great suffering. On the contrary, many artists consider their art an escape or a therapeutic manifestation of their torments. Edvard Munch, the painter of “The Scream,” wrote in his diary: “My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”

However, I do believe that we must change the way we view art and their artists. Ask yourself: What did you learn first about any of those people — their art or their struggles? Did you even know they had mental disorders at all?

It is crucial that we do not forget how devastating mental illnesses are and that we do not glorify their presence. If an artist is inseparable from her art, then so is she inseparable from her mind and mental health. We must acknowledge and respect her whole being.

Too often, we are complicit in the suffering of others. Too often, desperately needed help is never received.

As I look through @plaaastic’s photos one more time, I notice in several of them a tattoo under her chest that reads, “$AD $ELL$.” I am suddenly struck by the realization that she was always aware of the exploitation of her mental health and her art and that she continued to create anyway.

It is unclear to me anymore whether art is the celebration of beauty or the profit of pain. Perhaps both. I wonder: If we could choose a world without suffering but without art, would we?

And most importantly: If we did, whose sacrifice would it be?


Contact Serena Zhang at xiaosez ‘at’ stanford.edu.