What if your art is too raw? And what if it offends?

“I have a question for you, Matt. What if your art tests the boundaries of what art is, and sometimes makes some people angry because it is too raw? Too powerful, candid, emotive, honest, to the point, painful, sincere? Because it raises ghosts in society that some would rather let lie? What if you are worried about the audience’s reaction then, not because of your skill level but because of your motivation? Is it different, or do you proceed just the same?”

Varjakbaby posted this comment some time ago.

The question addresses a few things, so let’s take a look at some of the components.
And bear in mind. These thoughts are my opinions. My 5 cents, or whatever these thoughts might be worth.
This is still only a discussion and not intended to be a manual for creating any type of content.
That’s why I will leave the topic open for discussion in the comments section as well.

Ok, so without further procrastination…
1. What if your art tests the boundaries of what art is?
I think this is often expected from art.
But there is a caveat.
You can push the boundaries to better highlight an object, but once you’ve broken through some boundaries, the object in question might lose its identity.
Example time:
One year, on campus, the student drama society decided to host a very modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
I didn’t get a part, but my friend did, and he perpetuated rumors that the show was getting more bloody and visceral by the day.
They even had to get permission from the dean to perform some scenes.

So eventually the big night of the show dawned.
And it was an utter disappointment.
Some of the character portrayals were good.
But the amount of gratuitous violence, blood, gore, and avant-garde costumes completely overshadowed many of the play’s subtle nuances.
The “pushing of boundaries” was clearly the goal of the production, and not the play itself.
The result was jarring because of that.
Had the boundaries been pushed in such a way that it retained the charm and wit of the original, it could’ve been memorable!

“You can customize a car only so much, and beyond that, it loses the quirky character and essence of what made it popular initially.”
I paraphrased this from the guy who always fixed my car.

2. Sometimes (your art) makes some people angry because it is too raw? Too powerful, candid, emotive, honest, to the point, painful, sincere?
My first questions would be, “Too raw for whom?” “Too honest for whom?”
I don’t see a problem with this.
As long as people don’t confuse “powerful” with being obnoxious. Sometimes the most powerful art is quite understated and harnesses the raw intensity beneath a well-presented layer of control. That is often quite spectacular.
Many hard rock and metal songs adhere to this principle.
There are still boundaries that need to be adhered to, certain aspects of melody and texture.
This ties in with the previous point as well.
Uncontrolled noise loses that cohesion which is defined as being “music.”
You can only have so many examples of sheer untethered noise that will pass as a Top 20 hit.

I can think of a few movies in which the candidness and honesty were occasionally skirting the periphery of becoming cringe-worthy and forced. There’s always that danger.

An ex-colleague used to have his steak raw, but warm. That meant it wasn’t even cooked, just barely heated.
Many will consider that as being repulsive, unhealthy, or whatever else.
But he considered it to be tasty!
Many of the elements within a work of art will cater to specific tastes.
It’s often a niche thing.
If you’re worried about pleasing everyone, you won’t please anyone. It’s an old adage but still rings true.

3. It raises ghosts in society that some would rather let lie?
Many shows, books, songs that reference traumatic historical events often get released sometime after the fact.
It’s my opinion that you can honor the memory of those who were caught up in a terrible event by making art about it.
Much will depend on the way it is presented though.
Does it inform, or does it capitalize on human pain?
Is the art empathetical, or merely intended to elicit a reaction by being controversial?
We see daily examples in the media.

One thing I personally dislike is an artist who lives off the potential shock-value inherent in some topics…
And that is where many will find themselves at some point in their career.
There’s this prevailing idea that we always need to be more “extreme” to gain a following.
But the problem here is quite apparent.
Once you’ve crossed a certain threshold, you can’t go back.
Eventually, the “art” you create merely becomes a mechanical horse, designed to jump and navigate barriers, ever-increasing in height.
This ties in with my previous argument, where will the emphasis be in the end, on the art, or the breaking of barriers?
Was the art created in deliberate bad taste, or did a certain audience perceive it to be in bad taste, whereas other audiences loved it?

There are quite a few reactions to art.
There’s love, hate, and indifference.
Each reaction has a few subsets, but that’s what it will boil down to.
Whatever you release, whatever your motivation, that’s how people will perceive it across the board.
It helps me to articulate what I “feel” whenever I observe art.
Is it joy, sadness, anger, disgust, apprehension, mirth, or revulsion?
We’re often too quick to label certain things as being “offensive” without first having deconstructed our own reactions to it, as well as the context within which it was portrayed, versus the context within which we perceived it.

I don’t believe “freedom of speech” gives you the unlimited option of offending without being accountable to anyone.
It’s quite possible to have a loud and strong voice that addresses sensitive topics without an insensitive and overbearing tone.

I will conclude with this though.
Anything that’s too sanitized, and stripped of raw, emotive, and powerful elements will be sterile and without impact.
Some controversy is inevitable when you produce art that touches people.
But I draw an analogy between the artwork and the waves in the ocean.
You certainly want to catch the big wave for that spectacular surfing experience, knowing full well you will get tossed about, but you certainly don’t want to drown.
There is a limit to everything.

I haven’t even touched on thoughts such as “art” that is so offensive it might verge on being illegal.
This discussion could be part of a week-long conference about the ethics of art, and maybe all products in general?
It’s nearly impossible to resolve all these points for discussion in one session.
That’s why I will also hand it over to you…

Cheers,
Matt

EDIT: I always forget to toss in this pearl of wisdom: Over-emphasis is no emphasis.
In a work of art that’s filled with wall-to-wall shocking imagery, the few bland sections will be emphasized.

4 Comments

  • So the basic, if it’s too raw it’s not even art, but yeah it’s important to maintain questioning the status quo, arguments. Yeah? That’s nice. I agree. I would have wondered a little more about like… with our recent foray into Republican Extremism, whether the Trumpain Agenda stoked any fears of authoritarianism and therefore repression in the art world. But maybe that is a connection only I am drawing,

    Thanks for the blog post. You’re a brave (perhaps foolish) man to link to my blog directly.

    • A bit of foolishness goes a long way.
      Do you want me to remove it?
      I’m fairly brave…

    • Well, it can’t be “too raw,” it’s a matter of taste. Like my friend, he ate the steak raw… literally.
      For some it might be inedible, and others might not even view it as a “steak,” especially if they associate “steak” with a certain level of preparation.
      So therefore the raw steak doesn’t fall within the perception of what “dinner” is.

      • That makes sense. I think it makes sense. Certainly the argument does. Does it make sense whether some behavior makes sense? Does it make sense whether some perceive that some behave in a sensible way?

        Ah well.

        No you can leave the link up, I was just worried if it was appropriate. I often worry if I should put a NSFW/Trigger Warning on my Home Page on my blog up. I guess it couldn’t hurt, if it bothers me so much I might as well…

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