Tuesday, 17 September 2013

An Artist's Resonsibility

I am going a little off piste with today's blog post. Normally, I will try to find a way to relate a tale from my travelling adventures to what I am writing. What I am going to talk about here could not be any further from an adventure. Last night, with some reluctance, my wife and I called the police to report our next door neighbour.

We do not live in a particularly enviable part of town. Although to be fair, I am not sure that Portsmouth has any enviable parts to it. It is one of the most densely populated cities in the country and yet it has the amenities and employment opportunities of somewhere a tenth of its size. Everyday I come into contact with aspects of human nature that I would rather avoid, but last night was particularly bad.

The neighbours have only been living there for a few months and the closest that we have had to meaningful contact is when we throw the cigarette butts back over the fence that the woman living next door keeps dumping into our yard. Occasionally, we will hear shouting. Nothing though, could have prepared us for last night.

I arrived home from work at 5pm and the shouting had already started. I was not paying it  much attention, but I could tell that it was the woman and her ire was being directed at her kids. It was fifteen minutes later when Katie got home that it took a marked turn for the worse.

I had never heard another human being scream with such hatred as I heard that woman screaming at her children. They are only young too - maybe 7 to 10 years old. Yet, the expletives that the woman used would ensure an r-rating if an actor were to use them in a movie. We could not make out everything that was being screamed, but the basic gist was that this woman was blaming her children for 'ruining her life'. The worst part was when the kids pleaded with her to stop.

'Please mummy, I love you,' one of them cried.

'WELL I DON'T LOVE YOU. I HATE YOU - GET OUT!' the mother screamed back, her vocal cords sounding like they were about to tear in two.

'Mummy please, I love you!' the little girl cried.

I do not want to go into details, but my wife, Katie, had to endure some pretty rough times when she was a child and as such, she could not bear to listen to these children crying any longer. I was debating with my conscience whether or not to call the police. Katie just picked up the phone.

I am sure that there has to be more deep rooted problems as to why this woman was behaving the way that she was. Maybe she is psychotic or maybe she is an alcoholic. One thing was for certain though. No child, in fact, no human being, should ever have to endure that level of verbal abuse. I can only hope that being paid a visit by the police was a wake up call for this woman and she takes the necessary steps to turn her life around. If this was a novel, I know how I would want the story to end, but it isn't. It is real life. And that brings me to a very important question. Basically, what is the purpose of art?

There are many ways to answer that question, but what I am most concerned with is how we address the darker side of human nature in art. I see films like the Saw series and I honestly do not understand the point of those movies. The same can be said for a lot of  'psychological thrillers'. Particularly the ones where the killer prevails. Again, what is the point to it?

There is nothing wrong with creating monsters in art, but I also think that the artist does have a responsibility for his or her creations. If we create a monster, then we should make sure that we also slay that monster or what kind of message are we sending out? A lot of people will disagree. They will argue that life does not always have a happy ending and it is the artists duty to reflect life. I could not disagree more strongly. I know what the world is like. I see it everyday on the streets and in the news. I do not need somebody else to paint me a picture of the horror that goes on. If art reflects life, it is nothing but a pale shadow of life. It is imitation. If an artist is to be truly successful, then life will reflect their art. I will say it again. Do not paint me a picture of how the world is. Paint me a picture of how the world could be.

Looking again at the domestic problems of the family next door. How should this be addressed in art? British soap operas have a history of approaching the 'gritty story-lines' and I despise them for it. The reason being, that for 'gritty' read 'realistic'. There is enough misery in the news, that we do not need it in our dramas as well. Unless of course, the story attempts to offer up a solution. Unless it attempts to slay the beast.

There is a movie I watched, a few years back, with Robert Redford called The Last Castle. In a scene near the beginning, Redford's disgraced General is viewing the military memorabilia of James Gandolfini's cruel prison Commandant.

'Any man with a collection like this is a man who's never set foot on a battlefield. To him a miniƩ ball from Shiloh is just an artifact. But to a combat vet, it's a hunk of metal that caused some poor bastard a world of pain.'

