What you’re about to read was inspired by this video from Words of a Reader. It’s a topic that comes up every so often in various communities: whether or not dark works full of dark things have merit. I’ll try to address this as sensitively as possible, but the truth is I have some strong opinions about this.
First, let’s define what is meant by “controversial”, as the word has many meanings. As Lesley says in the video above, specifically we’re talking about content and subject matter that involves heavy topics. The sort of things you don’t discuss at the breakfast table. Extreme violence, abuse, sexual violence, topics that make you uncomfortable when the subject is broached.
With that handled, let me show you a thing. There is a type of art known as Transgressive Art. The point of it is to be disturbing, disgusting, and immoral. Not for kicks but rather to challenge the audience to explore their feelings about why they’re offended. It’s a powerful tool, and it can provoke a violent response, but it’s a very effective way of broadening your horizons in art and discovering who you are as a person. What touches you, what moves you, and why you care about the things that you do.
Is everything that offends us transgressive art? That’s a very deep discussion on its own, and I can’t answer that, but I can explore it a little. One of my favorite books is American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, an incredibly controversial book. I believe it’s a fascinating exploration of greed and disassociation and the excess of the 1980s. I’ve seen some reviewers who were so deeply affected make the statement that if you enjoyed this book, you must be a “psycho” yourself. They can’t imagine someone gleaning anything from this book besides the enjoyment of violent acts. Naturally I find that to be a very narrow view of art and its potential audience, but really what does it say about them? That they couldn’t see past this admittedly gory frame for the story, is that more a statement about them than the book itself? I think so. Even if the only response that the story receives is deep revulsion, it still succeeded.
That’s the sneaky thing about transgressive art. No matter how it makes you feel, it’s done its job. Whether you appreciate it or despise it, it’s gotten a response. That’s the point of it. That goes for books, films, music, anything that can be applied to the genre. We live in a world now where frightened people want to guard themselves and be ever vigilant against the possibility of being upset. The internet has made it all too easy to stumble across something you didn’t want to see, didn’t mean to click on. I understand not wanting to see someone’s Instagram pic where they accidentally cut a chunk out of their leg when they fell off their bike. I don’t understand cutting yourself off from potential art.
On a personal note, I want to be transparent here. I have anxiety. It’s something I deal with everyday in some form or other. I have panic attacks, and I take medication when they happen. Whenever I say this alongside the fact that I read a lot of horror and dark literature, people are typically stunned. Why would I do that to myself? I’m not doing anything to myself. Dark stories are the one place where I hold the reins. I control the pace of the story. If it bothers me too much, I can put it down, turn it off, do something else. What someone may go through in a horror story puts my own life and my own fears into perspective. Whatever I’m going through, I’m not going through that. It’s helped me build up a resistance to things that might otherwise haunt me. It’s given me a stronger constitution. It’s helped me explore what I fear and why, whether it’s rational or part of my illness and therefore something to be combated.
No one can hide forever, because the real world is scary. As scary as any story. Fiction and art, in all its forms, gives us an outlet for exploring that in a safe way. We can discuss those dark topics without anyone coming to any harm, and in fact we may learn things that will help us. So if the question is should controversial media matter, should it be appreciated by all? My resounding answer is yes.