This is how I found out that Phil died:
David Razowsky texted me. That was how I found out.
DAVID: Phillip Seymour Hoffman died.
LAURA: Oh god no. No no no no no no.
DAVID: F--D UP. F--D UP. I get so angry about all the f*khats that don't leave us when they need to only to have those who we need to exit stay around.
LAURA: I agree. I'm so sad right now. He was so f--ing good, so so good. He was one of the best of us.
LAURA: When will we artists and creators and visionaries become the loudest voices, the world leaders, the biggest news items?? When willl the 1% and the s--t-spreaders finally be put down by our revolution??
DAVID: Agreed. We just gotta keep talking. People are listening, feeling empowered, and carrying on the conversations.
Dave and I often let each other know of the passing of public figures who meant a lot to one or both of us, or the world. This death, though...this was a big one. Yes...it was sad when Amiri Baraka, Pete Seeger, and Maximillian Schnell left, but they had lived such long lives that the shock was not as great. After all, the mortal coil must be shuffled off eventually.
But Phil was only 46. And he was so good. He was one of the best of us. His ability was stunning, and he worked hard--he didn't take his skills for granted, he always seemed so focused and compelled in his work. He is quoted as saying ““Acting is so difficult for me that, unless the work is of a certain stature in my mind, unless I reach the expectations I have of myself, I’m unhappy...If you’re doing it well, if you’re concentrating the way you need to, if your will and your concentration and imagination and emotional life are all in tune, concentrated and working together in that role, that is just like lugging weights upstairs with your head. And I don’t think that should get any easier.”(1)
I keep thinking about him, his work, his ferocity with which he consumed and created his characters, and the level of intensity he approached all the work with. And I think about his own soul, his inner workings, whatever demons he must have been facing, and I can't get angry or blame him for having ever used drugs, or for fatally relapsing. I don't think he was looking to leave, but even if he was, I empathize and understand.
The work of an artist is never easy.
The artist is a conduit, a translator, a prophet, a visionary, a voice, a medium. The artist absorbs and consumes and takes in and digests the world around themself and then through their own unique and individual vessel, all that has come in is transformed, transfigured, translated, restated, re-reified, reborn, communicated, and created through the unique and singular lens that only that artist possesses....for only that artist is his or her self.
Think of how IMMENSE AND OVERWHELMING ALL OF HUMAN EXISTENCE IS.
No really. THINK about it.
War. Genocide. Division. Homicide. Xenophobia. Abdication. Assault. Theft. Marital discord. Identity crises. Rampant consumerism. Labeling. Pigeonholing. Demands on space and time and privacy. Birth rates. Death rates. Poverty rates. Suicide rates. Domestic violence, rape, incest, patricide, matricide, gun control, health care, third world countries and apartheid and child marriages and overpopulation and these are just a fraction of the bad things.
Then there are the heartbreakingly beautiful and wondrous things. Birth. Death. Simple acts of human kindness. Great works of music. Clean water. Flowers. Sunlight. Sunsets, sunrises. The lightning speeds of the internet. The ability to see your newborn relative even though her parents live 2000 miles away. Peace. Heroes. Human rights recognition. Love. Love. LOVE. And so much more.
The job of the artist is to be vulnerable, to be open, to be awake/alert/alive to all these things that s/he is receiving--this infinite myriad of terrible and wonderful things--and then to process them on both a conscious/subconscious level, so s/he can infuse this experience into their art. Whether s/he paints, draws, directs, composes, plays, sings, dances, does performance art, is a writer, editor, actor, etc...s/he uses a chosen medium to channel their perceptions and understandings of the vastness of the human experience. In doing so, the individual artist remains important as the unique conduit for this perception, but the audience finds resonance because of the channeling of the shared human experience.
Being an artist is brave and large and vital and can be incredibly terrifying. Artists are people whose mirror neurons--those microscopic scientific provers of compassion and empathy--are firing nearly all the time, so that they are constantly in a state of response and of acute feeling. Artists are people who are seeing the infinite number of connections and links between moments/places/people/things/happenings and because of that, their minds constantly hum at a low frequency, insisting that they try and find ways to open up the eyes/hearts/minds of non-artists. Artists see both sides of arguments and fight to find ways to bridge the gap.
