Essay

Isn't There Enough Darkness in the World Already? by Neal Auch

Flowers of Evil: print now  available for purchase .

Flowers of Evil: print now available for purchase.

Isn’t there enough darkness in the world already?

This is a question that has come up from time to time since the inception of this project. It is almost always asked rather pointedly -- a chastisement for what's perceived as a preoccupation with luridness -- and it is usually best ignored. (I’m almost always happy to discuss my work with folks who are genuinely interested, but it seems to me this particular sentiment results more from a knee-jerk reaction to being shocked than it does from a good faith engagement with the meaning of the work.)

Certainly the idea behind this question is fairly superficial and probably doesn’t merit deep dive into philosophy — need we really defend the idea that art can be provocative? Nevertheless, I do think that there’s an implicit assumption behind the titular question/critique that is interesting.

Still Life with Peeled Lemon: print now  available for purchase .

Still Life with Peeled Lemon: print now available for purchase.

The question “isn’t there enough darkness” seems to presuppose that the best antidote to the miseries of the world is the saccharine: feel good comedy, pictures of flowers, uplifting stories, etc. The question “isn’t there enough darkness“ seems to presuppose that the dissemination of dark art somehow adds to the misery of the world, rather than detracts from it. The question “isn’t there enough darkness” seems to presuppose that an interest in the macabre somehow makes the world a darker place, rather than inuring the viewer against the inescapable ugliness of the world.

I think this idea misses the mark. I think the idea that escape from darkness is a solution for societal ill is deeply, deeply naive. And, finally, I think that this kind of sentiment profoundly misunderstands the distinction between art and entertainment.

Rather than focus on the macabre or the grotesque, let’s take the experience of sadness as a representative case study for the function of dark art. There is a world of difference between the sadness provoked by watching the nightly news, and experiencing sadness as beauty in the prose of Beckett (or other great writers).

The difference between these two experiences is anxiety.

The Facebook feed and 24 hour cable news cycle that inundate our lives are carefully honed to maximize anxiety, while the philosophy of memento mori art that informs my work is intended to accomplish quite the opposite.

Still Life with Apples and Pig Hearts: print now  available for purchase .

Still Life with Apples and Pig Hearts: print now available for purchase.

There's an idea in psychology called "Terror Management Theory" that seeks to explain certain kinds of defensive human thinking as resulting from awareness and fear of death. There are loads of peer reviewed studies that claim to connect such existential dread with prejudice, tribalism, and attraction to a certain kind of "charismatic" political figure. (I would hardly be the first person to suggest a role for this effect in the last US election...) For my part, I tend to think of macabre art as a counter measure. In dark times I would argue that we need more dark art, not less.

And, hey, speaking of the world needing more dark art, it just so happens that I sell dark art! Check out my online store! (Hot damn, I daresay that I nailed that transition from philosophy to advertising with all the grace of Alex Jones going from talking about how Obama made the frogs gay to hawking homeopathic boner pills…)