Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Cultural Explanation 6/3/16: A Brief Digression on Art and Compassion

Occasionally you see a work of art that is so unbelievably "____" that you question your own priorities. 'This work is so unbelievably formally perfect or complex or culturally diverse or monochrome or morally complex or simple that I can't help wondering why all works don't strive to be this way.' Hopefully, an inevitable sense of balance eventually takes hold and we all come to realize that our tastes matter to no one but us. The arts exist for us to fall in love with, not in line with.

At this point in my life, there is only one quality which truly tempts me to say that all art ought to be more "______" That quality, perhaps inevitably, is humanity.

Art is made by humans for humans,  so is it really too much to ask that artists treat their subjects with more compassion than they generally do? All things, all people, in life, are often deserving of contempt. In any sort of narrative fiction, the very mechanism of plot is to put characters in situations both the characters and the audience would find unpleasant to be faced with. Without such unpleasantness, there is no art, but without an acknowledgement that we all deserve something more than unpleasantness, there is no mimesis, no learning from art.

Every child knows that implicitly, and our mature selves are supposed to forget this self-evident truth as we age. In this era when every adult strives to be younger than they are, we have more art that preaches contempt than we ever know what to do with. The majority of popular music objectifies women (really, you're gonna argue this point?...), special-effects laden movies inevitably glorify violence and the alpha males who perpetrate while treating everybody else like bloody dots on a canvas (and let's not even get started on video games...). Genre fiction is, almost by definition, a protest against the human realism of what used to be considered literary fiction - virtually the whole point of genre fiction is to elevate points of theme and plot past the once uncontested primacy of of character exploration.

Perhaps older forms of 'higher art' were and remain no better in many of these regards. Perhaps the more things change, the more they stay the same, but mass art could not possibly exist in an age before mass production as it does today. In an age before mass-produced popular music and movies there was folk music and folktales. Folk traditions may have seen honor and glory in killing and destruction which modern attitudes (hopefully) find abhorrent, but before the modern era when our predisposition to violence could end the planet, there was a nobility to violent aims which even the most hawkish proponent of national defense of the First World should find disgusting in a modern context. And yet, in our age, our fascination with images of senseless violence is nothing short of pornographic. Perhaps, like pornography itself, such violent images can prove a useful depository for urges in our evolutionary programming that would otherwise find their way into real life scenarios. On the other hand, there is always the danger that pornographic fascinations, whether with sex or violence, undirected and unbridled as pornography always is, becomes acceptable to enact in reality. It's always possible that the more fantasies we watch of humans being degraded, the stronger the unconscious urge grows within us all to degrade other humans ourselves.

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