Challenging Work

Should art necessarily be challenging?

I mean, it doesn’t have to be – plenty of creative works are reflections of normal life, or fantastical stories created simply for entertainment. But to me, great art – truly transcendent work that moves beyond simply storytelling – should also raise questions, and aim to provide something of an education to its audience, in addition to interest.

I was reminded of this when I saw the latest film clip from Childish Gambino, which, apart from being a good song, also raises questions, and confronts viewers and listeners with something more to consider.

However you view the gun debate and racism in America, there are important questions that need to be addressed – and while the clip doesn’t provide answers, it pushes both issues forward, making you think about the broader debate, rather than simply being entertaining.

I also think this is important from a moral standpoint, that great art has the capacity to change patterns of thinking, not by being overt and saying ‘this is good’ and ‘this is bad’, but by providing scenarios where the audience is forced to question their value system.

Do you really fall on this or that side of the debate?

A good example of this is Gregor Jordan’s film ‘Unthinkable’, which came on the back of the stories of torture at the hands of US soldiers at Guantanamo Bay. The broader discussion around Guantanamo Bay is ‘how could they do this?’ How could US soldiers torture people, using such barbaric tactics, which challenged people’s moral codes and lead to a major backlash.

Unthinkable, while not necessarily trying to sympathize with those events, does raise the question of what you really think is acceptable. In the film (and spoilers for those who haven’t seen it), US authorities arrest a former soldier who’s been radicalized and claims to have planted nuclear bombs throughout the city. He refuses to give them any information until his demands are met.

At this stage, they’re not convinced this man is even telling the truth, but if he is, the consequences could obviously be major. So while an interrogator is working to get information out of him, another special operative comes in. This man is a torturer, and he quickly goes to work.

Now, at this stage, we, as the audience, sympathize with the first interrogator, because we don’t think this man should be tortured – he may just be making it up. In fact, as it goes on, it seems likely that he is, making the torture even more intolerable. Then one of his bombs does go off, killing 53 people. Given this, and that you now know he’s for real, your view such torture might shift – putting this man through pain could save thousands, even millions.

What then?

Another example is Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Prisoners’ – in this film, a man’s young daughter is kidnapped, and they’re at a loss to find any clues. A mentally impaired man indicates to the father that he may know where she is. So he takes him, holds him prisoner, and tortures him to try and get the information.

The man is he’s torturing may not be capable of understanding what he’s said, but the father’s desperate. Few people would go to such extreme measures, but again, it raises moral questions – what would, or could, you do in such a situation.

These types of works are important, because they inspire thinking beyond the scope of the story itself, and have the capacity to change minds, to re-direct people’s approaches to certain situations. That’s not to say that people should be more sympathetic to something so horrendous as torture, but they do make you consider other angles, what you believe, and the filter through which you view news and events.

This is the great power of art – it’s not merely entertainment, it’s a medium for change, for altering minds and expanding perspectives.

The great promise of the next generation of technology is virtual reality, which would give people the capacity to see things from a totally different perspective – which, ideally, will lead to a more empathetic and understanding world.

Art already has this capacity – reading a book is the closest you’ll ever get to seeing things from someone else’s viewpoint, and that has the power to re-shape your understanding.

That’s why literature – and all art – is important, and why I believe we should utilize creative mediums to raise questions, while also building compelling, entertaining narratives.

You won’t always like what you see, but that’s important. You won’t always agree, but that’s crucial.

It’s about showing you a world beyond what’s in your sphere of understanding – and ideally, building beyond that, opening up more than just a basic news headline.

 

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