Oh my, am I really opening this can of worms? Evidently I am. Maybe I have a death wish. But I feel like both sides need to be heard, in the same text – and I like the sound of my own voice, so here goes. 😉
First things first: do I consider myself responsible for what I write in a novel? Yes. I wrote it, no one else did, so who is responsible if not me? Sounds like a no-brainer, but I want that to be really clear from the start. I believe that reality is created by what we say and do, so I can’t hide behind a shield that says “it’s fiction”. It may be fiction, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful. If fiction wasn’t powerful, we wouldn’t care about it.
On the other hand, I also believe that opinions and tastes are the result of social conditioning and societal discourses: people rehash what they’ve been taught. We are what we eat, and if we were raised to be hateful bigots, it can be hard to break free from that. When we voice opinions that hurt people, maybe we weren’t even aware that we did: we’re just retelling a story we’ve learned, and we didn’t stop to question it.
So should we question art? Shouldn’t art be allowed to explore the dangerous and the obscene? Can there really be any art at all if we’re not prepared to offend?
I once read a weird but genius short story by Joakim Pirinen called Familjen Bra (The Good Family), in which nothing happened, because everyone was happy and respectful all the time. In the end, the atmosphere in the story got really eerie, because no one disagreed with anyone else, and everything was “Really good!” The moral was that every story needs conflict. In fact we love conflict in fictional form. We love exploring the limits of our bodies and psyches from the safety of our sofa, be it through disaster movies or soap operas. The question is, how much exploration is enough? Should we draw a line where the pushing of imaginary boundaries just becomes too gross?
In the eighties, there was a lot of controversy around heavy metal music and video violence, issues that continue to elicit strong feelings to this day. Things like The Chainsaw Massacre whipped up a wave of moral panic, and heavy metal was held responsible for shootings and suicides. In my own country, a powerful TV personality staged a veritable character assassination of a 23-year-old editor of a music magazine in front of a hostile studio audience, because he wrote about bands like W.A.S.P. In hindsight, it looks ridiculous – even cruel. Who was he to police what people enjoyed? The heavy metal fans I’ve known are some of the kindest and most polite people ever.
But maybe he had a point. Art does influence us, after all. Who hasn’t felt inspired to do or say something after watching a movie or reading a book? Who hasn’t felt strengthened in a resolve by having their feelings mirrored in a work of art?
Of course, most people don’t directly copy what they hear in a song or see in a movie. Someone who’s mentally stable doesn’t listen to Marilyn Manson and then go out randomly shooting people. But maybe, just maybe they feel justified in their actions by having them mirrored in art? Maybe it can even make the law more lenient towards perpetrators, and more prone to blaming the victim?
I saw a documentary once where soldiers in Afghanistan were shown pepping themselves for the coming slaughter by listening to Burn motherfucker, burn. Charming, huh? But the war in Afghanistan wasn’t the band’s fault. We can’t blame artists for writing songs that people use to bolster their courage in a horrible situation that was created by politicians and global companies. And said politicians can’t decry violent art one second, only to invade foreign countries and massacre people the next. In the end, art depicting death isn’t as real as the concrete act of killing.
Bottom line is, if artists glorify violence, the reason can be found in the world around us. It’s everywhere. Should we lie and pretend that these atrocities don’t exist? Should artists be held accountable when warlords aren’t? After all, artists only mirror reality, they don’t necessarily create it.
Or do they? I believe things like racism and other forms of hate are naturalized through language and stories. By speaking, we create the world. Violence begins with words, with calling people “rats” and “cockroaches”. Art can contribute to a conversation that dehumanizes a group of people, making it easier to hurt them. Lene Riefenstahl created an image of the Nazi Übermensch. Wagner’s music was used to strengthen German nationalism. Similarly, if rock videos show women being tied up and whipped, or books romanticize domestic abuse, that contributes to the conversation about violence towards women.
So, should art be censored? My gut instinct says no, and yet there are things in film, literature and music that I really wish didn’t exist. What, then, is the answer? Self-censorship? Should we willingly muzzle ourselves instead of staying true to a creative vision that might hurt people?
These are some of the questions Michael and Jamie are forced to ask in the fourth book about the rock band Pax, Cutting Edge. And perhaps the answer is to always, always reflect on what we do instead of being defensive about it. For example, I’ve used the crazy girlfriend trope in one of my books. I had no good reason, either – I just didn’t think. I hope I gave her enough motivation to be credible, but still: I contributed to the cliché of women who ruin things for the guys in a band. In a way I regret that. But it’s done, and can’t be undone unless I rewrite the entire book, so maybe I can compensate for it by making sure my next female character is less of a stereotype. I can even bring poor Sapphire back in a future book and try to clear her name.
I guess my point is to keep questioning ourselves. Artists mirror what they see, but through their creations, they also influence the world. At the very least, let us be aware of how.