Artists are people who can make us love a villain, doubt a saint, rethink everything we knew about the color red, change how we hear music/sounds/voices....artists are the people who hold the keys to unlock endless potential for change--change for the good.
And so to be an artist is to break. Over and over again. Regardless of "commerical or critical success," the artist breaks, begins again, opens his/her eyes anew, because s/he knows that every moment holds a new and unique potential. The artist breaks conventions, breaks hearts, breaks preconceived notions, breaks barriers, breaks down walls, breaks minds, breaks himself. Breaks herself. The artist begins again. And again.
And this process of constant discovery, renewal, and rebirth is exhausting, and it can be depressing to watch a majority of humanity deny it. Their denial is about them holding on to what no longer serves them, about them comparing themselves to one another, about them saying no to themselves or to each other -- it is also about their fear to be constantly reborn, to renew, to discover--because new things are "scary." New things are harder to market to. Consumerism relies on predictability, on market trends. A majority that would be willing to constantly jump off metaphorical cliffs and make discoveries and look within for inspiration and say "I am enough?" Well that majority would be dangerous to the bottom line. And so the majority of people don't function as artists. The majority of people don't behave as though they are awake, alive, and aware. Sometimes there are glimpses...but then they fade.
For we artists, living amongst that majority and trying to communicate to that majority can be a massive stumbling block, engendering doubt and fear within ourselves. We begin to doubt that we are enough. Or maybe our message is heard, or we do meet with successes...but our own inner demons, our "parrots"--as Alexandra Billings calls them (those devils that sit on our shoulder and whisper negativity in our ears...or shout it)--chant choruses of naysaying into our minds and hearts and souls. "Not good enough, not pretty enough, not ever going to make it to the next thing, can you really keep going, do you think you have what it takes?..." and so on and so forth.
Those inner demons are magnified by the fact that the artist is not a central figure in everyday life, that art is not a primary means of communication and commerce, and that our consumerism/capitalistic economic structure doesn't support the artist. Think of it -- very few artists actually make a living wage or a comfortable wage from just their art alone. Many artists with a modicum of success (recognition, awards, steady work in their field) still have to have "day jobs" or second jobs of some kind in order to live without worrying about living off of credit or Top Ramen at the end of the month. There is an value system that drives our economy, a value system that is completely arbitrary, and art and artists have no real place in the profit-making hierarchy of that system. Art is not seen as "valuable" or "profitable." The arts are often seen as supplementary to "real work," or "real majors," or "real careers." But it is the arts that teach us our humanity, that teach us to listen and to communicate and to empathize and to appreciate one another. It is the arts that teach us how to think outside the box and to employ critical thinking when solving problems, or to find connections with others in order to form groups and work as ensembles even though as individuals we might seem very disparate. The arts are so freaking ridiculously vital and necessary to human existence that to think otherwise only proves how well the current system has been able to fabricate a world (a shallow and violent world in many ways, if you ask me) wherein the arts are somehow secondary.
So when a great....no, sorry, A FRICKING GREAT AND TREMENDOUSLY POWERFUL ARTIST LIKE PHILLIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN dies, and there is evidence that points to the inner demons as a potential catalyst for that death---those demons which only grow larger in a society like ours---then I get irate and I take about two months to formulate a rant (which still is probably full of structural gaps, but oh well) to express my anger.
Because I still miss Phil. I miss him so much. There is a huge gaping hole in the artist community where he once was, and it isn't going to close anytime soon, because he was one of those ones who could reach out and find the way in to so many perspectives, so many truths, so many paths of human existence...and he made them all so real, so personal. He owned them all and through his art we got to empathize with those paths, or to look at them up close in a way we never could without him.
Thank you Phil. And to all those who went before you and who will follow you. Thank you.