Art And Social Responsibility

My wife and I were sitting at home and watching a bit of television. I think we had just flipped the channel and there was suddenly an ad for a forthcoming movie, soon showing in your local theater, called Suicide Squad. The new live action DC Comics thriller is about a group of supervillains who are set free from prison to save the world from some major threat. The Joker of Batman fame may be the tame one. But the ad just shows a bunch of people done up as anarchist freaks, heavily armed with an outrageous arsenal of weapons, and jumping over a police car on a city street in the dark of night, on their way to commit some form of mayhem.

I thought, "Really?" Then, "This week? With what's going on in our country right now and around the world?" Do we actually need wild images of crazy people threatening and shooting other people against a great rock sound track and with vibrant colors and heavy attitudes? And Will Smith plays one of them? Our Will Smith? I did a little Googling and saw a trailer that features a scene of Will Smith in prison being beaten viciously by police, or prison guards. Really? That's a good image for our day?

As soon as the commercial was over, and I was sitting there, mouth open at the sheer absurd inappropriateness of what I had just seen, given our current situation in the nation and the world, when a second ad came on, this time for a good old fashioned horror flick, where people are terrorized and killed in normal ways, by ordinary horror film bad guys, and with the standard gore to match. My evening was complete.

Sometimes, I understand why Plato wanted to ban creative artists from the good society. Some of them just seem to have no sense of social responsibility whatsoever.

I once lived next door to a pretty famous architect - Harvard, Berlin, and Bauhaus trained - a minimalist in aesthetics and a true intellectual. He designed some beautiful private homes in his day, if you like concrete and glass. But one day when we were talking, he went on a rant about modern architects and social responsibility. He said, "Have you ever really looked at the Art and Architecture Building at Yale, downtown in New Haven?"

I said, "Yeah, I went to look at it the other day and couldn't find the front door."

He laughed. "That's the problem. Paul Rudolph hated the world and the universe around us the year he designed that building. He specified porous concrete for the surface so that all the dirt and soot of New Haven would collect on the thing and it would look ugly and hideous, reflecting his view of the cosmos around us. They have to sandblast it every few years or it's a mess. And the door is placed to confuse you, like life, he thought."

I was shocked. He continued, "If you're a painter, and buy your own materials, paint what you like. It's up to you. But if your art is in public, like a building, and it's funded by other people, then you have a social responsibility as an artist--and most artists don't get that in the least."

I see all the time what my neighbor meant. Most new novels these days are described as "dark" and "grim" and "bleak" and "disturbing." I think: "THAT'S what we need now? REALLY?"

Don't we need hope and inspiration and wisdom and guidance? What's wrong with those things as the focus of art? Why can't more books and films and television shows give us that and still have high credibility as art?

As I write this, the two most recent news headlines this hour are:

Driver plows through Black Lives Matter Protestors in Illinois

Three Dead in Shooting at Michigan Courthouse

We live in a time when we're knee deep in emotional gasoline. We don't need artists running around lighting matches, tossing them down, and laughing at the results, while hoping for the rest of us to keep them in luxury homes far from the fray.

I know. I sound like an old fart. But I had the same belief when I was young. Boycott the bad. Insist on something good. Free speech is great, vital, and the foundation of a democracy. But social responsibility is just as important.