Expectations and Confrontations: On Taking Risks in Art

“No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved. No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.”

Oscar Wilde

1. FREEDOM

Lately I’ve been considering the merits of taking risks in art and what taking artistic risks means to me in the first place. As an artist I believe that I should be able to express whatever I want without restrictions, limitations or objections. That is to say, no imagery, topic or theme should be off the table. I want my art—regardless of the genre I’m working in—to be a vehicle through which I can freely explore emotions, imagery, ideas, philosophy, morality, spirituality, etc. Letting something or someone get in the way of my artistic expression is to diminish the quality of my work, because if I have to adhere to a set of rules that I don’t stand by, I’m not allowing myself to be authentic as an artist. By extension, I can’t be authentic as a person, either, because art is my highest and purest form of expression. So, when I make art I find it useful to be able to not give a shit about rules, conventions, opinions, political correctness, being offensive or being entertaining, as long as I know what I’m doing and, most importantly, why I’m doing it. But such freedom never comes without a price.

You see, embracing such artistic freedom is inherently risky. There’s always the chance that, somewhere along the way, I end up offending someone; or that I make myself look like a fool in the eyes of another; or that I lose part of my audience because they may not comprehend or may misinterpret my work; or that people think of my work as self-indulgent and therefore off-putting; or that I become the target of harsh criticism. All of these risks—and many more could be added to that list—could turn into reasons for not experimenting or expressing certain thoughts if I let them, and so a degree of fearlessness is required to truly dedicate myself to creating art in the way that I want to. This isn’t always easy, because no matter how many pep talks I give myself or how much praise I receive, there’s always a voice in the back of my mind that likes to question artistic choices and expressions, especially when I try to do something new to break out of my comfort zone. In the end, though, I think that true confidence has nothing to do with silencing that doubtful voice, but that it has everything to do with trusting my skills, my code, my work ethic, and my creativity, despite that voice whispering of potential failure.

In fact, I believe that risk-taking is necessary if I am to push my boundaries and grow as an artist, because if I remain within the confines of my comfort zone, I find that I keep on using the same techniques, the same style, and the same voice. At a certain point, I will be so used to doing something in a certain way that I render myself blind to new learning opportunities. Moving outside of my all-too-familiar comfort zone, I find myself forced to contemplate things that I might otherwise miss altogether, and this can lead me to gain new insights about myself, the way that I produce art, and the way in which I present my art.

To make all of this more concrete, there are two specific types of risks, both of which have been taken by artists that deeply inspire me, that I want to address in this essay: defying expectations of an audience and confronting an audience with unpleasant ideas.

2. EXPECTATIONS

It takes courage to defy the expectations of an audience. If artists, after having stayed true to a certain style or approach, take their art into a new direction—especially when they do so unannounced—there’s a good chance that a majority of the audience will reject it. From what I’ve noticed online and in real life—whether it concerns music, comics, film, video games, or otherwise—many people seem to want whatever it is that they are familiar with. I will not, however, attempt to answer the question of why people desire the familiar; instead, the focus of this section is on examining the artist’s choice to go against the current of comfortable familiarity.

For example, The Dark Knight Returns, a comic book written and drawn by Frank Miller and published by DC Comics in 1986, turns the Batman mythology upside-down in a way that wasn’t attempted before. Some of the most striking changes that Miller made include: aging Batman from a young warrior to a 55-year-old veteran; rendering Gotham City as a futuristic, borderline apocalyptic backdrop (as opposed to a modern day Gothic metropolis in the regular Batman comics); having mutant gangs terrorize the city; drawing the Batmobile like a ginormous tank instead of a sleek car; casting a girl instead of a boy in the role of Robin; and pitting Batman and Superman (who are best friends in the regular Batman and Superman series) against each other, their famous battle serving as the story’s final climax. Many of these elements show up in today’s superhero landscape and are therefore no longer risky or extraordinary, but back then, especially with regards to Batman stories, there was no precedent and neither Miller nor his publisher could predict how their readers would respond. The result of the experiment is a comic that, to this day, is praised as one of the best Batman stories ever told.

Moving on to the realm of music, in 2003 the American band Thrice released their third album, The Artist in the Ambulance. While I’d label their first two albums as hardcore punk, their third album sounds more commercial. The album features vocal lines and song structures that, at the time, seemed to indicate that the band was shifting from their punk roots to a more radio-friendly rock approach. Many listeners—fans, critics and record companies alike—expected the band to continue down that path, slowly turning into a more generic pop-rock ensemble like so many other bands. However, Thrice went into the completely opposite direction with their fourth album.

Vheissu (2005) isn’t exactly a commercial album. The band started using synthesizers and began to work with even more complex song structures, embracing their uniqueness as opposed to selling their souls to the devils of the pop industry. Ever since, the band has been reinventing themselves, tackling different genres, looking for new ways to record and play music and express themselves with each new album. For all they knew, defying the will of companies and the expectations of audiences with Vheissu could have doomed their career. But, even though it prevented them from taking their place in the mainstream, they gained a strong following of fans and are now considered to be one of the most inventive and original bands in contemporary rock music by many who have been following their progress.

In the same vein, though from a different angle, operates the up-and-coming Dutch band The Wabe. The band consists of my dear friends Trevor Vreeburg and Mireille Muller, two passionate musicians with a unique vision on how to express themselves through art. Where Thrice began to truly embrace their uniqueness with their fourth album, The Wabe is making a valiant attempt at finding their niche from the very start.

It’s hard to fit The Wabe into one category, as they use a loop station; synthesizers; guitars; a saxophone; eerie soundscapes; hypnotizing melodies; raw and honest lyrics that illustrate the battle between one’s subjective emotions and the cold rationality of society; groovy beats; and even acting, costumes and poetry. Since there’s an overall emphasis on psychedelia, dreams and mystery, the band refers to their music as “mystery wave,” a moniker that, for me, symbolizes that this band isn’t adhering to preconceived notions about what music should be and are unafraid to search for new sounds and create an overall vibe that scares you while also giving you hope that everything’s gonna be okay. In sum, they’re very mysterious, and they’re punk as fuck.

When taking risks similar to the aforementioned artists, I think that there are several possible outcomes to consider. The first possibility is that the artwork will attract a cult following that keeps the artwork alive within its respective cult scene, but beyond that not a lot of people will know of its existence. Or perhaps the artwork sinks even deeper into obscurity, and an audience won’t show up in the first place, and the artist remains unheard, unseen, unknown. Maybe, years later, the artist will be rediscovered, when the world has finally caught up with the artist’s ahead-of-their-time craftsmanship. Or the artwork will die along with its creator, rotting in the graveyard of forgotten ideas.

A more positive possibility is that, precisely because the artwork upsets people’s preconceived notions about what art should be, the artwork actually begins to attract a greater audience. For example, another Dutch band, De Staat, doesn’t make music that fits the model of mainstream pop music, and yet this band has become massively popular. As for The Wabe, even though the band is still working hard on building a fanbase and finding their way to pop temples and festivals, this band is already getting booked for various gigs. Even though their music doesn’t sound anything like what’s in the mainstream, there is something about their attitude and musicianship that people respond to, and although it’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason why, it’s refreshing and inspiring to see that enthusiastic response.

Of course, just because certain artists are successful in taking risks, this doesn’t mean that everyone is able to follow in their footsteps. But, before thinking of an audience, I think an artist has to define for themselves what it means to be successful. Personally, I don’t think it means making a lot of money and/or becoming famous. To me, true artistic success is when I create something that I stand behind and that I am honestly proud of. It doesn’t have to be perfect, nor does it have to be appealing to the masses. It just has to be something through which I can genuinely bare my soul. It has to be something of which I can loudly proclaim, “Yes, I created this. This is me.” Once I feel that in my bones, I am ready to present my work to the world. Given that the only person I am trying to please is myself, I am not afraid of taking my art in certain directions. For example, while I tend to work with psychedelic themes and imagery in my writing, I like to turn to realism (or other genres) as well, to keep things fresh for myself so that I don’t become bored. I believe that doing this from the start—creating a diverse and expansive body of work—helps to assert my creative freedom as well as my artistic principles.

3. CONFRONTATIONS

While defying the expectations of the audience is already quite a challenge in and of itself, confronting the audience by shattering their bubbles takes perhaps even more courage, because by doing so, the artist automatically opens themselves up to negative reactions.

