Sean Beckwith: The long shadow of Aspen’s beauty
If life imitates art, what does that mean for Aspen? If you walk around town and peek in the various galleries you see beautiful landscapes, colorful pop pieces and other works that would look great hung in $15 million homes. The Aspen Art Museum, Anderson Ranch and other institutes do a great job of bringing in international artists to explore global issues.
However, with the area’s well-documented mental-health issues, where are the works exploring local problems in plain sight? I have yet to see a painting of the drab, dull and gray days of the offseason. You have large portions of the workforce giving up their holidays to make tourists happy. Can we get a production of that story, or are we going to run back “The Nutcracker”?
Authors write books about ski patrollers who solve crimes and murder mysteries. Music school students play classical songs on street corners and Belly Up books musicians best experienced on Molly.
If life imitates art, Aspen’s job of covering up life’s nuisances with extravagance and pretty pictures is spot on.
For every mountain-scape, there should be a black-and-white of a room in a detox center. For every photo of a skier slashing powder on a bluebird day, there should be a collage of those taken too soon. For every collection of Aspen-inspired writing, there should be a chapter of locals sharing their inconsolable grief about any of the countless recreation-related tragedies. For every family portrait, there should be a candid of restaurant staff shoving their faces full of family meal.
No one wants to be reminded of the ugly aspects of life while on vacation, but living in “paradise” comes with the caveat that aesthetics equals happiness.
Look at the way Hunter S. Thompson is treated in the valley. His ability to write groundbreaking works of literature and his drug abuse overshadow how his life ended.
It’s absolutely insane how much he’s celebrated and how much his suicide is ignored. The most popular artist in the history of Aspen and one of the best writers of the 20th century killed himself and people are like, “Look at all the drugs he did. What an amazing person.”
Aspen holds forums and summits and conventions about solving these massive problems but what are the preconceived notions that persevere? Aspen is for the elite and extremely wealthy. Aspen has as much cocaine as it does actual snow.
The top minds of the world pat themselves on the back after a meta discussion about civil rights but meanwhile half of Aspen’s workforce is bused in from downvalley and beyond. It’s an exercise so rooted in superficiality that to describe it as a farce is an understatement.
I’m not saying the city needs an early ’90s Seattle overhaul and should embrace depression, but we should do a better job of acknowledging the problems teeming below the serene sunsets and snow days.
If Aspen wants to be this mecca of arts and enlightenment, it needs a dose of unpleasantness. Everything cannot be solved with a Champagne campaign.
My favorite music is dungy, grimey, dirty hip-hop because you can feel the emotion. Listen to Wu-tang’s “C.R.E.A.M.,” Nas’ “One Love” or 2Pac’s “Bury Me a G” and list the feelings they evoke.
If you’re not a hip-hop fan, play Frank Sinatra’s “I’m a Fool to Want You” and tell me it’s not one of the most moving songs in his catalog. Art is not always objectively beautiful because life isn’t unicorns and flamingos.
Pain, loss, desperation and sadness are normal feelings. And like anything, too much can be unhealthy. If I walked around with a perma-smile, even though a bear is biting my arm off, it would be unsettling.
The presence of elegance in the Roaring Fork Valley is undeniable, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t struggling. They may not be going through situations as intense as migrants crossing the Mediterranean, but if a person is contemplating taking their own life, they need help that a float down North Star can’t provide.
If you look hard enough, there are places in the valley working to improve mental health. Don’t let excuses about this alleged utopia prevent you from reaching out before it’s too late. Acknowledging something is wrong is extremely hard to do when you’re surrounded by delusionally happy tourists, so don’t be ashamed. And conversely, if a friend seems off or aloof, ask if they’re OK.
We may not get an appropriate representation of what it’s like to be the sad clown at the circus soon, but it’s a lot more feasible than solving the affordable-housing situation.
In Aspen, life does not imitate art. I open my blinds to the sight of Aspen Mountain every morning but I still watch my step for dog s— on the walk to the bus.
Sean Beckwith is a copy editor at The Aspen Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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