On January, Paris, and art as vaccine

Nostalgia for Familiar Catastrophes, drawing by Andrew Conri

Nostalgia for Familiar Catastrophes, 2015

Come January, I feel refreshed and positive about all that could happen in the coming year. And yet like a light switch or a dropped glass, things happen that pour the reality over everything.

In the past month, terrorism has once again shuttled to the front of our minds in its now familiar tragic forms. Paris was just another reminder of how awful people can get, and the violence that can quickly follow.

Being a painter who seeks to move and alter people through images, I’m struck deeply by the attack on a group of artists. That anyone could be physically attacked (much less murdered) over drawings or paintings is a most horrible thought. That anyone would seek to silence others over images enrages deep parts of my heart.

So, je suis Charlie? Of this I’m much less sure.

There has been an outcry of this phrase among the Anglican media worlds I pull  information from, but I ‘m hesitant to make such a statement when all I know about Charlie Hebdo has come from those same sources. I’ve heard many contrasting thoughts throughout the month, and I feel as though I would have to learn French to form a defensible opinion of Charlie Hebdo’s content.

Looking at all the cartoons that have shown up online, I see no grand or eloquent critique within them. They remind me of MAD magazine here in the states. Which means mostly flippant and crass.

This of course makes the violence they incited all the more awful and puzzling. How could drawings such as these incite such a reaction?

On the topic of art and the human psyche, I’ve been reading Alain de Botton’s book Art as Therapy. The book is an argument for art to embrace a more pragmatic mission of responding to the emotional needs of individuals and creating a framework to act upon them as a positive force in the world.

De Botton puts forth a list of 7 functions he believes art has. Among them; remembering, hope, sorrow, re-balancing (that is using art as a counter-balance to the experiences and emotions that dominate one’s life), self-understanding, growth, and appreciation.

What the book puts forward in terms of these functions is an interesting read, and sparked several ideas. I rather like thinking that art has pragmatic functions in life. I certainly see it play out that way in my own life quite often. My idealism is pretty transparent, so for me thinking that art can help heal or enrich a person is vital.

Yet once he starts laying out his vision of how art fits into these categories it all gets confused and subjective. de Botton cites a lot of paintings as having particular purposes, and I am not quite certain of his conclusions. In one instance he points out a painting, Juan de Flandes Christ Appearing to His Mother, and explains it in a way that ignores its characters stories and history in culture. Instead of the religious meanings, he recasts them as any mother and any son. Not quite so easy I think.

It has been interesting reading the book while also processing headlines about the role of some art to incite terrorism. Though it remains difficult to gauge just how much the cartoons actually figured in choosing of Charlie Hebdo as a target for violence (alleged accomplices saw a grocery store as a viable secondary target), the attention of the world has identified this as being the most compelling reason. And what about the ‘art’ of Charlie Hebdo could truly illicit such a reaction?

More interestingly, I wonder just what type of art could help create a world without any such violence. I’d like to imagine the healing ability of art, color and line resolving in the minds of young men everywhere to be better, more gentle, and more focused on grace. It’s an appealing aim. One’s art like a light in the darkness leading everyone to an ideal society. But is it at all likely?

An actual approach to using the arts to curb violence may in fact take a very different strategy. Consider this article and the study from Villanova University it references. Taking the ideas a bit further is this article by Steven Kotler on Forbes.

The authors imply that through the use of violent media, in this case video games and film, violence in a culture may actually be reduced. The release of just one new violent video game could directly correspond to a reduction in violence. The very thing that causes so much pain is transformed into a virtual vaccine.

This might imply that rather than promoting an ideal, creators might be better suited to looking at their art as a potentially medically viable way to heal societies. And if one looks at their art as having the counter-intuitive nature of a vaccine, then what should one think of their individual expression?

It might also imply that one should create art about things they personally find abhorrent. My wife and I are completely discouraged by the amount of violence we encounter on TV in the US (compared to our lives in Japan). And we certainly prefer and make art that we feel promotes and celebrates an open and calm gentleness in the world. But does that lead our art to have the opposite effect? Inciting rudeness through appeals to pleasantness?

Is it possible that the the violence on TV does more to create the world we want? Japan in general has a much lower rate of violent crime compared to the US, so is it just that the infection is more acute in the U.S. and therefore in need of the cure in higher doses?

Does an overdose of zombie formalism lead to creative outbreaks in other areas of culture? Does overly saccharine pop music actually put an upward pressure on anger in society? Songs of love push the loveless to feel less loved?

And why would crass cartoons create violence?