Friday, December 08, 2006

Part of the solution? Part of the problem?: Graphic violence, art, culture

Kenneth Turan's review of Mel Gibson's Apocalypto on NPR this morning has as its real subject what the levels of violence a culture allows to be depicted in its art says about that culture. Turan's claim that Gibson's film is in fact symptomatic of, rather than a warning about or antidote to, the very internal rot that the film seeks to warn us of is an intriguing one, and one to take seriously, I think. Whether that argument is correct, though, is another matter.

Given that the namesake for the blog you're visiting is unsparing in its depictions of acts of violence and their resulting carnage, yet (on the other hand) I refuse to see films whose sole reason for being seems to be depictions of violence (an eye-of-the-beholder sort of statement, I realize), I have found myself thinking about this subject quite often. I frankly don't know--and probably cannot know--whether my personal tastes in subject matter shape my larger, admittedly disorganized and probably contradictory conclusions about depictions of graphic violence in art and what that might say about culture.

That's why I'd like to invite my reader(s), in the fashion of Ariel's dormant(?) Blogger Limelight series, to post something on this subject at their own blogs. I encourage you to link to this post as you do so that those interested can find your posts.

Below the fold are some sketchy thoughts that came to mind as I thought about this subject this morning that you're welcome to steal use as inspiration:

*Gibson's Apocalypto and The Passion of the Christ (which Roger Ebert said was the most violent film he had ever seen) served as this morning's starting point. But as I thought (again) about Cormac McCarthy's work and also the criticism Flannery O'Connor received for the frequent, often brutal violence (by 1950s standards) in her stories, it occurred to me: Strange that all three of these artists are (or were) devout Catholics. Protestant art doesn't shy away from graphic violence (Hieronymus Bosch, anyone?), but as I quickly think about it, it seems more often concerned with depicting the violence associated with Hell's eternal torments visited upon the souls of the damned. The violence O'Connor, McCarthy and Gibson depict is inflicted on physical bodies in this world. Given Catholicism's traditional focus on Christ on the cross--that is, the ideas of sacrifice and mortality--does that present to Catholic artists a familiar entry into thinking about the metaphysics of violence? Along these lines: O'Connor answered those who criticized her stories' violence by saying that American culture had become so unseeing of evil that writers for whom that's a concern had no choice but to shock readers into awareness. My own sense of McCarthy's work is that he's very much in agreement with that notion as well, though, with the (possible) exception of The Road, McCarthy doesn't hold out much hope for moments of grace, as O'Connor does. But where do you see Gibson's use of violence fitting in here? If "apocalypse" means "revelation" as well as "destruction," what exactly does his depictions of the destruction of human bodies reveal? This, of course, is just a theological re-framing of this post's central question.

*I've been puzzled for a long time by what I see as America's cultural discomfort with graphic depictions of sex but not graphic depictions of violence. One anecdotal case in point: While I was living in Mobile, a group of churches threatened a boycott of the largest theater chain in town if it exhibited Showgirls, but no one had said a peep about Natural Born Killers's extended run not long before. Are our Puritan cultural roots to blame? Is the explanation that Americans have violence encoded in our cultural DNA, as Richard Slotkin argues in his books on the mythos of the frontier, such that one could argue that it is violence that gave birth to this nation (see in particular Slotkin's Regeneration through Violence--whereas sex-as-cultural-narrative is not celebrated but policed, more often than not (the story of John Smith and Pocahontas is, depending on how you look at it, either the exception that proves the rule or a story which has actually helped us gloss over our violent engendering at the expense of the Other)?

I look forward to hearing from you in comments and, even better, reading your own posts on this subject.

UPDATE: Via Randall of Musings from the Hinterland comes commentary from ShrinkWrapped on the same Turan review; his two chief points are that we should draw distinctions between depictions of violence and actual acts of violence perserved on film, and that other distinctions are to be made
between the occasional, necessary, and regrettable savagery of civilized men and the savagery of the primitive. Savages use violence and the threat of violence to cow and threaten and harm innocents. Civilized men will sometimes require savagery in order to protect those innocents from the savages.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Via 3 Quarks Daily comes this review of Apocalypto by Traci Adren that addresses another issue of interest for this post, violence done to historical and cultural representations of people:
I loved Gibson's film "Braveheart," I really did. But there is something very different about portraying a group of people, who are now recovering from 500 years of colonization, as violent and brutal. These are people who are living with the very real effects of persistent racism that at its heart sees them as less than human. To think that a movie about the 1,000 ways a Maya can kill a Maya--when only 10 years ago Maya people were systematically being exterminated in Guatemala just for being Maya--is in any way okay, entertaining, or helpful is the epitome of a Western fantasy of supremacy that I find sad and ultimately pornographic.

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Ariel said...

Lots to mull over here, John. I suspect I'll have a hard time framing an answer very quickly... especially as you note that "justified" violence is a concept that varies from person to person.

I will say that explicit sexuality has a subversive appeal which probably isn't present so much in explicit violence. Not that a violence-drenched culture is good, by any means... but Lindsay and I watched Miller's Crossing a couple nights ago, and I don't feel any increased leanings toward gangland-style executions.

This isn't saying much, but for me, the question is wrapped up in the content of the violence. Toward what conclusions does it tend?

Conrad H. Roth said...

Note: Bosch was not a Protestant. He died in 1516, so it would have been a little difficult for him at any rate. (Luther's 95 Theses posted in 1517.)

American censors have always based ratings more on sex and language than violence, in distinction to UK censors, who raise ratings more for violence. An interesting cultural distinction?

John B. said...

Thanks to both of you for responding.

Ariel, I'm certainly with you on the issue of context for violence. In Turan's review, though, context didn't even come up. If I may infer from his remarks, what he objects to aren't depictions of violence per se but, in this film, how Gibson's camera makes the acts themselves the subject. Violence as pornography, then, if porn, whatever else it may be, is that in which the plot is all but beside the point and depictions of sex with the intent to titillate are the primary, if not the sole, purpose for the text's existence. Some early reviewers of Natural Born Killers made a similar charge against Oliver Stone.

Conrad, back to school I go. I got it stuck in my head that Bosch is Baroque-y and thus painting later than he actually did. And the ratings distinction you note is indeed indicative of the sort of thing I'm wondering with regard to cultural explanations for our tolerance for violence.

Winston said...

I arrived here perhaps 1.5 or 2 hours ago, read your post, dove below the fold, followed a link, to another link, to another, and ended up exploring some ot the works of Surrealist painter Rene Magritte. Funny how time can get away. I originally had a sage comment to make, and should have made it then. For now, it is vapor. If it condenses again, I shall return. Thanks for the morning entertainment.

John B. said...

Winston, the real agenda here is not the stimulating of thought through anything I might have to say but the sinking of of my visitors' time as they search away from here for more substantial fare. I see that, where you at least are concerned, I appear to be succeeding.