Dying artists who inspire us to make the most of our time

January 29, 2016

Most of us understand the sentiment behind the Latin exhortation carpe diem; we understand and accept that death is inevitable and time must not be wasted. Yet, how easy it is to put aside thoughts of the inevitable in our daily hurried lives, and allow our time to be swallowed up with worries over minutiae.

If we are to make the very most of our time, we could do far worse than take inspiration from the creative community, many of whose members have produced extraordinary work in the very face of death.

Like so many people I was saddened to learn of the death of David Bowie. Yet what a legacy he left: not just a lifetime of songs and films, but a specific cohort of work produced in his final 18 months which was a brilliant response to his terminal illness.

In releasing the Blackstar album two days before he passed away, and co-writing the new play Lazarus, which ended its two month run in New York just 10 days later, Bowie seems to have curated his own death.

He certainly explores ideas around human mortality in the play, which is meditative in its consideration of sadness and despair. It is remarkable that Bowie chose to mine his own situation for the sharpest and most honest inspiration.

In the months before his death, pop star Michael Jackson too seemed overly inspired. One has to wonder: did he have some sense of his life coming to a close? While preparing for a worldwide tour, which Jackson warned would be his last, he was described as being in the “feverish grips of pure creativity”.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is believed to have commented that he was writing his masterpiece Requiem Mass in D minor for himself. Perhaps this was true even unknowingly? Certainly he died after composing eight bars of the Requiem’s Lacrimosa, the last words he set to music – and this mass, even left unfinished as it was, is still one of the most hauntingly beautiful in his extraordinary canon of work.

Among visual artists there is a similar pattern, whether death comes at an early or late age. Vincent van Gogh was succumbing to severe mental illness when he killed himself, yet his late paintings are considered sublime. Henri Matisse only began working with the cut-outs which make up some of his most popular work after being treated for abdominal cancer in 1941.

We may not all be capable of the same highs of creativity, but I think we can all learn and be inspired to challenge ourselves deeply by such artists. Like them, we can meditate to help us be present in the now, to channel our fears into action. Then we will be using the inevitability of death to make a good life.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation