Three weeks after the United States of America was overwhelmed with grief at the murderous rage of a 20 year old man who went on killing spree ending the lives of 26 people, including 20 children in addition to his own mother and then himself, the violent, horrific film Texas Chainsaw 3D, featuring an antagonist called Leatherface, who wears a mask made of human skin has topped the US box office making over $20 million in its first weekend release. The film is released by Lionsgate Pictures, and is directed by John Luessenhop and written by Debra Sullivan and Adam Marcus. I only mention these details because people ought to know who the purveyors of violent entertainment are. It is the 7th film in a series which portrays extreme, sadistic violence perpetrated by one human being on another.
The original movie, released in the 1970s, was refused a certificate by the British Board of Film Classification. They felt its themes of sadistic terror, extreme violence and aberrations of bizarre human behaviour unsuitable as a form of entertainment. The BBFC certainly showed a balanced duty of care for the moral well being of its society and local communities in protecting people from gratuitous, sadistic and sickening violence which masquerades as entertainment under the so-called Horror genre. In sharp contrast the United States Supreme court ruled in 2011 that individual States did not have the right to regulate the sale of graphically violent video games to children, arguing that governments do not have the power to “restrict the ideas to which children are exposed”. Initially I was puzzled by this ruling because in in Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15, 93 S. Ct. 2607, 37 L. Ed. 2d 419 (1973), the Supreme Court concluded that a work is obscene and can be regulated if it appeals to a viewer’s prurient interest; portrays sexual conduct in a patently offensive way; and lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. The Court further ruled that interpretations of this definition may vary across the United States and that communities may apply their own local standards to determine obscenity. ( Encyclopedia of American Law, 2008) However, the above ruling was one based on sexual behaviour not on gratuitous violent behaviour, although it can be argued that a causal link exists between the kind of violence portrayed in Texas Chainsaw 3D and sexual violence perpetrated against others. Art it seems does imitate life. It reflects a society’s accepted standards and values and what it holds and deems sacrosanct for the well being of its members. While it might appear that in the United States of America, despite its alarming statistics of sexual violence against women, men and children, prurient, aberrant and explicit sexual behaviour is less acceptable than sadistic violent behaviour, neither is acceptable in a civil society.
Social institutions, whether they are courts of law, educational institutions, or film classification boards act as control mechanisms in our societies. The principle being that they regulate the kind of information which makes for a functional, as opposed to a dysfunctional society. Schools are examples where the kind of information along with the flow of information are carefully regulated, and for very good reasons. Their inclusion and exclusion of information reflects the kinds of values a society embraces and the vision it has for its future. For example, there is much debate and argument on the standard and quality of movies, novels and stories which should or should not be included in a liberal arts program.
A film like Texas Chainsaw 3D lacks any kind of intrinsic social value and if none of the films had ever been made we would not have suffered any great social or cultural loss. However, the series of films have been made, along with thousands of other excessively violent films, video and online games. And communities and societies have suffered great losses. Research into the effects of violent films, television programs and video games on young children suggests that they can develop more aggressive behaviours in their teenage and late adolescent years. Jack Kornfield’s (1994) alarming statistic that our children “see on average eighteen thousand murders and violent acts on TV before they finish high school” is astounding and alarming. He writes further “On this earth as I write today, more than forty wars and violent revolutions are killing thousands of men, women and children. We have had 115 wars since World War 2 and there are only 165 countries in the world. Not a good track record for the human species. Yet what are we to do?” (Kornfield, 1994, p.25)
It’s an urgent question. What are we to do? Wait until another deeply disturbed person-a product of a particular culture and society-goes on another murderous rampage?
It seems to me that our societies have become so dysfunctional at a bureaucratic level that urgent discussions on returning to values which uphold the dignity and respect of human life have all but been lost. In trusting the branches of governments to look after our moral, social and political affairs we have given up any sense of personal moral and social responsibility. I am reminded of Adolf Eichmann’s defence when charged with crimes against humanity. He argued that he was not responsible in any way for the deaths of millions of Jews during World War 2. His job was one of a loyal government civil servant who had to manage moving masses of people from one country to another or from one town or city to another. Any consequences, immoral or otherwise which derived from his duty statement as an employee of the State were irrelevant to him and he argued that he was innocent of the crimes against humanity and not responsible for the deaths of any concentration camp prisoners.
The World in general, and the United States in particular did some soul searching after the Sandy Hook massacre-opinions were expressed, theories abounded and reasons were sought and offered as to why a young man would kill so many so violently. The killer’s disturbed mental health was a key argument put forward, and perhaps this was the case. Or is it more to do with the collective mental health of a Nation or any Nation for that matter, which seeks a high degree of gratification through various forms of violent and horrifying entertainment?
