I Don’t Feel If You Don’t: Emotion in Art and the Sincerity of the Cure

Art has always been, for myself and so many others, an outlet for so many deeply personal emotions. It has not only been a way of working through the trials and tribulations of human experience, but also a means of communicating these feelings to others without explicitly recounting details. Art gives us a way to articulate emotion while circumventing circumstance: a painting or poem is often a short-cut to the heart, a way of saying, “this is how it feels,” regardless of whether the audience can sympathize with the situation that prompted it. Because human emotion is a complex and varied thing, I may not feel the sadness you experience by falling out with a friend, or the frustration you have at a romantic rejection, but I have no doubt experienced them myself under other circumstances and can recognize their presence in artistic works.

That said, when it comes to light that a piece was not, in fact, composed out of its “proper” emotion, it feels like a sort of betrayal. I recall a number of times when I found out a song I deeply identified with was written from a totally different viewpoint, or exclusively pandered to radio production and popularity. My entire existence seemed to crumble when, at sixteen, I found out Robert Smith had written “Let’s Go to Bed” simply based on what got radio airplay—the song that had defined my first ‘adult’ relationship suddenly felt like a lie. I had been convinced that Smith had written from the same insecure, fugue-like daze of affection that I had experienced. I couldn’t believe those words that had actually moved me to tears had been complete fabrication.

Let's Go to Bed

However, I was also so thoroughly touched by works of fiction in literature—I wept for the doomed loves in so many Gothic novels, and thrilled at the triumph of good over evil in works so obviously fantasy. When I read urban legends (my generation’s fairytales), I found myself jumpy and unsettled for days. Never for a second did I believe these accounts were true, but I still allowed them to move me and spark very real emotions. Whether or not the authors had experienced unrequited love, or ridden dragons triumphantly into battle, or escaped the horrors of Satanic cults firsthand was irrelevant. Whether or not I had any emotional basis of comparison was also irrelevant—the work felt authentic enough to create those for me. Years later, with more of life behind me, those feelings hold true. Now, instead of reading Leroux and thinking, “that must be what love feels like,” I can examine the dynamic between Christine and Raoul and say, “that is love” and feel just as strongly with the bonus of recognition.

We can watch Leonardo DiCaprio fight bears and struggle against a historical wildness without questioning the emotional credentials he or director Alejandro González Iñárritu have behind them. We can even give them both awards of global artistic recognition. So why did I feel so betrayed by Robert Smith for his lyrical fiction?

Perhaps it’s because it caused me to question the authenticity of his other songs, songs I aspired to experience myself. If “Let’s Go to Bed” was a total fabrication, what did that mean for songs like “Just Like Heaven,” or “Icing Sugar,” songs that summed up everything I wanted out of love? Maybe, if the emotion I felt came from lyrics confessed to be fictional, the feelings I got from other songs were just as fictional, and described experiences I couldn’t possibly have. For years, I thought that may have been painfully true—real relationships, at least as far as my experience extended, did not include the dizzy euphoria or frenetic excitement of love that Smith had promised me. It pained me that the emotions they described would exist only in these musical fantasies, and my initial feelings were replaced with resentment.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized the sincerity of Smith’s lyrics were irrelevant: my emotional reaction was no less real, those feelings no less authentic, than they would be born from my own experience. Listening to those words produced in me a reaction—that alone was totally valid. And later on, they proved an invaluable base of comparison for my own feelings in response to other life experiences. Like Aristotle’s poets, Smith’s songs had taught me to recognize love in its playful, creative, joyful form, which I had no previous concept of through my own experience. Whether or not Smith had written them out of like experience made no difference: the emotions I felt listening to those songs were real, and prepared me to identify those same emotions when they came into my life organically.

Let's Go to Bed

There are aesthetic theories that deny we, as viewers, can experience any real feelings from art. With no personal stake in the creator’s experience or the plot at hand, we go through the motions of reacting—while sitting in the dark of a theatre, watching the latest James Wan flick unfold before us, we experience what feels like a genuine stress response. Our heart may beat erratically, we may have difficulty breathing, we might even scream, but according to theorists, this isn’t really fear: at the end of the movie, we know the lights will come up and we’ll all shuffle out of the theatre safely. But those feelings stay with you. Days, weeks, months later, when you find yourself alone in the dark, that same sense of dread may creep back in and you find yourself re-living the fear you experienced in the theatre. My sister still won’t use public restrooms alone thanks to a certain Japanese horror film, and loathe as I am to admit it, I kept all my coats out of sight for days after watching the Babadook so I wouldn’t see them out of the corner of my eye as something else.

The same extends to other works of art, poetry, and music. “Let’s Go to Bed” remains an emotional song for me, whether or not it was emotional for Robert Smith. I had a genuine experience, one that I relive each time I hear that song. I believe that my emotional experiences with other pieces are authentic as well—each time I’m moved to tears or imbued with excitement, I trust the feelings that evoked the response are relatable and repeatable, whether they are insights for future experiences or recall specific emotional occurrences. Those emotions aren’t packed into a box and stored on the shelf at the end of the experience, like the record that provoked them—they’re carried with me, recalled over and over again.

