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Rejecting the Myth of the Tortured Artist

We should want artists to flourish and experience healthy lives, to create art that heals them as much as it benefits us.
Lingua Ignota
Lingua Ignota’s Kristin Hayter

One of the most powerful things about art is that it’s redemptive: an artist can take the greatest pain and sorrow, and transform it into something beautiful, meaningful, even eternal. Look no further than those great albums that deal with death (Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me), confront social ills and injustice (Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On), or result from an artist grappling with their inner demons despite victory not at all being assured (Joy Division’s Closer, Nick Drake’s Pink Moon). As Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote back in 1820, “our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”

(Note: I discovered Shelley’s “To a Skylark” via the liner notes of The Cure’s Wish, and if there was ever someone who mastered the “art” of spinning darkness into something beautiful and beloved, it’s Robert Smith.)

But this great truth presents a certain quandary: if we enjoy, admire, and appreciate such art, then to what extent are we living vicariously through or otherwise encouraging the artist’s own pain? Put another way, do we secretly wish for our favorite artists to continue wallowing in sorrow, heartbreak, and suffering simply so they can continue making art that we enjoy? There’s this romantic notion that “true” artists ought to be willing to suffer for their art, and it’s a notion that’s all too easy for fans to indulge in, regardless of the effect on the artists themselves.

When Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard married Zooey Deschanel in 2009, I recall some fans lamenting that he’d now be too happy to write the sad songs they loved so much. (Those same fans were no doubt pleased when Gibbard and Deschanel divorced in 2012, which partially influenced Death Cab for Cutie’s 2015 album Kintsugi.) Cursive’s Tim Kasher addressed the quandary head on in his inimitably acerbic manner when he sang “Well, here we go again/The art of acting weak/Fall in love to fail/To boost your CD sales” on 2003’s The Ugly Organ.

Looking beyond the world of indie-rock to more outré genres, Kristin Hayter has produced some of the most harrowing and uncompromising music of the last ten years under the Lingua Ignota moniker. Drawing from the industrial, noise, and power electronics genres as well as liturgical music, opera, and traditional folk music, Lingua Ignota’s sound would be overwhelming in and of itself. But Hayter’s ominous soundscapes ultimately serve as a vehicle for her powerful vocals and wrath-filled lyrics, which use startling Biblical and apocalyptic imagery to confront abuse and misogyny.

On 2017’s blistering All Bitches Die, for instance, Hayter cries out for divine intervention and retribution: “Lord God, Lord God, frigid father/I beg of you from a throat raw with curses/By your almighty grace/Intercede for me/Console me with blood/That my woes be avenged one thousand fold.”

Hayter herself is a survivor of abuse, something that’s figured prominently in her work. Her 2016 MFA thesis was a 10,000-page document filled with examples of misogyny from extreme music genres as well as court records and audio recordings taken from her own personal experiences with violence. One of her more recent albums, 2019’s Caligula, was inspired by “speaking out about abuse and feeling invalidated, and people who I thought were my friends no longer being my friends, and the crushing experience of how that feels.”

Suffice to say, such music would be demanding, not just to compose and record but also to perform live. As befitting her subject matter, Hayter intentionally writes music that’s difficult to perform, and requires considerable vocal stress and strain to pull off successfully. But beyond any physical demands, I imagine that constantly revisiting one’s trauma, even if to ultimately exorcise it and call out one’s abusers, would be extremely taxing spiritually and psychologically, and perhaps even harmful in the long run. Which is why Hayter’s recent announcement that she’s retiring Lingua Ignota seems like a truly healthy decision:

I have so much gratitude for what has been afforded me, and the beauty of the community that has gathered around what I do. Committing myself to this project and all that has come with it has also been acutely painful. This time last year I was non-functional. Then, out of desperation, I gave myself permission to heal for the first time. There is still so much work for me to do, but these months of personal growth have allowed me to see myself clearly, my strengths and my shortcomings. Every day I do conscious, active work to stay present — where I am safe, rather than mired in my past — where I was not. I will not allow my wounds to destroy me. I want to live a healthy, happy life and have changed much in myself and my surroundings to bring light in. As such the art has to change too. It is not healthy for me to relive my worst experiences over and over through [Lingua Ignota], and my healing has finally allowed me to *feel* how painful that is. I am taking a new direction with my music and I am looking forward to the future. I want to let you know in light of some (very cool) things that will be announced soon that I am retiring this catalog, this pain. This era is over for me. I will give my final performances of this music everything I have, and I look forward to the actual great pleasure of interpreting hymns for you. Revelations is upon us. Gentle friends, it is ok to let go. Thank you for sharing the dark with me, it is time to move forward.

There may be some who lament Hayter’s decision, who want her to keep making music in the vein of Caligula and All Bitches Die because they find it exhilarating, groundbreaking, etc. However, there’s wisdom in realizing when it’s time to let go and move on, to retire the pain (as Hayter puts it) rather than keep reliving it. Otherwise, I imagine there’s a risk that the music becomes less about the pain and more about the performance of the pain, which risks cheapening everything that Hayter set out to accomplish with her art. (Thankfully, the vast majority of the responses to Hayter’s announcement have been overwhelmingly supportive.)

Kristin Hayter’s decision should serve as a reminder. While it’s amazing to see artists turn trauma, grief, and despair into something beautiful and redemptive — and yes, for all of its brutality, Lingua Ignota’s music does contain moments of striking beauty — it’s incredibly callous and even consumerist to desire that they continue doing so just so we can get another album.

Put simply, we should want artists to flourish and experience healthy lives, to create art that heals them as much as it benefits or entertains us. Some artists may very well experience healing through raging against the darkness again and again, album after album, concert after concert. But that’s for them to decide, not us.

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