The arts in America are dying. If anyone is to save them, then the first thing they must do is overcome disgust.
Psychology breaks human personality down into five basic aspects: Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Openness to Experience, Extroversion and Neuroticism. What we call art or creativity is rooted in our openness to experiencing new things, which in turn dictates how much material we have to draw on when we endeavor to create something of our own. We can experience in many ways, ranging from reading books and talking with other people, to traveling new places and eating new foods.
The primary obstacle to experiencing new things is neuroticism, the tendency for the mind to focus on negative circumstances or outcomes. Neuroticism dictates how aware we are of fear and disgust, the part of our minds that warns of potential danger to us or those we care about. The stronger our neuroticism, the more things wrong we will see in a new experience, the more bad outcomes will dominate our expectations.
Neither neuroticism nor openness to experience are inherently good or bad. Overindulging in either one can have bad consequences, ignoring either one can have equally bad consequences. But in the arts, a little less neuroticism than normal is undoubtedly a good thing.
In just the last year of creative work, I have been in theater productions that involved incredible amounts of sweating and bad smelling costumes (as one friend of mine memorably put it, “Fame is stinky”), spent days with ink stains on my fingers from failed experiments in illustration and researched dozens of unpleasant subjects ranging from medical realities to nasty tribal rituals for stories I am percolating. Creative endeavors are rarely scary – although some forms of performance art can be – but they are very frequently gross before they are beautiful. The lotus flower flourishes among muck and grime. Famed animator Don Bluth once said you can show children pretty much anything, no matter how scary or gross, and they’ll be fine as long as you give them a happy ending. Unfortunately, we now live in a society that would rather be spared disgust than struggle through to the beauty at the end.
There’s a new spirit afoot in our culture, a spirit of disgust and revilement. You can see it at work every time we cower before media like Goblin Slayer or Shield Hero that shows us the unpleasant aspects of the human experience, every time artists like Kevin Hart have old statements now outside the orthodoxy used to run them out of jobs or off platforms, every time performers like Chris Pratt are taken to task for their social circles or personal beliefs. Overcome with disgust, our culture shuns these stories, these people, and either runs from them or attacks them. What they won’t do is engage with them, try to learn from their stories or performances, good or bad.
As a result our culture is suffering.
There’s a lot of disgusting things in the great works of literature. 1984 and Brave New World were rife with sexual exploitation, Shakespeare’s works were incredibly crass (for their time, and even now in some respects), Edgar Allen Poe was fascinated with the ways people abuse and torment one another, even Disney films show us a mother murdered before her child’s eyes. And for the love of all that is good, have you seen that pawn shop scene from The Brave Little Toaster? But there were hard lessons in those dark warnings about human nature, and the bright points that frequently followed them took us to heights far above the depths. Art gains its power from truth, and the truth is disgusting and frightful as often as it is glorious and joyful.
There are just not as many powerful but messy stories coming out these days. A film like Casablanca that portrayed the contradictory, often messy characters who couldn’t bring themselves to fight Nazis until after the climax of the movie, who in some cases were willing to give up the fight just to get a little personal satisfaction, would not find much approval today. Now, Nazis are gross and everyone knows better. It’s easy to forget how complicated and messy things were in the late 1930s, and how unclear the evil to come was.
Neither could a film like Blazing Saddles be made. There was a movie grossly insensitive to the stereotypes and prejudices of its day. By acting so callously, that movie managed to turn demeaning caricatures into a joke, fighting to rob them of power and put them in perspective, suggesting things will work out better if we just stop taking ourselves so seriously. Good humor is a weakness now, blinding us to the fact that we’re being made impure. Then it was a weapon in the face of absurd notions others held, and we can’t bear to think of the days we engaged with those notions at all.
We’re starving our culture, thinking we’re keeping it pure. In the end, we’re just whittling it down. While I love some of the Marvel movies, they’re practically the only movies of note being made today. And they’re by and large bright, shiny, optimistic movies, less concerned with the frailties of the human condition than with its zenith. There’s nothing wrong with that, but a diet of only bread leaves you with scurvy. Our arts have been purified. There’s nothing disgusting in them anymore. And it’s left our creativity horribly stunted.