The Value of Uncomfortable Art

As a writer, one question that I frequently find myself questioning is what, exactly, can and should be put into fiction.

And as consumers of media, I think this is a question that comes up often, as well. For years, people have made the claim that violence in fiction is dangerous, because it teaches impressionable people to act violently, and therefore, it should be avoided at all costs.

I’ve had people – particularly very spiritually-inclined people – tell me that I should avoid violent or negative media, like horror films, because they create negative energy in the consumers, that then turns into negative feelings, uncontrollable anger, bouts of depression – things like that.

And as someone who is very concerned about women’s rights, I’ve been told repeatedly not to watch this movie or that movie or support the interest in this character and their story arch because it’s sexist, or it promotes harmful stereotypes, or it delivers a message that ultimately oppresses women.

And I understand all of that. I totally support you if you personally do not want to partake in this movie or that genre, or if you are offended by the message that you read into this narrative. But does that mean that the story should not have been written in the first place? Just because somebody says that this narrative is (quote-unquote) ‘bad’ – or, hell, just because the majority of people say it’s bad – does that necessarily mean that it is wrong?

This isn’t a question that can necessarily be answered in only one way, because there is no right or wrong answer. There are only opinions. And while one person might say that a story shouldn’t be written if it includes violence or if it demeans a particular group of people or if it supports immoral behaviour, I personally disagree.

Personally, I believe that anything and everything should be used if a story if the author wishes it to be so.

Let’s use the example of violence here (because it’s the example that I think will get me in the least amount of trouble). Violence exists in our world, and it has long before the invention of film or visual media. That is just a simple fact, proven by the very existence of war and history textbooks. And while I don’t want to get into any factual discussions about the correlation between rates of violence and rates of violence in the media, I will say that art reflects life. Violence exists in fiction because violence exists in reality, and it works the same way with everything else that we see as a negative in art.

We tell sexist or racist stories because we are a sexist and racist culture.

Some stories support immorality because some people support immorality.

Whether we like it or not, it’s there, and leaving it completely unexplored and ignored is as good as shutting our eyes and covering our ears and going ‘la-la-la, it’s not happening’. That’s not to say that you need to immerse yourself in it. If you’re uncomfortable watching a horror movie, then good – don’t watch horror movies. But at the same time, you cannot deny that there is some value to what they do.

Because, in my personal opinion, the negative aspects of society need to be confronted and explored if anything is ever going to be done about them, and art is one of our safest (and, let’s face it – more fun) vehicles of being able to do that.

I’m going to use a specific narrative as an example – the storyline of Harley Quinn in DC Comics, and her abusive relationship with the Joker. As a feminist, I have two choices when approaching this storyline – I can either look away because watching a woman being physically and emotionally abused by a man makes me uncomfortable, or I can keep watching and use it as an excuse to better understand this issue without actually going out and putting myself in an abusive situation. I’m not saying that either choice is a bad one, I’m just saying that there is an opportunity to take this narrative – one that reflects a very uncomfortable part of our society – and learn something from it. Something that you can then take into the real world and use to help or better understand someone who is actually dealing with domestic violence.

Uncomfortable art has value. It raises questions, makes you think, forces you to think about things from another perspective. Maybe it doesn’t always do this – there are most certainly some films or books or music that uses violence or sexuality or controversy for the simple sake of being shocking or appealing to a certain crowd. Some horror films hold up the violence against certain people as nothing more than something to take pleasure in. But even that has its place, even if its place is nothing more than simple, barbaric enjoyment, and if we say that that form of uncomfortable art shouldn’t exist, then what’s to stop us from saying that the uncomfortable art that we can learn something from shouldn’t exist either? Where do we draw the line, and how can we say which forms of uncomfortable art can or cannot teach someone a valuable lesson?

So if you are personally offended by a particular piece of art, for whatever reason, and you don’t want to take part in it, then don’t. But don’t deny that it has value. Uncomfortable art exists because life is uncomfortable, and if we’re ever going to learn to deal with that, then we need to open our minds to other perspectives.

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