Sorry, suburban white straw people, for encouraging this
December 16, 2011 12:53 PM   Subscribe

What are some good articles and resources about human fascination with offensive/violent art and occurrences?

This is purely based on my own curiosity. I'm coming off a solid month where I've read 'We Need to Talk About Kevin' by Lionel Shriver and 'Columbine' by Dave Cullen and watched the films Elephant and Zero Day. This, in addition to my inexplicable interest in Odd Future, has led my friends to question the sorts of things I'm interested in. I really can't give a solid explanation, but I'm obviously not alone since there's a whole culture behind it. Next time someone asks, I'd like to lend a little intelligence to articulating my fascination.

Bonus points if someone can differentiate between something being genuinely good based on its own merits or if it's just interesting by being plain old offensive (see: Rob Delaney's Twitter feed).
posted by Echobelly to Society & Culture (6 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This article's hit-and-miss with the people I've talked to who've read it, but the Awl wrote something about offensive art earlier this year.
posted by dekathelon at 1:02 PM on December 16, 2011

Well, for one thing, the idea that art can be offensive because it's violent... may actually be pretty recent. Grimm's fairy tales? Widely considered to be classics? Ridiculously violent. Same goes for the Illiad, the Epic of Gilgamesh, goodly portions of the Old Testament (I mean, eeeww), most of Shakespeare's tragedies and histories, and I mean, the list goes on. Twentieth-century Westerners have a pretty peculiarly prudish stance on violence compared with world-historical norms. I think the more interesting question is why lots of people now consider violence to be offensive whereas for most of history it was a common and very public part of human existence which didn't even bear comment a lot of the time.

Bonus points if someone can differentiate between something being genuinely good based on its own merits or if it's just interesting by being plain old offensive

This one is a little more interesting, and is actually the subject of extended judicial consideration related not to violence, but to obscenity. A series of First Amendment cases, many about pornography, wound their way up to the Supreme Court in the 1960s and early 1970s, culminating in what is known as the Miller Test. It's a completely subjective test, when you think about it for any length of time, but it seems to be trying to get at the "good based on its own merits" v. "just interesting by being plain old offensive" distinction you're trying to draw. The Justices described the latter as "appealing to the prurient interest." The word has strong connotations of sexuality, but it's hardly limited to that.

Why did the Justices come up with such a vague definition? Well... there's a story that goes along with that.* It's 1963, and the Justices have dealt with several pornography cases in the past few years. They keep handing down rulings hoping that this time, the lower courts will be able to strike some kind of consistent stance, but they keep getting circuit splits,** so they keep having to revisit the issue. In addition to just kind of being annoying on the principle of the thing, this means the Justices have to watch a lot of porn. Really, if they're going to rule on whether or not a particular work is obscene, they need to see what it is, which means trundling down to the conference room in the Supreme Court building, hooking up the video display, and watching the tapes. What makes it worse is that one of the Justices was kind of going blind, so one of the junior Justices had to narrate. Remember, we're talking about a bunch of forty- to seventy-something ridiculously straight-laced white guys, in a room with no windows, watching porn, taking notes, and trying to do some kind of academic legal analysis about whether this is obscene or not. Awkward.

The Court got so sick of this that they finally just handed down a ruling that says, more or less, "What is wrong with you people. Call it like you see it, but err on the side of permissibility." Which is basically where we're at. It's still possible for something to be banned as obscene, but it's increasingly uncommon.

Bringing it back to the issue of violence, there have been several people who have tried to restrict the distribution of violent materials, particularly video games, by analogizing to the Miller Test. The courts have shown remarkably little interest in going down this road, and it doesn't look likely that the courts are going to start banning materials for being too violent any time soon.

*This was told to me by a law professor who was one connection from the people involved. It's hearsay, so take it with a grain of salt, but it sounds credible to me.

**Circuit splits are one of the main reasons the Court agrees to hear a case. If an issue hasn't generated a circuit split, they'll likely leave it to sit for a while. If all of the Circuits come up with the same answer, they're likely to leave it alone.
posted by valkyryn at 1:19 PM on December 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

You might be interested in Alain Corbain's book The Village of Cannibals, which uses an extremely gross and violent murder in a rural French village as a jumping off point for an explanation about why we have become so creeped out and offended by horrible violence.

If I remember correctly, the jist is that people's lives, including poor people's lives, used to be a lot more physically unpleasant and brutal (terrible illnesses, dangerous work like firing stuff in a kiln that could explode at any moment, living in a shoddily constructed building that could go up in flames any night, etc.), so violence was seen as more of a, not an expectation, but a not-totally-foreign unpleasantness until about a century ago, when our lives started to get safer and more sanitized. Then interpersonal violence started to become more of an aberration to be feared.

Maybe tangential to your question, but it's not like being interested in violence or finding it an interesting sociological tic in western culture is completely out of left field.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 2:46 PM on December 16, 2011

In her book of stories, Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque, Joyce Carol Oates writes an epilogue exploring our fascination with grotesqueries.
posted by archimago at 3:00 PM on December 16, 2011

Cronenberg on Cronenberg, which is about the violent, grotesque, but fascinating world of David Cronenberg, might be of some help.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:07 PM on December 16, 2011

You might check out works about Viennese Actionism -- a pretty highbrow movement (arguably) based on violence & grotesquerie.
posted by snoe at 4:48 PM on December 16, 2011

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