On Mourning Creative Heroes: The Phenomenon of Collective Grief

By Jason Brush, POSSIBLE

When I learned that David Bowie had died, I wept. Surprised by my uncharacteristic outpouring of emotion, my wife asked, “Are you sad for him, or are you sad for you?” The truth, I’m ashamed to say, is that my sadness was selfish; I was sorry for me. I simply wanted more of Bowie’s music.

I had been listening to his transcendent new album on repeat before he died, not knowing that this was last time I would have the pleasure of a new Bowie recording. I couldn’t believe that this was it, and that there would be no more. And, when Prince died, I went through the same thing: selfishly, I simply wanted to be able to see him perform live again.

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Clearly I wasn’t alone. The outpouring of emotion online for Bowie—and, likewise, Prince—was remarkable in both its depth and breadth. Our collective grief at the death of creative heroes is a fascinating phenomena: despite all they do for our individual emotional lives and our culture as a whole, they aren’t people upon whom the peace of nations, justice, and the lives of millions depend. And, it isn’t as if we truly knew them as individuals—they aren’t family members or friends whom we loved. We knew them through their art.


The world is in such desperate need of beauty that it seems an especially cruel injustice when a unique talent dies before the fullness of time.


This feeling of wanting more when a creative hero dies is most acute when an artist’s life has been cut tragically short—as was Prince’s. The world is in such desperate need of beauty that it seems an especially cruel injustice when a unique talent dies before the fullness of time. The first time I remember seeing my mother crying was when John Lennon was murdered—and why shouldn’t she have wept? He was stolen from the world.

This has been a hard year for creative heroes: not only Bowie and Prince, I was also deeply saddened to hear about the deaths of Umberto Eco and Zaha Hadid, both of whom have had a huge impact on my creative work. Many others, I know, were equally affected by the deaths of Garry Shandling and Alan Rickman.

Looking back on the recent succession of deaths of creative heroes, I’ve begun to feel as if my sadness at every new headline and obituary, being rooted in wanting more, was just a bit greedy. After all, it’s not as if their deaths also destroyed the work that makes them such an important part of our collective culture and individual psyches in the first place. I became unsettled by the predictability of my reaction being simply, “it’s so sad that I’ll never experience another new building / book / album / performance by that person.” It’s not an unreasonable reaction—wanting more—but in concentration, it feels slightly pathetic, especially as it made me think back, embarrassingly, to Stanley Kubrick’s death: a friend called me up to tell me the sad news, and, without thinking, all I could blurt out was, “Was he able to finish Eyes Wide Shut?”

Creative heroes with whom we have the unique privilege of being alive at the same time are somehow different than the great, influential artists from the past, with whom we weren’t alive to witness—or we were too young to be aware of, before they died. Their loss doesn’t grieve us, really; just think how incapacitated you’d be if you felt sorrow over all the potential of work never made by our greatest artists. Of course, I would love to have another film by Tarkovsky. Or, another novel by Hemingway. But when I wander through a museum or bookstore, or listen to the radio, and I encounter an artist from the past, whom I didn’t know of before, I don’t suddenly lapse into sadness at the fact that they are now dead.


Simply knowing that our creative heroes are out there making work gives us hope that we too can make a difference. The grief we feel when a creative hero dies stems from the hole their death leaves in our understanding of how to be in the world as a creative person.


Is wanting more from creative heroes, and the impossibility of that being rendered by death, really all there is behind the sadness we feel when they die?

I don’t believe so. Wanting more, alone, doesn’t account for the pathos that stems from the death of creative heroes. There’s another underlying source of grief: the loss of their presence in our lives as models for how to lead a productive and meaningful creative life. Making something beautiful, making the world a better place, or making a meaningful contribution to culture and society requires what can often feel like impossible tenacity. Simply knowing that our creative heroes are out there making work gives us hope that we too can make a difference. The grief we feel when a creative hero dies stems from the hole their death leaves in our understanding of how to be in the world as a creative person.

Perhaps this is the key to mourning creative heroes: if we can move past simply grieving the work they never produced, to grieve the place they had in our lives, and how they inspired us, we can get closer to the thing that made us admire them in the first place—so that they, like the work they left behind, continue to be alive, in some way, in our lives.

Bowie’s ability to keep challenging and pushing himself, keep growing, fostering new collaborations, constantly looking to younger artists for inspiration, and his fierce pursuit of being himself are all things that can continue to inspire me, even after his death. The world is now a little less magical without Bowie, a little less funky without Prince. But perhaps the best way to mourn a creative hero is not to lament the never-to-be experienced work they could have made, had they had just a bit more time. Instead, mourn them by thinking about what you learned from them, and letting those lessons inspire you to make more in the world.

Perhaps we too could be heroes, just for one day.

Jason Brush is executive vice president of Creative and UX at POSSIBLE, where he oversees creative and user experience design in the agency’s Los Angeles branch, and user experience design globally. In addition to his award-winning work at POSSIBLE, he teaches courses at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and at UCLA.  @jasonbrush / Linkedin


self-portrait-as-your-traitor_1_2 (1)Debbie Millman’s illustrated essays and visual poems are part philosophy, part art, part deeply personal memoir exposing the universal triumphs and tribulations of being human. Her hand-lettered typography—sometimes tender, sometimes gritty, always breathtaking in its visceral candor—makes Self Portrait as Your Traitor a moving masterpiece of a singular art form that speaks to our deepest longings for beauty, honesty, and the ineffable magic of what it means to live.

 

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