Dangerous Literature by Jared A. Carnie

One of the greatest tricks that’s been pulled on the culturally engaged in the last few decades is the idea that your taste in art is somehow related to your moral quality as a human being. It’s given us a way to exercise our sense of moral superiority without having to actually think about anything morally important.

We live in a society where our tax goes to blowing up kids on the other side of the planet. We drink Coke and buy Nestle products and use our iPhones despite knowing fully well the direct immoral actions of those companies. But that’s not where we switch on our sense of morality. No. We use taste in art. Yes, you may watch Eastenders on BBC One, but I watch documentaries on BBC Four, and so, somehow, on some level, I am better than you. You know, I listen to The Smiths thank you very much, I’ve not got time for Adele. And that tells you everything you need to know about me as a person. After all, remember what Martin Luther King said: I look to a day when people will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their record collection.

But here’s the thing, art can be morally important. It can be dangerous. It can be transgessive. It can be revolutionary. It’s just hard to remember that when it’s all lumped together as ‘art’ or ‘culture’ or ‘literature’; when the ideas of books are stripped away and it’s left only as a thing to be used in a high-brow discussion about other things in an abstract way. We live in a world where Shakespeare has been so universitified (sorry – I’m sure you know what I mean – the way Shakespeare been adopted almost as a watermark of intellectualism) that his own background would have ruled him out from properly understanding his work. And that happens across the board. Art is reduced or mangled or marginalised so as to not detract from the general way of things. Even if you take relatively recent novels that ended up being cultural phenomenons, books like American Psycho or Trainspotting, I don’t think those authors were coming from a perspective of ‘hey, you know what’s great? Everything about the way society is!’ But the way they’re pitched to you isn’t as an alternative viewpoint to explore, instead it’s the idea that you’re somehow making a statement about who you are by reading them. You get to congratulate yourself for choosing to read this rude book over that other book which isn’t anywhere near as rude. Now you’re different than people that haven’t read it. And better. And that’s that*. The books get totally removed from the fact that human beings created them, and that great art is often generated by a dis-satisfaction with the way society is, not just the way art is.

Think of your favourite writer. Whether it’s Harper Lee or Bukowski or Hemingway or Plath or Dostoevsky or Highsmith or Ballard or Wilde or Dickens or Baldwin or Kafka or Wallace, I’m willing to bet, whoever it is, that they were writing about humanity, and generally, in one way or another, the sense was that, humanity, so far, you’ve just not been good enough. But these books aren’t allowed to be living ideas about society. Or humanity. They’re books. Books to be compared. Books to be analysed and discussed in the context of other books. Books for the culture guardians to rank and re-publish.

And here’s why. The people that tell you what art is great? The people that decide what art will be considered part of the canon? Those are the people who have benefitted from how things are. Society suits them. It’s worked for them. That’s why they’re in that position. The wealthy and the privileged get to decide what has artistic value or cultural importance and put all their energy into trying to preserve the canon as it is. Because if the walls fall, and these other ideas become understood and accepted, maybe everything else unravels too.

You know how the revolutionary Bob Marley is now just a loveable stoner? The way Boris Johnson can try and celebrate the 40th anniversary of punk? They want to reduce these voices of rebellion to disposable, novelty products, so that they stop being about the ideas that are contained within them.

It’s why you get things like this: Private Eye (which, let’s face it, for a supposedly satirical magazine, is as undangerous as the written word comes) pretty much saying that a woman of colour who wins a literary award can not have done so because of the merit of their work. It’s because places like Private Eye are part of an old system that has tried very hard for a very long time to draw lines on where art should begin and art should end – particularly with regards to the sorts of people art should and shouldn’t come from. And some writers, before you even get to their work, simply don’t match up to this narrow criteria they’ve tried to impose. The staid and unadventurous know, deep down, that the horizons of art are far and wide, and potentially world-changing. Not just in some abstract sense, but in a real, vivid way. And that’s why different voices being heard is a brilliant thing, not just for art but for everyone. It’s not because there’s more scope for documentaries on BBC4, but because it means more voices are being heard, more people are being represented, and those voices, often simply by speaking, are broadening the range of ideas out there, and are contributing to the notion that we can challenge the narrow lanes of thought we are presented with. Which, all in all, doesn’t exactly help maintain the status quo. So I guess it’s not all that surprising when those who have benefitted from the status quo aren’t too supportive of the idea of all these alternative voices being out there.

And that’s the problem with making taste in art a moral issue. It’s distracting from what really matters. It’s important that people who feel disenfranchised, those who feel society has let them down, not just experience a piece of art and feel morally satisfied that they’ve found an alternative to the mainstream. It’s vital that if we find an alternative way of thinking, we allow ourselves to be inspired by it as human beings, to act and build upon it, and to use it to inform our own sense of perspective and morality in the world outside of Art.

* Yes, I know it’s up to you whether you choose to take art to heart, carry it with you and allow it to inform yourself and expand the way you view the world. I’ve no doubt that you do exactly that, and that is beautiful, but that doesn’t mean that’s what they want you to do. That’s why it’s even more important that you do
Jared A. Carnie lives in Sheffield. His debut novel, Waves, is available now from Urbane Publications. He can be found at www.jaredacarnie.com
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