Recent news of David Bowie’s passing and subsequent uncovering of what can be labeled his swan song “Lazarus” has me reflecting upon the artistic concept of the swan song. Swan songs have been witnessed throughout history. Leonardo da Vinci spoke of a swan song. Shakespeare wrote about one in The Merchant of Venice. Nevertheless, many people were surprised at the uncovering of Bowie’s “Lazarus” which is, by all accounts, a swan song, at least it has now been described as one last great act performed as the artist understood his upcoming passing, although the jury is still out on how “official” a swan song it might have been. (I shall leave the questions regarding “Did Bowie know he was passing?” for wiser pundits to ponder.)
While familiar with the concept of a swan song, working as an artist changes one’s perspective of the entire process. The drive to make, to create, to act one last time, to sort of “go out in a blaze of glory” is an ever present force. It’s something we all tend to think about but nobody wants to really acknowledge, kind of like the elephant in the room everybody tries to hide with an inconvenient lampshade. The pressure an artist puts on one’s self – we all want to create that one great masterpiece – so knowing this is your last shot at it, often serves as the impetus for an artist to dip deeply into the well, as it were, to really push to complete masterful work. The great photographer Diane Arbus once said, “the best photo I take will be my next one.” Knowing on some level you don’t have a next shot at this, accepting you are out of ammo so to speak, is a forceful but cruel motivator. It forces compelling work though it seems to do so at an exorbitantly high cost.
The relationship between art and death is a strained one. On some level, artists are fascinated with death and dying. We are, by nature, a brooding lot. The concept of doing one last great work, be it a play, a painting, a photograph, scoring a musical piece, or even an act of heroism is not lost on the artistic lot. There are many forces that can drive an artist, certainly death is not the only one, but it somehow manages to solidify some significant work. I’ve written about death before, of sorts, I even did an entire online project where I described my funeral to some detail (see my project on Utata called “Just Shoot Me” for details on that one) at least how I envisioned it, but the swan song adds an entirely new dimension to the entire dying business. The very idea that you will make one great piece, one last piece that the world will use to immortalize you, adds an entirely new spin to the whole death thing.
The concept of a swan song refers to the belief that “swans sing a beautiful song in the moment just before death, having been
silent (or alternatively, not so musical) during most of their lifetime.” (According to the Wikipedia.) This notion that we all have pent up artistic relevance, that we burst into artistic validity mere moments before our passing is a bit stressful to process on some levels. In the very least, it begs the question, where was the song hiding all this time?
I think the notion of the swan song should serve as a reminder to us all. We need to be present, in the moment. We need to strive to make great work now because, let’s face it, there might not be another tomorrow. The work that we do is important, even if it sometimes seems like everybody is ignoring you on Flickr or your Instagram is not getting all that much love these days. I’ve always tried to live my life in appreciation of the craft so it’s especially difficult for me to come to grips with the entire notion of a swan song really. I mean, I like to think my best work is out in front of me, always in front of me, and that I’m always growing, always pushing it, always getting better, even if sometimes it feels like I am being dragged sideways. That’s just how this whole “art” thing works. I try to focus on the work and let the chips fall where they may but this can be hard to do, maybe impossible, when confronted with your own mortality. Death is a hard thing but, heck, life sometimes is even harder, right?
A swan song by any other name…
Until next time…
This image taken with the Canon 5dS camera and the Canon 100mm macro lens. From the water garden/Koi shoot I did last weekend, I call it “Whisp.”