"I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God's hands, that I still possess." -Martin Luther

Monday, February 13, 2006

The Ability of Suits to Make Skillful Art Good: Description is Art III

Don't worry, the title might make sense after you read this, but it's not important.
Well, in I, I wrote that description is art -- holding value in and of itself -- but has come to be thought of as nothing more than a medium for cheap thrills. This makes it boring, which makes it even less respected, throwing it into a lovely cycle of degredation. In II, I said that, while description is art, content matters. My final point was that there is good and bad, good is better than bad, and thus there are good and bad subjects for an art medium, in this case, description.
I've had some opportunity to think about this. Several years back I wrote a historical fiction novel for school. I really put a lot of effort into it -- my friends had jobs; but I wrote a story. It was a pirate story, and I suppose I will forever be having to repeat my true claim that I had not seen Pirates of the Carribbean when I wrote it. Not to say it was as good as that lovable movie, but that it seems to be the logical motivation for me writing. Why do I not liking to be thought of as copying, or getting my motivation from a movie I think is awesome, in the modern sense of the word? I suppose that should be my next post: "Where do stories come from?" George Lucas has a lot to say about that. But I bet I have more!
The reason I mention this novel having pirates is because it also had british royal navy personnel. This made for some violent encounters. I was trying to write a book that would be good, instructive, edifying reading for people about my age, and younger. While I mentioned that profanity was used, I didn't give examples. I stayed away from the subject of sexual immorality as well. But when the cannon started firing, the boarders took the leap, friend and foe mingled blood on the shattered deck... well, I just didn't think about not describing it. Any book by a modern author, written at the level I wrote, would have done so, so I did. Now, in case you are disgustedly clucking your tongue at this legalistic little geek, understand that I don't think it is wrong to describe gore. But what was my purpose in doing so, and how could I expect my audience to use my description? Well, I suppose I might have thought my purpose was to give the hard truth about what went on in those battles, to give a true feel for them. If so, I didn't go far enough. The other reason would be so that my readers would enjoy reading about it.
I hope that sounds disgusting to you. I suppose it may not to everyone. But think about my audience -- say ten to eighteen year-olds. Should anyone, much less someone that age, enjoy reading the details of a human body being destroyed? Shouldn't they throw the book down in disgust? Wouldn't it be sufficient to say that men were stabbed, wounded, mangled, beheaded, etc, without having to go into case by case descriptions of "how the blood spilled..."?
Now, there is some room for question here. Were my descriptions wrong? I think I might be able to truthfully say I included them for accuracy, to make the point that these battles were horrible. I can say I was blind to the fact that people in general, and teenagers especially, are tempted to take pleasure in reading detailed accounts of people being killed. It is the greusome twist in the stomach, the "oh, wasn't it bad when..." to a friend.
Why was I blind to it? I suppose I was just used to it. Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, war movies, the wonderful Redwall books, and most historical fiction involving war, all include this graphic violence. And, because there is a lack of descriptive excellence, the content must have more and more shock value to put the desired pleasure into the audience. Was I the only one who cringed a little in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, when Anakin started slicing geonosians apart with his lightsaber -- they may have been giant termites, but they were sentient giant termites. Not to say it shouldn't have been in there, but how come that movie got a lax rating? If he had been cutting humans in two so graphically, it wouldn't have. I think it would have been a much more worthwhile use of time to use some lines, close-ups, and a little down-to Earth fear to remind you that Anakin is fighting for his life, trying to keep Padme from getting killed. That could have been a moving scene, instead of "oh, look, scary flying things. Oh, look, he's cutting them up. Oh, on to the next visually impressive scene..."
We've run into the lack of description again. I've lost my point. It was that violence for pleasure is just not right. Violence for entertainment? It depends on exactly how you define entertain. To entertain, is to hold the senses. Well, what are you doing with them while you hold them, is the correct question. Are you trying to please the audience? Then don't use gore, that isn't right. Is there some pleasure to be had when Aragorn, with a last, fatigued blow, finishes off the Uruk-Hai leader Lurtz at the end of Fellowship of the Rings? Sure, there was applause at least one of the times I saw the movie. We should be glad when evil gets its due, but not in an "oh, goodie, his head got chopped off," gleeful sort of way.
I hope you follow because I'm done saying what I'm saying over and over again.
There are other things, but I think violence is the primary one. I suppose I could go through this entire proof with sexuality and sexual immorality portrayed graphically, but I won't. The reasons this is "bad" are almost all the same.
Could a discussion of sexual immorality be in a book in a right way? Of course, just mind your audience. The same goes for describing violence. I wonder at people wondering at school shootings. If a young American wanted to have his head filled with violence around the clock, he could. There's plenty of people talking about it at school, he can find it online, and in the ever-more realistic computer games he can play all afternoon. After that, thinking about it duing class, doing his homework, even dreaming about it all night isn't so hard. After that, what's the difference between thinking about killing people all the time, and doing it? At the same time both none at all, and all the difference in the world, because thinking it doesn't make it done.
My point is that young minds should not be exposed to the depth of violence in this world, especially not in a form meant to please.
I'm not old enough to address adults on this, but just one thought. If it is wrong for children to fill their heads with this, is it suddenly right when you get taller and move into your own house? Maybe you think you are mature enough to deal with it. But does maturity mean going and enjoying all the low, gruesome, dirty things in life, or having them around you, knowing of them and working against them, all while keeping yourself from taking pleasure in them?
If you haven't watched hitchcock movies, you should. Most of them are not gory, certainly not in the humdrum way most modern movies are. Yet they capture the senses, and scare you to death, and make violence seem very terrible. Hitchcock, one might say, was an artist. People oohed and aaahed at the fifteen minute long battle of Helm's deep in the Two Towers. Tolkien's version was longer and more bloody, but he didn't describe nearly so much violence as the movie portrayed. Still, he caught you up in it with his charachters, and the brave stand to hold the Deep. The battle of the Pellinor fields in the Return of the King was much larger, and much longer in Tolkien's book than in the movie, yet Tolkien wasn't trying to get you to take pleasure in the gore. Instead, the reader is moved to take pleasure in the gallantry of the men, the brave leadership of kings, princes, and wizards, and the great, moving climax when Aragorn unfurled the banner of the king, the banner woven for him by the elf princess Arwen. But we skipped all that for a few more shots of men and horses being crushed by elephants.

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A soft answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.
The tongue of the wise commends knowledge,
but the mouths of fools pour out folly.