The plain state of being human is dramatic enough for anyone; you don’t need to be a heroin addict or a performance poet to experience extremity. You just have to love someone.
That’s the real con of shock-art: it makes out that it’s democratic, but it’s actually only of those who can afford it. And some of us, as we get older, simply find that we don’t have that much courage to spare any more. Good luck to you if you have, because it means that you have managed to avoid more or less everything that life has to throw at you, but don’t try to make me feel morally or intellectually inferior.
– Nick Hornby
Nick Hornby is a writer I respect. I have read several of his books, seen several movies that are either based on his books or that he has contributed to. I’ve also found some great music through him. The first time I heard Rod Stewart’s Mama You’ve Been On My Mind, one of my favorite recordings, or Teenage Fanclub’s Ain’t That Enough, another song I love, it was because they were featured in his Songbook. Any intelligent music fan should read that, even if they don’t agree with parts of it, because it is intelligent writing about music.
However, Hornby has been on my mind lately as I think about art as a whole. The second quote is from a chapter in Songbook where he is criticizing Suicide’s song Frankie Teardrop. I’ve never heard that song. However, he compares it to the movie Eraserhead, which I love. Basically he is saying as he grows older there is no place for dark disturbing pieces like the song. He has also had other quotes, like the other above quote from How to Be Good, another book I really liked, where he seems to be making the case that the everyday is more dramatic than the kind of art that is more extreme, that features more extreme existences.
Although I think one can make the case that the everyday is dramatic, noble, something worth writing about, that it can even be subversive given the right context, I don’t believe this negates darker works or makes them any less valid. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I disagree with Hornby on especially something like his second quote above.
Now before I go any further, this doesn’t mean that things that are normal, full of joy, and happy aren’t worthy subjects of art. I think that they are. But I also think that anything can be a valid subject for art, given that whoever is creating it is talented and looking for truth. The dark and extreme have created many of our masterpieces. Look at the history of literature old and new: Macbeth, Candide, The Stranger, The Road, Slaughterhouse-Five, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Last Exit to Brooklyn, Divine Comedy, Heart of Darkness, and on and on.
Whether or not you agree that all of that all of the above are worthy, I can’t imagine anyone of intelligence wanting a world that was without those. Why would someone not want the same in music, in film, in art? Such works give us a way to interpret the world as some of it unfortunately is. They can critique the world and ask that it be better. They can also provide a light in the darkness, as there can be a happiness in feeling that some other soul sees something the way that you see it. Certain kinds of darkness can actually be comedy. They can help us to laugh at the things that we are afraid of.
As I look out at the modern political world, even if in my personal life there is a great deal of joy and happiness, even if I see good in the world, even if I see that long term there are reasons for hope, I can’t help but feel a good deal of modern life feels closer to Eraserhead than a feel good rom-com. As multinational companies destroy the planet, as the prison industrial complex keeps many minorities and poor people disproportionally in jail, as people starve while others live like they are in the guilded age, especially because now we can see with ease what is going on all around us, I can’t help but feel the world to be an absurd surreal place at times.
Modern culture is so often full of meaninglessness, often in the guise of things that are supposed to make us happy, but rarely do. Most people want to be happy, but many are not. Many want light, but spend too much time in the cave. In order to reach that light first one must find their way through the darkness, learn what is holding them back. You can close your eyes if you want, but that isn’t going to change anything.
Trailer from Eraserhead: