In a legal context, justice implies the assignment of retribution: getting what’s coming to you, be it a hefty fine or the couple dollars your friend’s owed you for months. Justice also implies fairness. Due process, impartiality, and the objectivity of the law. When an artist wants do justice to an experience, the parameters are less clear. Justice still implies fairness, but impartiality and objectivity are unattainable in art created out of subjective human experience. These principles hold a certain weight when applied to the experience of mental illness and the art that springs from it.
My high school friend hung herself from her basement ceiling at the age of sixteen. When I talk about her, I want my words to accurately reflect who she was as a person. I want to write her fully-fleshed: sunlit strawberry blonde curling in the schoolbus breeze to the cadence of her new favorite song, or fervently chasing the lightning storm on a stifling summer night with me tagging along. I want to write her as living, warm—as I knew her—but I don’t want to write her back to life. Either to ignore her death for the sake of the fullness of her life, or to ignore her life for the sake of her unnecessary and cataclysmic death, would be dishonest. When I profess the life and death of my friend, I want to do justice to her experience and to my experience of her, but there are no set rules to govern this.
Art is no stranger to the experience of mental illness. Creative communities have wrestled with the representation of mental illness in art for centuries; the trope of the “tortured genius” is one that, despite questionable validity, has stood the test of time. Regardless of the saturation of the creative community with these works, artistic expression rejects judgement. Unchecked art, however, fosters an arts community in which the truth-value of a piece is divorced from its technical-value. While art about mental illness may be judged as “good” art—demonstrating proficiency in a particular craft—there are other, subtler, value judgements that delineate art which does justice to the experience of mental illness.
A primary consideration in the judgement of art about mental illness is context: the medium, genre, and situation in which a work is framed colors the perception of piece. Certain contexts serve not primarily to educate or give testimony to an experience, but instead to sensationalize and glamorize. Few artists seek to romanticize mental illness, but creative choices from the media of a piece to the context in which it is viewed affect its reception and thereby its interpretation.
Framing is an element of artistic work often considered only in the context of design. However, the constraints of frame on an image, issue, or experience have implications broader than the piece’s technical prowess. The scope of story shown by an artwork directly affects the truth it tells. By inappropriately limiting or broadening artistic expression, mental illness may be inaccurately construed and is oftentimes grossly simplified.
The 2017 Netflix television series 13 Reasons Why tells the story of Hannah Baker, her suicide, and the thirteen tapes she leaves behind. While the show has received highly polarized reviews, the producers remain in adamant defense of their work, citing its hard-to-swallow moments and graphic depiction of suicide as catalysts for conversation. On the other hand, many mental health experts have spoken out against the series. In terms of popularity, 13 Reasons Why has been widely successful. However, in terms of truth-value—the show’s contextualization and framing of mental illness—the series not only falls short, it is dangerous.
The first failure of the show to do justice to the experience of mental illness is an issue of context. A suicide motif within the Hollywood narrative is colored in vastly different shades than it might be elsewhere. Through the rose-colored glasses of a show that is largely indistinguishable from your average high school drama, suicide is imbued with a romanticism that does the opposite of justice to its topic. The vessel through which the weighty subject of the series is contextualized contorts its message dramatically. Hannah’s graphic death in 13 Reasons serves, according to the show’s producers, to “dispel the myth” of peaceful release often associated with suicide. In reality, Hannah’s identity as the story’s protagonist and the influence of her posthumous words characterize her death as a final, radically successful struggle for power.
The second shortcoming of 13 Reasons is manifested in its failure to make a direct connection between suicide and mental illness. The series does little to name, or even hint at, the neurological factors that underscore instances of suicide. Bordered by a clean, cause-and-effect narrative arc, the limited scope of the story propels the assumption that Hannah’s experience of bullying and social conflict alone led her to kill herself. In the thirteen tapes that serve as Hannah’s suicide note, she names the individual people and situations that factored in her decision. These tapes serve as a testament to the experience of bullying, but neglect issues of mental illness, and in doing so fail to provide the show’s audience with the tools to recognize and aid in a similar situation.
Standing in stark contrast to 13 Reasons Why, the music of solo artist Julien Baker functions as an evocative testimony to her own experience of anxiety and depression. Her first album, Sprained Ankle, holds joy in the same shaking breath that sings the world’s brokenness back to it. Baker communicates emotion with apt candor, and contextualizes her message in perhaps the most raw, personal way possible: alone on stage with a guitar. From the opening track’s image of “saline communion” in the back of an ambulance to the earnest plea with which she ends her album (“God, I wanna go home”), she brings to life her own experience in a way that simultaneously nuances a serious subject and strips it of romantic notions. She does not attempt to bound her experience within thematic or narrative constraints, but rather frames mental illness through the perspective she knows best: her own. Baker’s personal, intimate, and unassuming approach to her artistic work underscores her experience of depression and anxiety without hyperbolizing it, holding it a half-hour album without simplifying it.
Baker willingly bares her own brokenness with a candor that provides emotional nuance and raw clarity to her work. Mental illness and joy exist not as a dichotomy, but in all the inner complexities of individual experience. Baker’s treatment of her own wounds and the world’s scars admit this attentive love, and do justice to experience.