Are art and violence connected?
Mediaculture: Reflections on the effect of media and culture on our faithby Gordon Houser
This summer’s tragic shootings in Aurora, Colo., and Madison, Wis., raise a question that often comes up with such events: the relationship of art and violence.
The July 19 shooting by James E. Holmes in Aurora happened in a cineplex at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises, killing 12 people and injuring 58 others.
The shooting on Aug. 5 at a Sikh temple in Madison killed six people and wounded three others. The shooter, Wade M. Page, had performed in notorious white power bands, such as Youngland, Intimidation One, End Apathy and Definite Hate.
Did the movie or the music contribute to the killings? Or do they reflect the violence in our culture? Or are the relationship of art to violence different in the two incidents?
In a July 26 New York Times article, “Don’t Blame the Movie, but Don’t Ignore It Either,” Stephen Marche claims the answers aren’t so simple.
He writes that while we have largely passed the point where we ask whether art causes such disasters, a new cliché has taken hold “that insists on an absolute separation between violent art and real violence.”
He claims that real violence and violent art have been connected historically. “Some of the most violent scenes in American history have emerged from theatrical spaces,” he writes.
One example was the Astor Place riot in 1849, which started in competing performances of “Macbeth,” one by the Englishman William Charles Macready and the other by the American Edwin Forrest. “The theater in that case brought to the surface underlying tensions that were rampant in New York at the time,” he writes, “between immigrants and nativists, between the lower classes and the police. More than 20 people died in the ensuing struggle.”
Further, he notes that John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln during the play “Our American Cousin.” Booth was an actor and was imitating Brutus from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”
Holmes allegedly said, “I am the Joker” before opening fire, and an employee at the jail where he was arraigned told a reporter, “He thinks he’s acting in a movie.”
This does not show that the Batman movie caused the shooting, but it does point to the power of art to affect individuals prone to violence.
In an Aug. 8 New York Times article, “The Sound of Hate,” Robert Futrell and Pete Simi write about “hidden spaces of hate” where Neo-Nazis, who often straddle the worlds of white power and mainstream society, thrive.
One of the most important of these hidden spaces is the white power music scene.
“Neo-Nazis are particularly adept at incorporating music into just about every aspect of the movement,” Futrell and Simi write, “having grasped the medium’s capacity to bring adherents together into shared experiences and sustain communities anchored in Aryan ideology.”
This music scene drew Page to the movement. While the music conveyed anger, hatred and outrage toward racial enemies, it also created “a collective bond that strengthens members’ commitment to the cause,” they write.
Isn’t this what churches do? We use music as well as sermons and prayers in our worship to help bind us together as followers of Jesus Christ.
The obvious difference is that our hymns (we hope) do not promote hatred and violence but love and peace.
Art has power we should not ignore, but in itself it does not produce violence. That requires an already fertile field.
Gordon Houser is associate editor of The Mennonite.
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