A couple of years ago I was driving somewhere with my wife, and the song “We Are All On Drugs” by Weezer came on the radio: lots of hard rock and screaming, and the chorus pretty much just repeats “We are all on drugs” over and over, and my wife frowned.
“I don’t like this music, it gives me a bad feeling.”
So we changed the channel, and a nice peppy Billy Joel song came on. Instead of hard rock and growling guitars there was a cute bouncy piano line, and a strong melody, and the song was pleasant and infectious.
“This is so much better,” said my wife. “Keep it here.”
“Are you kidding?” I asked. “You objected to the last song, but not this one?”
“That song was gross, this one is nice. It’s Billy Joel.”
“Yeah,” I said, “it’s Billy Joel’s ‘Come Out Virginia.’ It’s about a guy convincing a religious girl to break her moral standards and sleep with him. The song you didn’t like was about how we need to learn to think for ourselves in a mindless consumer culture. Don’t you even listen to the words?”
“The song I didn’t like was just screaming and noise, and this one is fun. Don’t you even listen to the music?”
I don’t tell this story to make fun of my wife, who is awesome, but to point out a massive schism in the perception of morality in art. When we say that a piece of art is ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ are we talking about the subject matter, or the medium, or the artistic quality? Is ‘Come Out Virginia’ a good song because it has a great beat and catchy chorus, or is it bad because it’s about something morally questionable? Is ‘We Are All On Drugs’ a good song because it makes us think, or is it a bad song because it comes from an angry, noisy subculture that many people don’t even consider to be music? How can we separate the different elements? Do we even need to? Should we even have to?
One of my favorite thoughts on artistic criticism comes from Roger Ebert, who said that when considering art it doesn’t matter what it’s about, but how it’s about it. Let me give another quick example just to really hit this home. While I was on my mission one of my companions started listening to a tape of LDS pop, and I rolled my eyes and said I hated it. My companion stared at me, aghast, then tried to compose himself and asked, very diplomatically, “What exactly do you hate about it?” He paused. “The message?”
“Of course I don’t hate the message, just the style. Yes, it’s about Jesus, and Jesus is awesome, but it’s a bad song—it’s boring and trite.”
“Yeah,” he said, “but . . . it’s about Jesus. How can you hate it?”
Once again, we have the question, which we continue to see crop up almost daily, especially those of us who work as Mormon artists: is something good or bad because of what it’s about? Or because of how it’s about it?
Let’s take a deeper look at a particular work: I’m going to choose the fantasy book A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin, because the TV show just debuted and it’s on my mind. This is essentially a fantasy version of the War of the Roses: a sweeping epic about many different characters, spanning many different kingdoms and generations, locked in a deadly struggle to claim the throne. It’s a fantastic story and, just like the historical events it’s based on, a lot of it has to do with violence and sex. One story in particular makes our dilemma clear: a young princess named Daenerys is given away, in an arranged marriage, to a barbarian king, very much against her will. Let’s start there. Is this kind of behavior good? Certainly not in our society, where arranged marriages are looked down on very strongly. The fact that these kinds of marriages happened, though, was a historical fact, and a story about them could be very interesting. Let’s move on.
The next bit of the story gets darker: Daenerys is given away, the marriage happens, and on her wedding night she is coerced by her new husband into sex. Once again we have a case where the act itself is wrong, but telling a story about it is not automatically wrong. There could be a lot of powerful insights in the story of a women taken against her will, and especially in how she deals with it. If she handles it well, other women in similar situations could be inspired by the example; if she handles it poorly, it could become a cautionary tale or even a heartbreaking tragedy. All are worthy subjects of art, but the content is really starting to fight with the form.
Alright, let’s step it up a notch: in the book, the rape/seduction of Daenerys is fairly graphic. On the one hand, this gives it a much stronger impact—you can’t just sit back and relax while reading this scene, because the details force you to participate and make an opinion. On the other hand, this scene has more graphic sex than many people want to read. What the story is about (the realities of arranged marriage in a misogynist society) is becoming overshadowed by the method of delivering that story (graphic sex). A lot of people, including me when I read this in high school, simply refused to read any further. Does that make the art bad? Does that make the method bad? If an artist loses readers because of a stylistic choice, does that make the choice wrong? I would say no, losing portions of the audience is never a sign of bad art, because I refuse to accept that broad appeal is the end goal of art. And yet filling your art with material some people find objectionable could very well be a bad artistic choice. Whether or not Martin’s choice in this case was a bad one or not is not for me to say.
Let’s take this one step further: in the TV show based on the book, the actress playing Daenerys is topless for a portion of this scene. For many people, especially the primarily religious readers of this blog, that’s a damning point all on its own: it doesn’t matter how amazing the story is, how morally or artistically valuable it may be, the fact that it includes nudity puts it over the line. The issue is no longer one of art, but of something else entirely; some forms of content, such as extreme gore, profanity, and nudity, seem to inhabit a realm of their own.
I do not believe that there are taboo issues in art; anything can be discussed if it is discussed well. A Game of Thrones goes to great lengths to show that illicit sex is rife with consequences that can ruin not only one life but thousands, and I personally feel that the depiction of consequences is one of the hallmarks of ‘moral’ literature; if you show two people having an affair, for example, that’s not automatically horrible, but if you show that the affair has no consequences and everyone involved is happy and wonderful, I find that very irresponsible. And yet no matter how responsible a story might be in its depiction of darkness, I know that many people—such as my wife, as illustrated earlier—will prefer to simply consume an entirely different piece of art, because the darkness itself is not something they want in their lives.
For me, the art itself is what I value. If you write a stupid book I’m not going to like it even if it’s about Jesus; if you write a wonderful book I’m going to love it even if it’s about alcoholism destroying a family. Even the Bible, if you ignore the message of redemption and resurrection, is a book about killing Jesus.
It doesn’t matter what the art is about, but how it’s about it.