I can’t imagine artists have an easy life. I’m not talking about financial security, though. Artists, whether they deal in the medium of clay, oil, words, or digital bits, create worlds in their minds. Creation isn’t a task so much as a fundamental part of who they are. When they look upon our often-times cruel and terrifying reality, where some would cry, or rage, or drink, they see a story, a vision that has to be told (and they probably also drink). But what happens when no one wants to see the way you see, to hear the truths that are so clear to you? What do you do then (besides drink)?
The minute I saw the AMV for “Shelter”, the collaboration between producers Madeon and Porter Robinson, I was struck by two things: a) that I am still able to weep; and, b) how similar the feeling in my heart was to when I watched the Doctor Who episode “Vincent and the Doctor”. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how closely the portrayal of van Gogh in the BBC show and Rin, the main character of “Shelter”, mirror each other.
For those who haven’t had their hearts ripped in two by the animation for “Shelter”, produced by Robinson, A-1 Pictures, and Crunchyroll, the plot of the 6-minute video—seriously, WATCH IT, I’ll wait—is that Rin inhabits a virtual world where anything she draws comes to life. As the sole inhabitant of said world, she’s understandably lonely, until one day she remembers how she came to the Digital World this place (*spoilers!*): her father built a spaceship for her, so she could escape Earth before an enormous asteroid destroyed the planet. Although heartbroken by her newly-regained memory, she’s inspired by her father’s final words, and his final deed, to continue to face towards the future with hope, surrounded by the love built into every pixel of her home.
Meanwhile, “Vincent and the Doctor” takes place right after (*spoilers!*) Rory falls into a crack in the universe. Amy Pond doesn’t remember him at this point, of course, but the Doctor feels guilty—and grief-stricken, obviously—so he takes her to the Musee d’Orsay where there’s a exhibition on Vincent van Gogh. They spot a weird alien lurking in one of his paintings, so naturally it’s geronimo to 19th-century France. They meet Vincent, who happens to be the only person who can actually see the creature without fancy gizmos, and find out that the alien is a young Krafayis, separated from its herd. Unfortunately, the only course of action left to them is to put it out of its misery. Along the way, Vincent shows them how he sees the world, with all its swirling majesty and vitality; how he can hear the colors. In thanks, the Doctor and Amy take him to the future, to the exhibition of his work, whereupon this “strange wild man in Provence” bears witness to one hell of a tear-jerker moment:
Sorry, I’ve...just got something in my eye.
Physically, van Gogh and Rin couldn’t be more different. But in terms of their motivations as artists, they share a commonality: the need to create. Both Rin and van Gogh have experienced great tragedy in their lives, that goes almost without saying. Rin is sad first due to loneliness, then due to the pain of loss as well. Van Gogh’s sadness stems from the fact that no one in his life can see what he sees, the fantastical grandeur of his world. And yet, they have such joy in their eyes when they draw.
Though their hearts ache, they keep drawing, keep working—and they feel love in their work. Rin finds happiness in the knowledge that her dad made this whole world for her, where she can make and create anything she could ever imagine; he put everything he had into keeping her safe. At the end of the Doctor Who episode, one of the most personally moving moments of any TV show I’ve ever seen, van Gogh weeps when he visits the exhibition of his works. His tears flow because he learns of the ecstasy that people feel when they see his works. For possibly the first time in his life, he sees ordinary people enraptured by his colors, his vibrant brush strokes. Hell, his work, the work that he couldn’t even sell to pay his bar tab, is in a museum.
I think, in the show, van Gogh dies not because he thinks no one can see reality so euphorically, but that no one around him appears to want to. Porter and Madeon, in their song, express a similar sentiment: “I could never find the right way to tell you/Have you noticed I’ve been gone?” They’ve both mentioned that, for a significant period of time after they released their respective albums, they felt stuck and depressed. For a time, they all but quit making music—but their collaboration is a celebration of finding their creative sparks again.
“Shelter”, both as a song and as a video, is ultimately about the sadness and joy of creating something, of having a vision and changing the world around oneself by making that vision a reality. But you cannot do it alone, nor will you have to—you’ll always have the support and love of the people around you, whether in real life or as an amazing memory. Van Gogh may have despaired at finding anyone who saw the world as fantastically as he did, but Vincent still felt hope in the end, I believe. In reality, he never knew if his works would survive, but he still painted, still created, still captured the mad ecstasy and torment of his life. Porter and Madeon know that, one day, people “won’t know the names on our faces/but they’ll carry on for us.” All these artists, though they despaired at times, fought to make their art for the generations to come, for those whose lives would be transformed through their works. Porter, Madeon, and van Gogh took their agony, their grief, their joy, their love, and bared it for all to see—because they knew that someday, someone would need their message. They didn’t know if they’d be remembered, but they didn’t care. Resonating within their souls was a truth they desperately needed to proclaim.
The world can make us pour out rivers of tears. It can also make us grin until it feels like our jaws will break. In creating art, whether with music, paint, photos, or words, we try to share our world, our anguish, our bliss, with everyone and anyone who wants or needs it. To all those in despair, we give hope and strength. We give them shelter.