Something Something Joseph Campbell

All of us (well, most of us) have a wealth of emotional needs that yearn to be satisfied.  That’s where art comes in.  It always sounds pretentious to use the word “art”, but creative expression isn’t just something humans do.  It’s something we do because we MUST.  Without creative expression (either ours or someone else’s) our world is a poorer place.  Art is one of those things that is hard to screw up, and while it might be controversial at times, even offensive, it is hard to imagine a society suffering for being too artistic.  It probably could happen, but so far, I don’t think any culture has ever suffered from too much art.

Yet conflict is so ingrained in human nature that even in this one area where we should feel free to explore and experiment, we are constantly warring over which form of creative expression is more valid than another.  I imagine this is as old as time.  When the first caveman painted an image of a mammoth, I guarantee you that someone was offended by it.  And someone else thought it was “cute, but nothing to think about.”  And a third someone declared our painter a genius that would forever define the art of painting mammoths.  That’s how it works.  Creative expression and interpretation is such a personal act, it’s no wonder everyone sees something different.

What surprises me is how few of us have ever figured that out.  Maybe it’s because we’re trapped in our own heads, swimming in a sea of our own emotional baggage, but we have a hard time understanding that I am not you, you are not me, and that person is not that other person.  We experience our own thoughts so intimately, it’s impossible to imagine others not feeling the same thing.  And if others don’t, then there is something wrong with them.

This is found on every level of experience we have as humans, not just art.  Recently, a Republican congressman (or senator, I always got those two confused) was shown saying that there were at least “59 to 61 communist party members” in the legislature.  A collective gasp rose up from the audience.  It was, to me, absurd.  But then I realized that, for his audience, communists were a thing to be feared.  I don’t share that fear.  Not because I’m pro-communism, but because the word and concept doesn’t trigger much of any response in me.  I grew up during the Cold War.  I saw my share of generic evil Russian villains in fiction.  But then the whole thing petered out and communism seemed like a relic of yesteryear.  Sure, there’s still China and a few other countries, but the world is different today.  China is economically bound to us in a way the good ol’ U.S.S.R. never was.  All of this, of course, means nothing.  It just comes down to what these people found scary versus what I do.  It’s less about logic than about our own perceptions and emotions.

The reason art matters though is that it should be the one place we are allowed to indulge without fear of judgment because it’s the one area where we can experiment without consequence.  Politics, theology, economics, etc., these all are delicate issues.  We fight over these because we all want a world more to our liking.  Our fears and desires matter there because they have far reaching consequences.  Or that’s what we tell ourselves.  The world tends to go on regardless, but it does change, often in ways we don’t like or appreciate.

But art is specifically a playground designed to be without consequence.  Note that I don’t mean art is inconsequential, though our limited language makes it easy to get confused.  What I mean is that art is a place where our emotions can come out to play, and nobody has to get hurt.  Nobody should fear being judged for their artistic tastes because ultimately, it’s a healthy way to explore what it means to be human.

Note too that I’m not talking about controversial art.  I’m talking about all the art we enjoy.  Even the most shallow tripe has some value to someone.  I’ve never believed that art must be shocking to be valuable.  It need only be satisfying in some way.  Horror movies allow us to experience fear without having to be eaten by a shark.  Comedies allow us to laugh when we need it most.  Romances let us experience what it’s like to be loved.  Fantasy opens worlds of imagination.  And literary fiction allows us to be pretentious.

Whoops.  Kind of stepped on my point there.

We are all prone to judgment to things inexplicable to us.  I don’t know why anyone thinks The Dark Knight is an adequate (much less good) superhero movie.  But I don’t have to.  I only have to understand that it pushes the buttons of a lot of people.  Just not mine.  And in that way, it’s no different than most art, most fears, most joys.  I don’t listen to a lot of music, for example.  Or watch lawyer shows.  Or get into sprawling, epic fantasy.  I find very little enjoyable about these things.  They don’t speak to me.  But they speak to a lot of people, and it would be absurd to say these people were wrong.  Or that these things are bad.

True, we will debate and discuss these things, and we should.  I will say that I find most literary fiction unreadable, and I’m sure many, many people will disagree.  And the debate is fun to have and can even be informative and a great way to see the world through someone else’s eyes.  But at the end of the day, I will never be that person.  I will never be able to experience their life.  And it is unfair of me (or any of us) to diminish someone for liking art we find ridiculous, boring, shallow, grimdark, or whatever.  It’s presumptuous.

It’s also inevitable.

We can’t stop it, but we can at least be aware of it.  We can rant about how Twilight sucks, but we should also accept that it spoke to a hell of a lot of people.  I can say I’d rather get punched in the face repeatedly than read The Road, but that doesn’t mean the book is terrible.  And if I want to go on and on about how awesome Guyver 2: Dark Hero is, you can at least do me the favor of listening, even if you disagree.

Otherwise, the commies win.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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