Every now and then I’m reminded of the “Philosophy of Art” class I took in college. In this class, we discussed different philosophers’ perceptions of what constitutes good and appropriate art. Some philosophers claimed the purpose of art is to inspire us to do good; thus, art must depict positive images, or images of people doing saintly things.
Others believe the purpose of art is to make you feel a full range of emotions; that in doing so your purge yourself of extreme emotions. In other words, when you see something horrible happen to a character in a play, for example (say he’s murdered), you initially feel extremely upset, angry, or fearful. But after experiencing these emotions you realize that your life is very good in comparison. You realize there’s no need to live life with lots of anger or fear. So the act of experiencing a “negative” work of art is in fact cathartic and good for our well-being.
Sometimes I feel like the first group of philosophers were “more correct” and other times I feel the second group had a better grasp of how art should be used. Lately, I’ve felt that “negative” art has resulted in more good than bad. I think that’s because I’ve heard stories of “negative” art encouraging (or at least not preventing) murderers to do bad things. For example, apparently those involved with the New Hampshire murder of Kimberly Cates and attempted murder of her daughter (she was severely attacked) enjoyed watching “Dexter.“
I’ve never seen this show before, but know it’s about a serial killer. A guy I know who watches it told me that Dexter is actually a sympathetic character. Crazy, huh (being that he’s a serial character)? I guess life isn’t always black and white, but I fear the blending of good and bad in this show could confuse already deranged people and prompt them to do something bad. Maybe I should watch the show first before jumping to this conclusion.
I have, however, seen movies that blur the lines between good and bad. In “The United State of Leland,” for example, you find yourself asking whether murder can sometimes be justified, or at least viewed with less disdain. One of the characters basically murders an autistic boy because he thinks he is very sad. He wants to put him out of his misery. The movie does not reach a conclusion about whether the murderer did the right or wrong thing. Looking back, part of me thinks this moral relativism is a horrible thing. But the other part of me thinks it’s good the movie makes you think (if only to arrive at the conclusion that the murder was reprehensible).
The thing with these morally muddled shows and movies is reasonable people end the experience with a fairly sound knowledge of what’s right and wrong, despite the reflection that was invoked. Not-so-stable people, however, see a horrible act being glorified or accepted, and take that at face value. They see something honorable about hurting others. And then maybe, just maybe, they do something stupid as a result.
The problem, however, is that something huge would be sacrificed if we only allowed artists to make paintings, shows and movies depicting inspiring actions. Life isn’t always peaches and cream, and we’d be doing truth a disservice by representing it that way. Plus, maybe seeing horrible things does purge of us unhealthy emotions. But unfortunately, crazy people’s minds don’t work the same way as everyone else’s. Who knows, though- maybe even inspiring art wouldn’t keep them from doing something terribly immoral.
Photo credit: www.flickr.com/photos/aneye4apicture/429810396