Fantastic Friday: Life and Art—and David Bowie

Teaching English literature, I often encounter the theme of life versus art. Does art mirror life? Does life mirror art?

I awoke to a shock this week—like millions of others—to learn that David Bowie had passed away after an 18-month-long battle with cancer. As he kept his life relatively private, none of his fans were aware of his illness. In fact, I had just added his newest CD, Blackstar, to my Amazon wishlist (I have since purchased it). And I had just watched the newest video he released, “Lazarus,” and pondered why it seemed so morbid.

David Bowie has been a favorite artist of mine for decades. Though I am not quite old enough to be able to claim that I have followed him from the start, I followed him from as early as possible. I have always admired him as a talented singer whose voice adds emotion and meaning and depth that moves beyond the mere lyrics of a song. I’ve admired his entrepreneurial nature in a business sense and in the sense that he constantly rebranded himself into different personas. His music never grew stale; his albums always pushed boundaries and experimented with new techniques and styles—something refreshing when the Hollywood model of creating more of the same (mediocrity) seems to prevail.

Bowie reminds me of one of my favorite television shows, Doctor Who, in that the Doctor regenerates every few seasons, played by a new actor with a new “spin” on the character’s personality—always changing, always growing, never fading—and thus keeping the character fresh. In some ways, Bowie and his various personas has done this over the decades. (Because of this connection, it had always been a hope of mine that Bowie would emerge to guest star on one of the episodes…)

What I especially admire, though, is how Bowie must have known about his impending death, and he refused to go quietly into the night. Instead, he did what he’s always done—he drew inspiration and created art. Watching the music video “Lazarus” again—this time after his death—brought chilling new meaning. In the video, Bowie is bedridden, a bandage over his eyes, and he seems heatedly to reach for a pen and scribble inspired words onto a page. With a skull on the table and an ominous closet into which he retreats at the end, the symbolism involved in his death is obvious. And the lyrics—mentioning him having unseen scars, “now in heaven,” having drama, being now known by everyone, and being free like a bluebird now—allude to his death. Even knowing his end, Bowie made art out of life. The video is a gift for his fans, showing that Bowie kept that human spirit until the end.

So why am I writing about the death of one of my favorite artists in a “Fantastic Friday” post? Bowie kept terminal cancer to himself (and only close loved ones) for eighteen months. All the while, he was still creating art. This sort of thing puts any of my problems into perspective. So I’m eight and a half months pregnant and have been complaining about feeling too zapped to do much novel writing lately. How can I be inspired when I have a ticking-human-time-bomb feeding off my resources, and my whole world about to change?

In fact, you may have noticed I have not been posting every Friday. Some weeks I’ve been claiming that I’m too zapped to write something inspirational or celebratory. Or too worried. After all, anything could go wrong in these last few weeks.

And that’s right—it can.

Anything could go wrong with any of us at any time.

And so what?

Witnessing the genius of Bowie’s last video—and listening to some of the lyrics in Blackstar and thinking about how they relate to Bowie making art out of his own inevitable end (all of our ends are inevitable)—has been incredibly inspirational to me.

Over Bowie’s career, the theme of stars and outer-space and extraterrestrial life has been a motif. I’ve been thinking about the fact that we’re all stardust, really. Ashes and dust. We’re given time here on earth, as humans. We don’t know how much time, and we don’t know the quality of our health during the time we have. But we are given time to be trapped in these human bodies. We can choose only what to do with that time. To sit and complain and worry and wait and hope, or to go out and do.

It’s up to us to create the vision of who we are. And like Bowie, we’re allowed to redefine that vision from time to time. The important thing is that we’re an active in our lives, that we are the drivers, the ones who react to what life throws our way. When we’re gone, we’ll be remembered by what we leave behind. As David Bowie tells us in “Lazarus,” “Everybody knows me now.”

And no one remembers those who simply sit, and worry, and wait.