I think that the same can be true when we look at any art form. The artist who has truly felt pain, who knows what misery is, will not throw it up purely for entertainment, for titillation (again, I refer you to those awful Saw movies). They will use their pain to try to create something positive. The writer does not produce for a mass audience. A writer creates a personal dialogue between them and the reader. If that little girl who has just suffered abuse at the hands of the one person in the world who she thought she could always count on picks up your book, what would you want to tell her? What kind of a world would you want to show her? I know what I want to say to her. I would want to give her hope, because ultimately, that is the greatest power of art.

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  1. In one sense, I do agree with you.

    On the other hand, those gritty stories you so despise have a place too. Imagine a bully reading a book from the point of view of a bullied child who kills himself in the end.

    Or if someone whose point of view is to just run with the crowd reads about a strong and wonderful person being lynched for something he didn't do?

    Yes, life can be terrible. I mean, I can't even begin to imagine what it must have been like for those two children.

    But we can't judge which books deserve being published and which don't. Our jobs are to write the books we want to see out there. And hopefully, every single one of those books will have some sort of positive impact.

    No matter whether you and I understand why or why not.

    I know this is difficult to read, but please don't be a person who judges which stories are worthy or not. It's actually just another form of censorship, and one duty I do think we as writers have is to defend our right and places in this world to write what we want.

    1. I definitely agree that we should not censor and the examples that you give do still have the ability to provide hope, so there are different ways to approach darker subjects. I think that I was just a little shaken after what I overheard from the neighbour, so my post was a little biased/naive. I am still torn on this though.

      When I was at school, a lot of the kids talked about a movie named American History X. I later saw the film and it is a masterpiece of story telling that is both tragic and unjust (no happy ending here), but it also has a very powerful message to it about violence and prejudice that can only be told by showing where these paths ultimately lead and it is definitely a story that should be heard. The thing is, I cannot help going back to a comment that one of the kids at school made about the movie.

      'when he makes the guy bite the pavement - that is so cool.'

      If you have seen the movie, you will recognise the scene as being anything but cool and therein lies the problem. What a writer says and what a reader/viewer hears can be completely the opposite. I guess the main point that I am trying to make is not that writers should hold back from creating a scene like the one above, but that they should not write with the intention of such a thing being viewed as cool. No topic should be out of bounds, but also nothing comes without a certain responsibility too.

  2. It just makes me sick thinking about those children and I am glad you called the police!

    I personally believe that there is no limit to art and creativity, but I tend to like the hope filled better. As far as the art of writing goes, this reminds me of what Anthony Burgess says in his introduction to the 1986 American edition of A Clockwork Orange.

    The early America version of his book left out the last chapter of his book, because the main character turned his life around and his publisher didn't think American's would buy the ending. But Burgess says this: " There is, in fact, not much point in writing a novel unless you can show the possibility of moral transformation, or an increase in wisdom, operating in your chief character or characters. Even trashy bestsellers show people changing. When a fictional work fails to show change, when it merely indicates that human character is set, stony, unregenerable, then you are out of the field of the novel and into that of the fable or the allegory. The American or Kubrickian Orange is a fable; the British or world one is a novel."

    So, if you are writing a novel. It is your responsibility to create characters who grow and change and have that hope available, otherwise you are not writing a novel!

    You can read the rest of Anthony Burgess' introduction here: http://thefloatinglibrary.com/2009/04/20/a-clockwork-orange-resucked/

    1. Thanks for sharing. That is a really great quote. I like the way it highlights the need for a sense of purpose to a novel. A plot is really just a sequence of events, whereas a story can be the reason behind those events or even just how those events have an effect on the characters. I actually find coming up with plots to be very simple, but turning a plot into a story is a different thing entirely.

  3. There is a lot of garbage out there. I saw Hostel, which was had some lasting impact and walked you through the squeamish unbearable torture scenes only in the end for the character to get revenge which was satisfying. Did the story need to be told? Nope.

    The artist transcends when they create and that act in itself is hope, some form of release. Of course with Rothko, the paintings devoured him in the end.

    1. Thanks for reading. I was also left wondering what the point was to Hostel. I think that Hollywood, like the publishing industry, buys concepts and ideas rather than stories. They put marketability over content and it does not matter if the content is not worthwhile as the consumer has already paid by the time that they found out. Makes no sense as a long term strategy, but business is always about making the easiest buck. I think I have gone completely off topic. Never mind. I like the image of the artist devoured by his own paintings - its powerful.