While spending time listening to Daniel Johnston in the days since his passing, we feel both heartbreak and tremendous gratitude. His life’s work reflects a singular creative brilliance, defined by cacophonous visions of unrequited love, the Devil, and his “eternal struggle” with manic-depression. The reverence that we, and so many artists feel for him, though, isn’t just admiration for genius or accomplishment; he was an artist who represented qualities profoundly important to the progressive art studio movement and culture more broadly. The raw emotional power of his songwriting was the product of unwavering convictions and principles as an artist - an ambition and moral commitment to expression, which he pursued with hopeful, creative perseverance.
In Johnston’s early work - recorded alone on a cheap tape deck in his parent’s basement - he allowed no limitations to hinder the complexity of his process. He pursued music as though the act was a divine imperative outside of himself, and for which he couldn’t justify compromise. This tenacity and single-mindedness is inherent in the music, proof that the detractors, non-believers, and society that often failed to support him were wrong:
Everyone and friends and family Saying, “hey, get a job Why do you only do that only? Why are you so odd?”
“We don’t really like what you do We don’t think anyone ever will It’s a problem that you have “And this problem’s made you ill”
The artist walks alone Someone says behind his back “He’s got this gall to call himself that He doesn’t even know where he’s at”
The artist walks among the flowers Appreciating the sun He does this all his waking hours But is it really so wrong
In the progressive art studio, it’s often easy to forget that disabled individuals and artists are both populations which mainstream society has difficulty understanding and appreciating. The magic that happens in these creative workspaces is highly important; a common ground between art and disability is that it takes the conviction that Johnston demonstrated to maintain a strong belief in self-worth, as well as inspiring the inclusion of idiosyncratic and complicated ways of being.
On his final tour, we saw Johnston at the Vic in Chicago performing with the support of Jeff Tweedy & Friends, which includes members of Wilco, Built to Spill, and Fugazi. This performance exemplified the nuanced relationship between neurotypical and disabled artists which is fundamental to the progressive art studio model - our mutual respect for each other as artists through facilitation. The band accompanying Johnston on stage provided the materials and support to realize his art - not by augmenting or influencing him, but placing his vision at the forefront with a reverence informed by deep admiration and knowledge of his work. Tweedy was delicately instructive, prompting occasionally, but essentially he remained subordinate in the process. If the band began playing one song, but Johnston started to sing another, they quickly shifted to follow. This resulted in a genuine expression of Johnston’s work - allowing him to lead while supporting his performance and functioning as any other band would. Artists who facilitate in progressive art studios understand exactly how this process functions.
While in the end he did not find the true romantic love he so often wrote about, he did achieve legendary, near-mythical status as an artist. Johnston ultimately amassed a catalog possessing his uninhibited vulnerability, underscored by a persistent sense of humor, anxiety, and loss. By virtue of his creative will and convictions, the world Johnston left will not be without his intimate works, influence, and enduring legacy - an act of mercy on us, "the world, the wicked world, marching to hell."