Mental illness has for centuries been closely depicted in various artistic mediums, from literature to the visual arts: Vincent Van Gogh openly suffered from psychotic episodes and delusional fits, influencing his paintings to a great degree; Hieronymus Bosch depicted extractions of the “stone of folly”, which, according to popular Medieval superstition, was a cause of mental illness; and Ernest Hemingway penned records of his depressive states.
As the world has been exposed to the torments of the troubled mind for so long, has it now become increasingly difficult to gauge when representations are tasteless and inappropriate? Or, more appropriately, where?
I was prompted to think about this when several weeks ago, Vice Magazine published a photo spread by Annabel Mehran. Entitled “Last Words”, it shows models playing seven female writers – Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Iris Chang, Dorothy Parker, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Sanmao and Elise Cowen – in the process of taking their own lives. The next day, amid outrage, it was taken down.
Vice have since explained their motives in their decision to run the images, as an invocation of the Cause of Art, rather than for commercial gain:
“The fashion spreads in VICE magazine are always unconventional and approached with an art editorial point-of-view rather than a typical fashion photo-editorial one. Our main goal is to create artful images, with the fashion message following, rather than leading.”
I think what angers me the most about these images is that if the magazine’s intention was to illustrate the connection between the beauty and fragility of passed, brilliant literary icons, then why is there the need to try and even follow it with a fashion message. Don’t get me wrong, I am a firm believer that fashion is a form of art: it originates from the desire to express oneself in a creative medium. The clothes in the images, however, are dull and characterless, and seem to make little correlation to the raw emotion that the photographer attempts to capture.
I can’t help but deem the shoot even more disrespectful than what it already is through its (albeit, few) parallels to an original industry that has been subject as well to great emotional tragedies, which have been shown through McQueen’s suicide and Galliano’s struggle with alcohol and drug abuse, amongst others. It would seem quite ironic then that Vice should attempt to aestheticize the nature of self-destruction in two vehicles that deal with the nature and expression of subjective beauty, whilst at the same time highlighting their sinister aspects.
There will never be a universal rule that illustrates when it is okay to represent mental illness, and in this particular case, suicide in art. However, using the personal tragedies of real people in vain through distasteful means will never be accepted (despite attempts to justify it), Vice.