Henry Roberts believes
In an interview, David Foster Wallace said: “I had a teacher I liked who used to say that good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” It is all too tempting to try to apply this logic to every piece or medium of art. With that temptation comes the lure of not wanting to seem banal or uncritical, happily applying such a terse worldview to every piece of “good fiction” one can think of. But, the first temptation seems too attractive to ignore.
Of course, the prose of Kafka, the films of Lynch, the poetry of Poe are meant to disturb the reader or viewer; taking them out of their comfortable worlds to remind them that not everybody gets to live the way they do. While this can be achieved by ‘high art’ also (if people did not experience some form of pleasure from such works, why make them at all?), this is more commonly associated with the so-called ‘low arts’, and thus is treated more distantly and scornfully. While perhaps less aesthetically or thematically accomplished, if primetime sitcoms, popular music and romantic comedies can provide comfort to those looking for it or not, surely they can still be considered works of art.
While the above quote mentions specifically ‘fiction’, could it not be applied more broadly to ‘art’ to avoid contention? If we could consider, say, a Bruce Springsteen song to be a work of fiction it could easily be applied to the opening quotation, but it is much harder to apply the term ‘fiction’ to, say, a Beethoven quartet, obviously lyric-less and with no obvious surface-level ‘human’ element to it. But does it not too work the same way as a song by Springsteen? Does the music not directly correlate with the whole spectrum of human emotion?
The same, of course, is true of photography and documentary. Dorethea Lange’s photographs obviously find their best aesthetic asset in their disturbing qualities. Yet, these disturbing qualities come from the fact that what she is photographing is real. It is considered ‘good’ because it disturbs. It takes us out of our lives by showing us lives we struggle to contemplate; evoking guilt and empathy.
To comfort or disturb are of course not the only functions of art, nor are the two mutually exclusive. In some of the most disturbing yet masterfully-accomplished works of art, we may find great pleasure by virtue of witnessing great art. On first viewing, the sadomasochism of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet disturbs us. But why do we watch it again for a second time, and a third time, and so on? The film does not ‘comfort’ us in its most obvious sense, but it does provide pleasure through its aesthetic and thematic mastery. It reveals to us the hidden darkness of human beings, whilst also reminds us of the power of good cinema. It sets a benchmark for effective cinema, making us want to look away.
It is not up to us as recipients to decide whether something is art or not. This is up to he or she who created the work in question. Rather, it is up to us- as readers, viewers, listeners- to decide whether it is good or bad art. (We can of course distinguish between high and low art, chiefly by separating those with the primary aim to make money and those without.) But this is largely beside the point. Whether something is good or bad means little if they fulfil certain functions. Many a sitcom has been commissioned, only to crash after just a few episodes, with both critics and audiences responding negatively. Yet, if a programme has provided some form of comfort to just one of its viewers, is it not in some ways a work of art? (Granted, given the fiscal restrictions of mainstream television, a counterargument to this would be that putting money into a “better” show would provide a greater amount of comfort to a greater number of people over a greater length of time. However, to argue this to the face of he or she comforted by the bad programme in question would do little to tarnish their enjoyment).
Speaking personally, I believe that the function of art cannot be summed up in a sentence. It depends on the artists’ intentions, the public’s wants and needs, and a plethora of other factors and conditions so exhaustive and incomprehensible it would be impossible to list. However, I think something along the lines of ‘comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable’ comes pretty close. If art, any art, from high to low, visual to audio, Beethoven to Cheers, can temporarily take us out of our world, whether to shock us or to bring us some kind of peace, then that is art doing its job. It can force us to feel lonely, realise the futility of life and relationships. And it can allow us to avoid loneliness. There is of course a danger in spending too much time down such a rabbit hole: to miss out on ‘real life’. This is true for all of us. But, for many of us, life is found in art.