Tuesday, May 2, 2017

On the Dangers of Art

I already ripped into the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why (2017). Most of my criticisms were aesthetic, but at the end of my post I wrote the following:
Is 13 Reasons Why dangerous? Maybe. Despite its stated intensions to complicate the issue, it operates on the assumption that suicide can be clearly explained, that there is always an obvious cause and effect, which is just not the case. The show enacts the suicide victim's fantasy, that their death will cause overwhelming suffering and guilt in others, that they will inflict all the pain that has been inflicted on themselves. Hannah's death in the final episode may not be beautiful, but it is pretty.
Yesterday, Slate published a lengthy article claiming that the answer to my question is not a maybe. The article expands on my concerns, and notes that suicide-prevention advocates are trying to undo the damange done by the show. A superintendant has reported a rise in at-risk behavior. The depiction of the incompetent guidance counselor in the show makes the work of actual, very good, highly professional guidance counselors more difficult.

No one can be a free speech absolutist, but as a free speech extremist, I find stories like these troubling. I believe artists need to be allowed to create art. The concept of "art for art's sake" appeals to me. Philip Roth once noted that writing and reading needed no more justification than sex, and I agree with him. It's an appealing idea, because it lets me live in a universe in which the novels I read and enjoy can't do any harm. Still, it seems dishonest to believe that novels, television shows, and movies are harmless. Of course, a novel can hurt your feelings. Of course, unrelenting depictions of black criminals will affect how black kids might see themselves. Why wouldn't that be the case? Inputs matter. I'm part of a school of thought that believes culture should not be the site of major political change. I'm glad Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016) won Best Picture, but the hard socialist in me screams that the Oscar hasn't gotten a job for one gay black man living in the Miami ghetto. The other part of me knows that Moonlight made that one gay black man in Miami a little less anxious and may have saved his life. The people behind Moonlight had power. They used it well.

The power that at least some filmmakers hold should terrify them. I'm sure the people behind 13 Reasons Why thought they were participating in a noble project. It must be devastating to know that their work may have hurt more people than it helped. It would be a little less devastating if they had made a masterpiece, like The Sopranos (1999-2007).

Art heals. Art kills.

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