What is evil any more?
Looking at movies and shows of the past, monstrous characters were always portrayed as evil, soulless, violent, menacing. They tore out your throat and danced on your grave and made you have nightmares.
Now people write love stories about them.
Maybe that's nothing new. After all, many of us gals have gone a bit fainty over the Byronic hero, the bad-boy who's got just enough goodness within him to make his bad actions less so. He's not evil--he's a misunderstood victim of abuse or capitalism or oppression or some other dark childhood trauma, and his monstrous behavior is simply him lashing out.
I wonder, though.
It promotes the notion that those brought up in challenging situations will necessarily be bad as adults, or so the eugenicists would likely argue. There's a lot to that, of course--when you grow up around violence and chaos and betrayal, especially during ones formative years, growing into a stable adulthood is hard...but not impossible. I like to think that we are not determined by our earliest years, but that we can grow away from bad things and live a good adult life.
In the end, I think there's a big difference between celebrating the outsider who is otherwise good, such as Remus Lupin--he's a character who became a monster through no fault of his own and who strove for a normal life despite his dark side. His closest friends acknowledge this tragic irony as well, as we see when Sirius Black pleads with Remus as he transforms into a werewolf, telling him to look into his own, good heart and know that he's not a monster. That's love.
On the other hand, there is a trend of creating empathy with monsters. John Gardner's famous retelling of Beowulf, for example, does this on some level by making Grendel a sensitive victim questioning his own nature from his earliest days. More recently, however, we have shows like Dexter, which causes many in the audience to root for the "success" of a serial killer. His vigilante killings aren't just a bullet to the head, either. One could almost understand that, in a demented sort of way. Dexter's killings involve decapitations, chainsaws, blood spatter, maiming and mayhem. Oh, but his victims are bad people, and hey, a little blood flying is good entertainment, right? I'm not so convinced, and it makes me wonder how that ultimately impacts an audience.
I don't believe that entertainment turns people into violent individuals--we are all responsible for our own behavior, good or bad. One cannot blame Black Sabbath or Grand Theft Auto or Harry Potter for a person's evil choices. My concern is a little different. What I want to know is whether, as a culture, it's good and healthy to hold up characters like Dexter Morgan or Bill Compton or Bonnie and Clyde as people to admire. True, their dark sides are strongly apparent in these shows, but there's just enough pathos there to raise the question.
Or am I just being hard-hearted?
When I told my Mom the name of this site, the first thing she thought of was the Artful Dodger. "Isn't he a criminal?"
Well yes, of course, he was, though he didn't exactly get away with his crimes. In fact, one could argue that the Artful Dodger was one of many poor street kids exploited by corrupt adults. Not to make excuses for him, of course, but there it is. And as crafty and scummy as he often was, he did have a heart, and he even had a bit of wisdom about him.
I won't go so far as to say he was a victim--after all, he had his own mind and could make his own choices in life, choosing petty crime over any attempt at honest work (not that the job market for kids like him was all that great, but...). But his life does bring to my mind the issue of choice.
Recently, I read a fantastic article by Dana Gioia, "The Catholic Writer Today" (linked on the Links page), where he rightly points out that the Catholic presence in the arts today is nearly invisible, unless it's to insult or denigrate the Church. So we get Serrano's "Piss Christ," or Ofili's "Holy Virgin Mary," a portrait of our Blessed Mother covered in elephant dung, or some other work that only succeeds in mocking the Church. Matthew Brooks and Seth Leibsohn of Jewish World Review rightly called this "religious bigotry."
I've been "artsy craftsy" all my life. I'm a story-teller, sketch-artist, wannabe painter, failed watercolor artist, crocheter, past jewelry-maker, lousy knitter, poet, novelist and pretty good Photoshop artist. Even as a little kid, I'd create these sweeping sagas, all told with stick figures, and in high school, I became a pretty decent portrait artist. I even took a stab at choral singing (soprano), and played piano for a grand total of two years. So I'm pretty highly invested in the arts, and not just as an expression.
The arts are always about the story for me, regardless of the medium. For me, the arts are human-centered, emerging from our lives, our values, our frustrations, our fears. They are escape, too, totally non-pragmatic, yet totally necessary for life. As the world has gone beyond secular and into outright depravity and hedonism, the Catholic voice in the arts is all the more critical. Catholics are no better than anyone else, but our faith is woven into the deepest parts of history--the longevity and consistent vitality of the Catholic Church demands that it also help to inform our culture.
The arts also represent what we tolerate and what we condemn. It used to be that certain shows, shows that depicted controversial sexual relationships, for examples, were never allowed on prime time TV--now they're the stuff of reality TV at any time of day. Extreme violence was cut out, too, but now it seems like audiences want their TV violence to be increasingly graphic. Twenty years ago, HBO's Game of Thrones wouldn't have been allowed anywhere, but now it's popular among teens, who can watch it online any time they want, and sometimes even with their parents. Same for True Blood, and even Criminal Minds. Person of Interest, once an intriguing and exciting show, has devolved recently into endless gun battles, torture and mayhem, all masking themselves as story.
And we keep on watching.
Not that the Catholic artist shies away from controversy and violence. Any reader of Flannery O'Connor knows that her books are filled with gruesome violence--a family shot to death in the woods, a man who blinds himself with lye, a woman watches helplessly as three little boys burn her property--yet this is not gratuitous acts of violence. The Catholic has a spiritual understanding that enduring acts of violence can be moments of grace that can transform a once ugly soul and make it beautiful again, such as the Grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find."
But accepting depravity as the norm, as just one more way to live or another valid point of view, only drags the culture down by turning good and evil into vapid opinion. Once that happens, to quote Cole Porter, "anything goes," and then we're back to the disgusting downfall of the Roman Empire. I agree with Gioia, therefore, that Catholics have a responsibility to get ourselves out of the shadows and demand our voice be heard and taken seriously. That's where cultural recovery starts, which is why we must be artful about it.
Witty; cunning; crafty
© ArtfulCatholic 2016
All rights reserved
This material may not be reprinted without permission from the author.