There exist plenty of artworks that are designed to offer us momentary escapism so that we don’t have to think about real world horrors for a while. It seems to me that a lot of people are so accustomed to escapism that the minute they are presented with a dark work of art about, for example, misogyny, racism, homophobia, rape, other human cruelties, or anything that forces one to contemplate death, they are inclined to look the other way, walk out of the room, or start calling the artist a psychopath and/or a sadist. While I don’t believe that there’s anything wrong with escapism in and of itself, I do believe that writing off a dark work of art because it’s dark is complete and utter horseshit, and it’s also missing the point.

I firmly believe in Oscar Wilde’s notion that art imitates life and vice versa. While certainly not every artwork has to include the aforementioned (and other dark types of) imagery, these themes should never be banned because that would be a form of censorship that prevents an artist from examining humanity’s darkness. I think that examining dark art can contribute to our personal growth, as it forces us to contemplate and decide on our morals, values and principles. In fact, such works of art are more often than not designed to scrutinize and criticize the dark notion(s) that they are depicting.

But, at the same time, I find that with the creation of dark art comes a certain responsibility. While it’s my aim to never produce a work of art that moves members of an audience to enact any of the crimes depicted in my stories, this is not something that I, as the artist, can fully control. For example, Stephen King’s 1977 novel Rage (first published under the writer’s now-defunct pseudonym Richard Bachman) tells the story of Charlie Decker, a teenager who starts a high school shooting. However, since the novel was linked to various actual school shootings in America, King decided to have the book removed from publication, which, indeed, seems like the most responsible course of action.

Yet, despite this unfortunate series of events, I still don’t think that Rage and the school shootings can be used as arguments for banning dark works of art in general. Though I understand why King opted to remove his book from publication, I am inclined to agree with filmmaker Quentin Tarantino’s notion that the relation between violence in fiction and violence in the real world is nonexistent. If the average audience member experiences an artwork that, for example, depicts rape, the chances of them becoming influenced by said artwork and subsequently committing rape are extremely slim. If anything, seeing the fictional rape (or murder, or hate crime, or what-have-you) will do the exact opposite to audience members. One of the earliest thinkers to comment on this was Aristotle, who explained that the very point of watching fictional violence or tragedy is “accomplishing by means of pity and terror the catharsis of such emotions” (92, my italics); i.e. the cleansing of the consumer’s powerful and often negative emotions. In that sense, consuming dark art can be a healthy activity, indeed. Those who do somehow feel inspired to enact the deeds depicted in the artwork probably are people that are completely out of their minds in the first place, and it’s usually hard to blame an artist or artwork for that.

I think that independent filmmaker Gaspar Noé said it best when he was interviewed about his film Irréversible (2002): “Because the subject of the movie was a rape, I said it has to be as powerful as it can be, to be disgusting enough, to be useful. If you do a movie with a rape and don’t show it, you hide the point. The thing is that if you show it in a disgusting way, you help people avoid that kind of situation. Like in Clockwork Orange, when they show images of terror to Malcolm McDowell to stop him doing those kind of things, it is useful that it is shown” (Macnab).

None of Noé’s films are for the faint of heart, but they are valuable in the sense that they offer powerful social criticism while simultaneously foregrounding the complexities of the human psyche. Noé’s characters can be heroes and villains at once; for example, in his debut Seul contre Tous (1998), we follow a butcher who’s down and out in Paris, who’s mutilated his pregnant girlfriend, who’s repeatedly thinking about suicide, and who’s determined to protect his only daughter against all odds. Additionally, in Irréversible the protagonist seeks justice by killing a stranger whom he believes to have raped his girlfriend. Yes, the protagonist potentially rids the world of evil, but in doing so he becomes a murderer and thereby contributes to evil.

However, that premise is hardly Irréversible’s most interesting aspect to talk about. What makes the film especially infamous is the extended rape sequence at the halfway point that runs for about 10 minutes, in which we see a terrified woman face-down on the grimy floor of an underpass in Paris, mounted by a man with insatiable lust in his bloodshot eyes. The camera lies still on the ground, never moving, casting the viewer in the role of the silent onlooker. At a certain point, on the other side of the underpass, another person walks in on the violence, and after staring in shock he turns around and walks away. Seeing as this person is right across from the audience’s viewpoint, it’s almost like looking into a mirror: either we sit and watch, or we act on our impulse to walk out of the room. The scene forces us to take a good hard look at ourselves. If we continue to watch, does that then mean that we endorse the imagery? If we walk out of the room, does that then mean that we turn our backs on such a cruelty and allow it to continue? And, even more urgent and horrifying, what would I do if I walked in on an act of sexual violence somewhere?