Encyclopedia of American Law. (2008, March 3). Philosophical Arguments for Censorship. Retrieved January 7, 2013, from West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2.: http://legal-dictionary.Philosophical+arguments+for+censorship
Kornfield, J. A Path with Heart, Bantam Books, New York, 1994
Thanks for covering the topic. The influence of media on criminalistic behavior is undeniable.
Banning works of art is problematic though. One may see a work as “lack(ing) any kind of intrinsic social value”, while another may see it as a profound exposition of inner feelings. Shakespeare’s works definitely dealt with violence (remeber the scene where MacDuff carries Macbeth’s head after he cuts it off!) – should Macbeth also be banned?
The point is, banning works of art is a dangerous and slippery slope. Artistic merit is subjective and it certainly shouldn’t be in the hands of the state to decide where it is lacking – this artistic freedom is a pillar of civil society.
There is no sure foundation set on blood,
No certain life achieved by other’s death.
King John (4.2.104-5)
Truth will come to light,
murder cannot be hid long.
The Merchant of Venice (2.2.76-7)
Shakespeare’s tragedies show the moral decline of individuals and society when love and virtue is largely absent, and vices (such as selfishness, jealousy, anger, greed, arrogance, cruelty and tyranny) rule.
Texas Chainsaw 3D does none of this-it portrays abject terror and cruelty as virtue and embraces moral decline as an ideal. As for Art on an aesthetic level it can be judged objectively – Shakespeare’s plot, writing and themes in Macbeth tell a moral tale of a man who chooses evil to gain temporal power and suffers the consequences. In Texas Chainsaw 3D evil is celebrated as an alternative to all that is good. It seems to me the slippery slope has already begun…what masquerades as Art is often material caused to offend, or as some would argue to ‘disrupt and provoke’. Such an understanding of Art is false and is designed to undermine civil society. Real Art expresses Truth, Beauty and in some instances the moral decline of humanity (as in Shakespeare’s writing or Picasso’s Guernica) but redemption is never absent.
My point was more about i) the principle of artistic freedom, ii) the importance of subjectivity in judging artistic merit, and iii) whether the state should ban works of art it finds undesirable, rather than the merits of Texas Chainsaw 3D in particular. It seems you are arguing that yes the state should get involved and is in a position to judge artistic merit.
Maybe a more apt example to illustrate my point would be hip hop. The art form has long been criticized for the violence portrayed in the genre and politicians such as Dan Quayle and C. Delores Tucker tried to ban 2Pac albums they considered glorified violence while the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the National Organization for Women tried to do the same to Eminem’s albums. Years later, we see books written about the same rappers, universities like Columbia offering courses studying the genre and professors like Dr. Cornell West interviewing rappers like Jay-Z. As the art form proliferated, an increasing number of academics recognized the artistic merit of the genre. Had the politicians been successful in banning these works of art, we would have lost this important piece of culture and along with it stories of ambition, oppression, inner conflicts and a whole lot more.
So this is the point – if we give the state the authority to ban works of art, we may lose art that at one point in time is deplored by the intelligentsia but which later becomes recognized as an increasing number of people open their minds to it. I would say we err on the side of freedom rather than elitist judgement.
In some respects the State is the arbiter of the flow of informaiton in the society over which it is responsible. It has to be, and this is achieved through its various institutions. What is considered tasteful and of artistic merit is arguable as you point out. For example, when Andre Serrano urinated in a jar in which he had placed a crucifix and called it Art ,and when the Danish newspapers mocked the Prophet Mohammed and called it satircal Art, there was outrage expressed by populations who clearly were offended. These are examples of attempts at notoriety, they are sensationalist and designed to provoke and incite anger and hatred rather than reflect on the truth and beauty to be found in spiritual traditions. Equally so with the basic genre of Hip Hop with its obscenities and lyrics of hatred towards difference-what Artisitc merit is there in inciting hatred towards otehrs to uphold a cause? There are other ways to achieve this I think.. Cultural Literacy is taught in many Universities and Colleges throughout the world. It may well teach about Hip Hop and invite purveyors of the sound to discuss its history and origins; however what it lacks is any attempt through a critical literacy to understand the broader, deeper and meaningful reason why there is a need to act out through the genre. Why spend a life time shouting out anger, hatred and shame? Tachers of Cultural Literacy tend to be moral relativists, somewhat unable to to provide their students with a clear understanding of what is right and wrong and what is appropriate behaviour and to inculcate in them, positive thoughts which help one through difficult times. An elitist I may be, but I don’t think I am. I want a broader, critical enquiry into why we act, behave and do the things we do. I also want to teach my students about Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, St Augustine along with many other great thinkers both men and women from across cultures on what they have had to say on the immeasurable and insightful ethical and epistemological questions which have occupied our minds throughout the ages. We live in shallow times and the closing down of minds is a frightening spectre to consider for future generations.
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