THE BLOG
09/18/2014 08:43 am ET Updated Nov 18, 2014

Art And Violence

The reason I decided to call my collection of essays Theater of Cruelty is that many of them deal, in one way or another, with violence. I don't like horror movies or great fountains of cinematic blood. But I am interested in the way artists and writers deal with our violent impulses, not so much out of prurience, though that can never be dismissed, as out of fear.

There is a commonly held Romantic notion that great suffering is the source of great art. If this were true, the world would probably be blessed with far more great art. Suffering can certainly inspire artistic expression. Turbulent times often do so. People who live through them at least have something to say. But bad times are no guarantee for good art. A certain degree of freedom is essential, too, and, of course, talent.

But fear, I believe, is the greatest spur that drives humans to describe, depict, or act out forms of violence and cruelty which most of us would do anything to avoid in real life. Death is frightening, violent death even more so, and so is the infinite human capacity for cruelty. Indeed, deliberate cruelty may be one thing that separates human beings from other animals. For animals rarely, if ever, kill out of sheer malice. Nor do they engage in torture.

Fear must be one reason why violent death is such a common feature in religious art. The central image of Christianity, even though it is propagated as a message of peace, of turning the other cheek, is one of a very violent death. Christian art is soaked in blood. For every Madonna and child there is a depiction of a saintly man or woman being ripped to shreds or burned at the stake.

Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim altarpiece, painted in the early 16th century, is one of the great masterpieces of Christian art. It is also one of the most gruesome, for not only is Christ a bloody martyr, but he is covered in plague-like sores. The painting was made for a monastery that cared for the sick. This terrifying image -- and few things were as terrifying then as the "Black Death" -- was comforting too, for it showed that Christ shared in the patients' suffering.

Buddhism is a philosophy of peace and compassion. But some Buddhist imagery is full of violence, death and decay. Such frightening and disgusting pictures were meant to loosen the bonds of believers from material life. But their other purpose was to help overcome the fear of death. Images of Hell were a warning too, as in other religions. And grotesque demons were sculpted or painted to protect people against even more fearful dangers.

The origin of Spanish bullfighting is doubtless religious as well. For it is a ritual of death, a kind of theater that sublimates our fear of violence and extinction. The bull is sacrificed to appease our fears of death, as humans once were in certain cultures.

Most theatrical traditions no longer demand the actual sacrifice of humans or beasts. But violent death is a staple of theatre, from Greek tragedies to Shakespeare to Quentin Tarantino. Hollywood or Hong Kong schlock movies are just debased forms of something very ancient. We act out what we dread, or we watch others acting out our deepest anxieties, so we can go home feeling better about being alive.

This is why it is a naive idea that violence in the arts should be banned, as though such bans would stop humans from behaving violently. The same applies to depictions of sex. I doubt whether sexual unorthodoxy, or aggression against women, would vanish in the unlikely event that pornography would cease to exist.

It is true, of course, that murderers or rapists sometimes express a fondness for violent or pornographic fantasies. A killer might have watched a bloody movie just before his fatal act. Pornography might stimulate or even suggest a sexual crime. Gangsters often like watching gangster movies, and professional soldiers trained to kill might be fond of watching videos full of blood and gore. But is highly unlikely that gangsters would cease to kill and rob without the stimulus of crime pictures. And violence in war does not depend on the latest Vin Diesel movie.

Should a distinction be made between schlock and art? Is Vin Diesel more damaging to our morals than Shakespeare's Macbeth? This claim is made in the case of sex. The ban on Lady Chatterley's Lover was lifted by the Supreme Court in 1959 because of its "redeeming social and literary value."

This seems a doubtful distinction. To be sure, D.H. Lawrence's novel is a work of literature, whereas most straight pornography cannot be classified as such. But I fail to see the case for a moral difference. People still need to see their fears, their lusts, and their darker impulses sublimated in fantasy. Some will demand more sophisticated expressions than others. But I still think Oscar Wilde had it right: "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all."