The Cure – Let's go to Bed by bebepanda


the Semiotics of Style: Identity as Art and Expression

You must be an artist.”
What band are you in?
Where are you shooting?”
My family never failed to marvel at the questions I’m asked by total strangers, some of whom have crossed streets or held up lines to ask advice in whatever field they think I’m in. “It’s so funny,” my mother will whisper. “How do they know?”
To me, the answer is plain: they can read my style. Each piece I wear, each choice I make is indicative of an influence, an icon or industry. To those in the know, everything is a symbol: the semiotics of style. It may be what’s inside that counts, but the outside can be a language used to decode the mysteries within. It’s a language that takes years to cultivate, and one that never stops evolving. Some of us take to it naturally, knowing just what to put on and pair to communicate our interests and ideas; others take years trying to gain fluency.
Stevie Nicks Self Portrait
For creative people, each article we wear, each hairstyle, lip colour, accessory, is a statement. We indicate our interests, our quirks, our differences on the outside—sometimes as fluid and gracefully as our creative pursuits, sometimes a little clumsier. I can’t even begin to count the awkward teenage translations I mucked up to communicate my still-developing identity. Sometimes, we plagiarize—in my own adventures in style, one could easily see Siouxsie’s brows, Robert Smith’s Hair, Stevie Nicks’ gypsy layers, Mana’s exaggerated lip color. Before I developed my own dialect, I lifted language directly from others. Like a child, we learn through imitation. We might try on so many other identities, learn so many different ways of speaking before honing in on what best communicates us to others. And after years of practice, gaining fluency and command of our new language, we allow these assumed identities to accent our individual voices.
Identity is my favourite medium. I admire skillful painting, and I marvel at musical composition, but every artist I can count among my favorites worked endlessly in cultivating not only their artistic skills but also their identity. Joel-Peter Witkin’s infamy is due not only to his strange, abject photography, but also the mythology that shrouds him. Edward Gorey illustrated countless works of whimsical fiction, but his larger-than-life character earned him a place in the public eye. David Bowie shape-shifted from character to character in order to immerse his audience in the fantastic worlds he conceived of. Andy Warhol not only became his own masterpiece of commercial culture, but also kept a veritable gallery of experimental identities. In my opinion, Candy Darling and Edie Sedgwick are infinitely more finely-crafted art objects than any silkscreened disaster or painted Brillo Box.
the Factory regulars
We’re often told to “dress for the job we want, not the job we have.” By trying on identities and learning the language of personal style, we explore not only our relationship with the world around us, but our deepest desires in life. Motivational speakers and life coaches will add that definite statements of success will help manifest goals—“I will be collected in the MoMA,” “I will write a NY Times best seller.” When you say these things with outward style, the sentiment is echoed back at you, which not only stokes the flame of our long-term goals, but also gives the immediate gratification of instant success—“you must be a rock star,” “I can tell you’re an artist.”
Walking through my neighborhood the other day, I passed a man who spoke volumes to me without ever saying a word. At a glance, I could tell what music he listened to, what places he frequented, what books he likely read, what shows he’d probably seen. —and in the fleeting instant our eyes connected, I wondered how he read me with my sea-witch hair and my waxed black jeans. It was clear as he stood on that corner in his matched tartan plaid bondage trousers and field jacket, taking long drags from a gnarled cigarette, that he had spoken this language far longer than I. He had settled comfortably in his manner of speech years ago. I wondered if he saw me as a foreigner still building my vocabulary, or as a modern polyglot chameleon, shifting from one language to another according to habitat. I could read his bleach-burned hair and bovver boots, but did my vintage frames and abundant silver jewelry translate to him?
David Bowie, Hadden Hall
Whether conversation-casual or professional-proper, our outward presentations say a lot to people. They can read our drives and desires before we ever open out mouths. We are art objects as much as anything we create, and we should take pride in our fluency and expressions. Popular opinion has shifted lately, placing the responsibility of style on the outside world—that we dress for other people, to please society, draw sexual interest, or squeeze into a designated role. But when considered as a form of expression, making these statements about style is like saying that artists produce work solely to please the public—and any artist can tell you that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Artists create work to convey ideas and concepts dear to them, to articulate points that may not be otherwise heard. They create to satisfy a deep need to express what’s going on inside. So too is style—we ought to adorn ourselves out of that same expressive drive. My hair isn’t blue in order to attract men or set myself apart from society, it’s a statement of self: “I am an exotic bird, a creature of my own creation.”
The next time you dress for the day, pause for a moment before the mirror. What are you saying today? Where did that expression stem from? From whom have you learned your visual language? Are you satisfied—even mores, are you happy? Express yourself. Exorcise those thoughts and feelings, pull yourself inside-out and look at your signs and signifiers as they manifest. What kind of life do they indicate? Life and art aren’t the tag-team separates we paint them to be—they are one in the same. Art doesn’t imitate life—life is art, and it begins with you. You are your own masterpiece. Speak out proudly.
Photo Credits: Self Portrait by Stevie Nicks, Factory Group Shot by Andy Warhol, David Bowie Hadden Hall 1972 by Mick Rock