The Loss of an Artist, and Why It Hurts

In the year 2016, many great musicians and actors are departing this world. First a death occurs, then collective mourning on social media occurs (and for good reason, as you shall read). Then the contrarians come out to play, asking where all the love was when the artist in question was still alive. Almost as quickly, the memes are generated. I’m thinking of one in particular — I’ve already seen a couple of variations on it — asking why all the talented, inimitable people are dying and all the politicians, reality TV stars, idiots, and generally wicked people seem to live on. In truth, all these people and more(!) die every day, but we don’t notice as much because they haven’t done anything to enrich our lives. If anything, they’ve only taken things away. And when one passes, there’s usually some time before the vacuum of banality is filled.

Your average politician, however, is a little more complicated. When one dies, another simply steps in to take their place. The reason the world does not seem to change in the slightest is because no catalyst for that change truly existed. Even in the best of scenarios, a reasonable replacement is suggested and summarily rejected. No, in order for the death of a politician to effect any change, many of them must die simultaneously. Based on preliminary studies, the most effective way of accomplishing this would b-

Neil deGrasse Tyson has previously shared his thoughts on why the life of an artist is so valued. You can watch a video of the guy himself discussing those thoughts here, but I shall paraphrase:

In a timeline in which Albert Einstein did not discover special relativity, the net change of that timeline relative to the one we know would be negligible. Being a fundamental part of the universe, special relativity was always there for any sapient species to discover, and humanity had advanced to a point where finding out about it was all but inevitable. And so we may mourn the loss of Einstein, but we don’t spend much time wondering what else he might have discovered. However, if van Gogh had never painted The Starry Night, do you know who would have painted it?

No one.

And therein lies the difference. That is why (or at least a large part of why) people seem to feel the loss of an artist more than the loss of any other type of person outside their own personal circles. If an artist seems to depart this world too soon, we can’t help but wonder what else they might have created — what else might have brought joy into our lives, and allowed us to see, hear, and feel things in ways we never thought possible. (Their loss only hurts more when they are widely known for being a decent person as well.)

There is a humorous argument posed by Doug Stanhope that perhaps the legacy of some artists would have been better off if they had died sooner, citing musicians whose careers seemed to taper off after a certain year and mocking people who are so certain that someone like Hendrix or Morrison had so much more to give. “How do you know? Maybe he was out of shit.” As of writing this, I have not yet taken the time to familiarize myself with Prince or his catalog, but I think it’s safe to say that we’re missing out on not just many albums-worth of great music, but the presence of a great human being as well. I know who I’ll be listening to tonight.

PS: If I’m being honest, I haven’t quite gotten over Keith Emerson yet.

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