Art is Corrective It’s human nature to avoid what’s uncomfortable. No one wants conflict or anxiety or added stress in already complicated lives. In fact, people go to extremes to avoid it; when conflict leads to confrontation the effects can shake one up for days. And yet, it’s where the hard lessons are. The knowledge that comes from conflicts can often make people kinder, more generous with others, more understanding—in other words, more humane.
Art serves as the place to safely confront the toughest issues. Narrative art is driven by conflicts between characters. As the characters change, something happens to the audience too: they undertake a transformative journey experiencing strong emotions that build in power, leading ultimately to a release. A sense of renewal—known as catharsis—follows. Writing during the Enlightenment, the German philosopher Gotthold Lessing maintained that art is a corrective. Through catharsis, the audience learns how to experience emotions in their proper balance.
Us in Them Consider the successful television drama, The Sopranos. The beauty of the show rests in how the audience is drawn into Tony’s inner world. Like everyone else, he has a lot on his plate: marriage and parenting issues, problems at work, unresolved issues with his own parents, all on top of a big mid-life crisis. The fact that he is a brutal mob boss is secondary. We sympathise with Tony because he is so much like us.
In The Sopranos, the violence of the characters is where the anxiety resides. Expectations are turned upside down. Tony is the protagonist and, as such, we are conditioned to identify with him. So when he murders someone while visiting college campuses with his daughter, we shift in our seats. We are reminded how we also undertake simple, normal activities with our children and, while few of us murder anyone, we occasionally make mistakes. Sometimes we even compound our mistakes with rationalisations and justifications—all while our children look on.
Reasoned Debate is Important In this light, the furore around the photographer Bill Henson’s show last year at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery can be seen as part of the process of art, the journey toward catharsis. The case is well-known by now for firing debate: Prime Minister Kevin Rudd came out against Henson’s work early on; the art community was largely supportive. The journalist David Marr wrote about it exhaustively, presenting the arguments for and against on familiar lines—Art v. Porn, Artists v. Society—and, when the child protection advocate Hetty Johnston’s got involved, in increasingly fraught terms of “art, children and the perils of the modern world”.
All this debate is good. The issues are tough ones, so the more people who talk about them, the better. We’re proving that we’re capable of impassioned discussion, thoughtfully working through complex issues as a society.
Through art, catharsis is possible for each of us individually. Through the debate that art provokes, a transformative journey is possible for society as a whole—but only if we allow it to occur.