Of Violence and Violins

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

In the wake of the latest school shooting, people are once again arguing about whether works of art can be blamed for inspiring violence. A lot of people scoff at the question. It seems crazy to them to blame artists for the bad things that people do. This is especially true of the left-leaning portion of the populace, which tends to get all bent out of shape whenever the arts are impugned, probably because the arts are their domain, their bread and butter, etc. CNN even ran an article citing a psychologist who insists that violent video games have nothing to do with real-word violence. “No evidence,” he says. I guess Adam Lanza’s being a video game junky who owned scads of violent video games doesn’t count as evidence, even of the circumstantial kind. What, I wonder, would count as evidence? Probably nothing short of Lanza’s explicitly stating in a note that he intended to mimic a game he was fond of playing. But I bet even then we’d have naysayers — people who’d claim we were jumping to conclusions, blaming the innocent creatives, etc.

That CNN article strikes me as bullshit. But then I tend to disregard everything psychologists say, especially when they look as smug and as self-satisfied as the guy in the photo accompanying the piece.  It doesn’t help that in making his case he cites some “older” guys who’ve recently killed people, as though these fairly routine murders compare to Lanza’s “Doom”-like crawl through the halls of a grade school while picking off children. And besides, if one of these “routine” murderers were found to have tons of violent paintings hanging on the walls of his home, wouldn’t you start to wonder about the connections between his deeds and his art consumption? I know I would.

Anyway, I tend to like a lot of violent entertainments, and I’m a pretty big believer in freedom of expression. I also tend to think that a guy who goes on a shooting rampage is probably pretty messed up en la cabeza, regardless of the kind of art he’s consuming. So I’m not unsympathetic to the attitudes behind the “art doesn’t cause violence” argument. And I for sure don’t want to ban or regulate anything.

Still, I often wonder if it’s not counterintuitive for creative types and their supporters to argue that art has no effect on behavior, states of mind, culture, etc. These folks seem to be arguing for an art that has no cultural impact, leaves no footprint, and has no ability to influence the hearts and minds of its consumers. And that’s an attitude that stands in stark contrast to the sort of kumbaya crapola that gets forced down our throats whenever there’s talk about the influence of rock music on the ’60s, or someone proposes that art classes be dropped from high school curricula. On these occasions we’re told that art is a primary driver of culture and society, that it can influence people to do the right kinds of things, that it can cause flowers to spontaneously sprout from dung heaps, and so on.

Is it fair to ask our cultural overlords for a little consistency? Because I want to know: Does art affect behavior or doesn’t it? And I’m not buying that it only affects behavior in ways that are positive, because that’s just plain stupid.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
This entry was posted in Art, Personal reflections, Politics and Economics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Of Violence and Violins

  1. >>And that’s an attitude that stands in stark contrast to the sort of kumbaya crapola that gets forced down our throats whenever there’s talk about the influence of rock music on the ’60s, or someone proposes that art classes be dropped from high school curricula. On these occasions we’re told that art is a primary driver of culture and society, that it can influence people to do the right kinds of things, that it can cause flowers to spontaneously sprout from dung heaps, and so on.

    Whenever I hear lit types talk about the benefits of reading, one of the first things they argue is that fiction, by taking us deeply into other peoples’ lives and thoughts, makes us more empathetic. Which I guess means that literature profs are the most compassionate people on the planet.

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  2. agnostic says:

    Right, everyone would agree that art / entertainment affects the audience. The question is what characteristics of art and entertainment have what types of effects on what type of audience.

    The liberal position is that we should only judge these things morally based on how the entertainment could lead to harm or inequality / unfairness. The conservative position allows more ways — if it subverts legitimate authority, if it corrodes social cohesion, or if it results in some kind of taboo violation, desecration, or other form of crookedness. Neither view is committed to censorship, etc.; I’m just describing their moral evaluation of it.

    The data are very clear on whether violent entertainment, especially lurid voyeuristic violence, leads to greater harm — it does not. Lurid voyeuristic violence is mostly confined to the past 20 years, at the same time crime rates have been falling. Before then, its heyday was the mid-century with horror/crime comic books, atrocity films running the exploitation circuit, and to a lesser extent the pulpier film noir movies. Crime rates also fell steadily from a peak in 1933 to a low in 1958.

    Period of rising crime rates also have violent entertainment, but not of a lurid voyeuristic kind, where the audience is meant to laugh at the victims. Instead, the victims are more sympathetic, and the impact is to make the audience feel a sense of urgency or immediacy — that it could happen to them, too — and to want to behave in a way that would protect themselves and others from the psychos and monsters on the screen. It tries to stimulate empathy rather than schadenfreude.

    Rising-crime periods — turn-of-the-century through 1933, and then 1959 to 1992.

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  3. agnostic says:

    You see something similar with the porno bogeyman. Or as the rad-fems claimed circa 1980: “Pornography is the theory, rape is the practice.” Violent, misogynistic types of porn do not lead to more rape.

    Weird, degrading, humiliating, and sado-masochistic porn is also confined to roughly the last 20 years, when rape rates have been falling along with crime in general. You see the same unwholesome bondage, S&M, and “girl fight!” themes over and over in mid-century horror / crime / jungle woman comic books, when again the crime rate was falling.

    In periods of rising rape rates, porn is about as non-lurid as it can get as a medium. The typical ’80s porno scene shows a guy and girl who stumble onto each other’s path, come to recognize that they want each other, and then go for a fun little roll in the hay. It doesn’t look like some twisted scene from decadent Rome, but a carefree vignette from their noble savage neighbors farther north.

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  4. agnostic says:

    So if we only judge by liberal standards, lurid violent entertainment and humiliating porn get a pass — they are associated, if anything, with periods of falling violence and rape.

    But if we’re judging them on more dimensions than just harm and unfairness, then it’s not over. Who cares if they don’t lead to assault, murder, or rape, when they do so much to corrode social cohesion and warp the minds of the viewers. Not warped toward violence, but toward being a passive, flaccid, anti-social, robotic dork. It makes them more unnatural, sub-human, perverted, deviant, etc. That’s that dimension about purity and the sacred — taking us away from the ideal.

    And what does it do to fellow-feeling when our primary forms of entertainment are so thickly slathered with the laughing-at emotion. Nothing wrong with laughing at others now and then, but for violent entertainment to have such a strong sucks-to-be-you feeling, for porn to have such a strong bitter-nerd-revenge-fantasy feeling, and for comedy to be so filled with sarcasm, irony, snark, and “fail!” — it’s no wonder that nobody gives a shit about anyone else anymore.

    Cause and effect are hard to disentangle, but obviously those forms of entertainment keep the system locked in a positive feedback loop, spiraling out toward disintegration.

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