Needless to say, when Irréversible premiered at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, there were only a handful of audience members that were able to appreciate the film. Most people walked out, outraged, complaining not just about the rape scene but also the frantic, near-nauseating camera work and the unnerving, dissonant soundtrack. Noé himself didn’t seem to mind, as he continued to film human cruelties and tragedies. In Enter the Void (2009) the central theme is death, drawing inspiration from The Tibetan Book of the Dead and DMT, a powerful psychedelic compound that has the potential to send one’s soul flying through outer space. In 2015, Noé released Love, an erotic film filled with unsimulated sex scenes and psychological torment. It wasn’t until his film Climax (2018), an LSD-fueled danse macabre, that the filmmaker was generally praised for his unsettling work.

While, of course, I can’t see into Noé’s mind and I have no way of knowing to what extent he’s felt insecure about his work, especially after receiving so much negative criticism over the years, I do admire the artist’s tenacity as he lets nobody stop him from doing what he does best: creating meaningful art that teaches the viewer something about themselves, whether they realize it or not.

Before I conclude this essay, I’d like to talk about one final confrontational artwork, something that cuts so deep into one’s soul that only those with hearts of stone won’t be shedding tears. After the passing of his wife to cancer, musician Phil Elverum—who performs as Mount Eerie—found himself having to raise his baby daughter by himself. Elverum then recorded his eighth album A Crow Looked At Me (2017) to deal with his wife’s death. On this album we can hear Elverum struggling to sing his songs, and especially the first track, “Real Death,” sets a grim and sad tone that continues as a red thread throughout the record. The songs capture grief so honestly, hiding nothing, that I’m not even sure if it’ll comfort those who’ve also lost someone dear, or if it’ll cause one to relive painful moments from the past, because when I listen to this record, I feel a bit of both.

A Crow has to be one of the most confrontational pieces of art that I’ve experienced, and that’s why releasing this record and playing these songs seems like a great risk to me, as I can’t consider any of it “entertainment.” It’s impossible to put this on as background music, or to dance to it, or to sing along with it—it’s hard to listen to it at all. And yet, that’s precisely why this record is so powerful. Where all of the aforementioned works of art certainly are authentic and manage to illuminate different aspects of the human condition, A Crow is perhaps the only artwork that I can think of that transcends the notion of packaging an artwork as something to be enjoyed, feared, despised, loved, admired, analyzed, etc. A Crow is raw—it doesn’t try to glorify something, or to make people think. I couldn’t even say who this album is for. Neither is the purpose behind A Crow clear to me (for how does one comprehend another’s grief, let alone your own?). But Elverum genuinely bares his soul, and despite people at concerts yelling at him to play his older songs, the musician simply shrugs, and continues to invite his audience to look and see what’s in his heart by playing his music.

4. CONCLUSION

There are so many artists today that create easily consumable works of art—from the latest Marvel flick to whatever plastic pop song’s hot in the charts—but none of those works will stay with me for long. They don’t touch my heart, they don’t make me think, they don’t inspire me to become a better artist, and they keep following the same formula. As such, they are anything but risky. While not every piece of art has to be risky and it’s fine to soak in escapism every once in a while, I believe that taking risks can be rewarding.

To follow a trend is easy: just do what everyone else is doing. To start a trend is a matter of luck: not only the artist has to be in the right place at the right time, but so does the audience. But, honestly, I don’t think either of these is important. What’s really important to me is taking the greatest risk of all: embracing one’s own uniqueness among countless of copycats, thereby defying the expectations of the audience, and/or confronting the crowd with certain ideas, to reveal something about the human condition, and hopefully raise the consciousness (even if only slightly) of those who are willing to lose themselves in a risky work of art, whether it’s bright or dark. And with a little bit of luck, both the artist and the audience will discover true magic.

Acknowledgement

The cover illustration is created by the one and only Trevor Vreeburg of The Wabe! Check out The Wabe’s Facebook, Instagram and YouTube to support the band and follow their progress. This band is unstoppable!

Works Cited

Aristotle. “Poetics.” The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism, edited by Peter Simon, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010, 88-115.

Macnab, Geoffrey. “‘The rape had to be disgusting to be useful’.” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2002/aug/02/artsfeatures.festivals. Accessed 9 March 2019.


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