Monday, February 2, 2015

On Darkness and Light

At its core, art is a form of communication.  It is, in fact, a vehicle for relating feelings, emotions, realities which can be expressed in no other way.  Through the arts, human beings have the ability to depict ideas for which there is no casual outlet in our day-to-day, mundane lives.  Ideas so lofty, so beyond the ordinary, that the only way to express them is through music or painting, sculpture or dance, song or drama…  Whatever the medium, it can be used to expand the definitions of who we are and what we are capable of…to blur the boundary between the human and the divine. 

Think of what the human race could have become, if only we could channel all that artistic energy into expressing and enhancing the best and brightest aspects of the human experience. But we don’t seem to have the capacity to allow any creative endeavor to remain beautiful or transcendent, or even positive.  We cannot refrain from using our right brains to explore the depths of negativity…to express the darker side of human nature. I suppose it would be illogical to expect otherwise.  That dark energy needs to be explored…if only to determine how best to keep it in check.

I suspect there has been a tug-of-war between dark energy and light since humans first gained the capacity to communicate concepts greater than “Eat, sleep, live, die.” Time and again, great civilizations have risen and flourished, bathed in the light of knowledge and progress, only to crumble and die in the darkness of violence and ignorance.  We can't seem to help turning toward the darkness when the light leaves us nowhere to hide.    In European history, for example, the enlightenment of the Greek and Roman  civilizations descended into the darkness of the Middle Ages.  The darkness was beaten back again during the Renaissance, which propelled us into what is called the "modern era."  Today, it seems the light of the Modern Era is fading once again into the darkness of ignorance and violence--a process which, it seems, it not outside our control.    It is not as if humankind is unaware of the struggle, or of the consequences of allowing the darkness to flourish.  But we seem compelled to embrace the darkness anyway. 

Or perhaps we invite it to come close so that we can prove we have conquered it.  But we haven't, have we?  History proves time and again that we are unable to learn and retain the lessons it should be teaching us.

Here we are, in the 21st century.  The future to which, as a child of the middle of the last century, I looked forward as an era of brotherhood and understanding, a time where concern for the environment and our fellow humans would inform all our policies and we would be poised on the edge of extending our grasp to the stars, and beyond.  Truly, there was a time at which our choices as a species seemed to be between that and self-annihilation.  And for a hot minute, it looked as if we had dodged the bullet and were headed toward Utopia.  But only for a minute…

Because though we have managed not to push the fatal button that would have erased ourselves from the universe in a final flash, we have nevertheless made a u-turn on the road to Utopia.  World War II and the events leading up to it had showcased some of the most heinous tendencies of human nature; that, and the fiery and decisive end to that global conflict had scared the bejeezus out of us.  We knew what we were capable of as a species, up to and including that we now had the ability to make ourselves extinct.  So we slid into the second half of that decade a little wiser, a little kinder, a little desperate to identify and cling to the finer, nobler aspects of human character.  Perhaps we wanted to be reminded of what made us worthy to be saved from the fate we held in our own hands.

And this was reflected in our art—particularly the two most recent additions to the portfolio of artistic media: movies and television.  The 40’s and 50’s were the middle of the “golden age of Hollywood,” where the studios and the censors collaborated to release a steady stream of good old fashioned entertainment, creating a world where there was no cussing, little sex, and violence limited to fist fights and bloodless handgun exchanges.  Television followed closely in the footsteps of its older cousin, bringing us heart-warming situation comedies, westerns, variety shows, cartoons, and some attempts at classical drama or science fiction—all under the watchful eye of those same censors dedicated to pumping into our living rooms nothing that would make Mom and Dad blush or Junior pipe up with a four-letter-word during dinner with Grandma.

But of course, we couldn’t leave it at that, could we?  Once we really got a feel for these new artistic media, we couldn’t limit them to the “fantasies” of morality plays and happy endings.  We decided that we were using our new media in a lopsidedly positive way…that we could not respect the art until it was fleshed out with exploration of the dark side of human nature.  Only then would film and video be venerable as complete art forms, communicating the whole of human experience.

What we always seem to forget is that the dark side is so seductive.  Perhaps because it is intrinsically connected to our baser instincts.  The human experience improves when we control our more animalistic tendencies--territorialism, tribalism, fear of change and fear of "other"--that always seem to express themselves in violence against our fellow human beings.  But we no sooner contrive policies that employ our tremendous brains to rise above our negative instincts, than we begin to rebel against them...because being our selfish, violent, xenophobic selves feels so good.  So comfortable.  

So what is the harm in crafting a film or a television show about serial killers, or sexual deviants, or drug addicts or dysfunctional relationships?  These are all part of the human experience, are they not?  Do we not want to be honest with ourselves about the modern human condition?  Of course we do.  If only we could keep those depictions of the dark side of human nature from jumping off the screen and becoming templates for our everyday lives. 

Do not delude yourself into thinking this is not exactly what happens.  In some way, the fact that we see a behavior on the screen translates to our huge, advanced brains as validation of the behavior.  Perhaps we don't see a movie like Fatal Attraction and decide it's ok to go and immediately have an affair with somebody you picked up in an elevator, but it puts the idea out there as a something that someone might do.  Perhaps you won't sit through a season of Breaking Bad and decide that the life of a school teacher turned  meth cook looks pretty damned attractive.  You might never have even considered such behavior...until it was presented to you in bigger-than-life living color in the comfort of your living room. 

See enough depictions of bad behavior and it loses its abhorrence.  It becomes natural and very nearly acceptable.  Just "naughty," instead of "unthinkable."  There's no such thing as, "People don't do that!" because they ARE doing it--right there on the screen.  The door to the dark side has been opened a crack, and its powerful magnetic force draws us inexorably toward it. 

What is the answer?  Is there a way to counteract the intellectual and moral decay we are pumping into our brains daily through the garbage that any person/faction/entity is free to release on film, television and the internet?  Censorship?  Government control?  I wish I knew.  And it scares the hell out of me that I don't.

What I do know is that our visual media have an effect on us that we do not universally understand.  If research has been done on the issue, the results thereof have hardly become common knowledge.  And I doubt if they ever could, given that the outlet for the publication of said results is most likely controlled by those who might be damaged (financially) if the word got out. 

So the next time you indulge in viewing a story onscreen that plumbs the depths of negative human behavior and are tempted to call it "art," or allow it to take shelter under the umbrella of "free speech,"  consider the fine line between art/free speech and behavior modification.  Intentionally or un-, our behavior is being shaped by what we see on screens large and small, which seem to be everywhere you turn, these days.  Consider how we might better use these "artistic" media to improve the human condition, rather than degrade it. 

If you have any ideas, I'd love to hear them...   


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