Sex, violence and horror, anyone?

20 September 2012 | Letter from the Editors

Gladiatorial entertainment: Mosaic from the Roman villa at Nennig (Germany), 2nd-3rd century AD. Picture: Wikipedia

In our last Letter, ‘Art for art’s sake’, we pondered how the efforts of making art (or design) profitable and exportable result, in public discourse, in the expectation that art (or design) should aid the development of business.

Not a lot is talked about how business can help art.

Art of course, is in essence ‘no use’, art doesn’t exist in order to increase the GDP (although nothing prevents it from doing so, of course).

The Finnish poet-author-translator Pentti Saarikoski (1937–1983) argued that art needs no apologies whatsoever: ‘What’s wrong with “Art for art’s sake”? – any more than bread for bread’s sake?

‘Art is art and bread is bread, and people need both if they are to have a balanced diet.’

Defining what is entertainment is and what is art is not always significant or necessary. The boundaries can be artificial, or superficial. But occasionally one wonders where the makers of ‘entertainment’ think it’s going. Entertainment for entertainment’s sake?

The Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) recently announced a new radio play series. It is, it said, a series that differs stylistically from traditional radio plays; it seeks a new and younger audience. The news item was headlined: ‘The new radio play drips with sex, violence and horror.’ In a television interview the director said that the radio dramaturge who had commissioned the series had described what the (new, younger) listeners should experience: ‘They should feel thrilled and horny all the time.’

Without venturing to comment on the quality of the manuscript or the broadcast, it seems preposterous that a publicly funded media should attempt to attract new (young) listeners by competing with the most ‘saleable’ tricks of the commercial trade, peddling entertainment. What’s worst, the assumption here is that what ‘all’ young people require from entertainment is sex, violence and horror. How pathetic is that?

Entertainment is created for the majority. But it is a poor interpretation of democracy that aims to meet only the ‘needs’ of the majority.

And what is the ‘majority’, what the supposed majority? If people interested in the arts are the minority, it must be noted that the number of people in this minority is not dwindling: there is no shortage of audiences for concerts, theatre, opera and art exhibitions, and more often than not they are interested in more than one art form.

What about literature and reading, then?

According to a new European Union report, one fifth of the 15-year old Europeans are unable to read or write properly: they do not have a functional understanding of what they read. Finland does well in this international comparison, but eight per cent of the young Finns tested showed weak reading skills. In the international PISA studies of learning (launched by the OECD in 1997; in these studies Finland has, until now at least, performed well) these young people scored level one or two on a scale of five. Twice as many of them were boys than girls.

What kind of future awaits these young people? The information society demands education and, again, the understanding of what is read. And what will be the future of literature like, if the ability to read dwindles?

In his new novel author Juha Seppälä’s protagonist, the slightly mysterious Mr Smith, bursts out into a long, darkly sarcastic monologue, directed at a writer he’s chosen to meet. In it he outlines the means of succeeding in ‘commercial writing’: ‘If there is no crime, at least there has to be a plot. Preferably both. – Otherwise the reader won’t know what he’s reading….’ and remains ‘in a state of uncertainty and helplessness, of non-satisfaction.’ Repeat. Readers learn to expect the same things again.’

‘Be for sale. If not, you’ll end up on the blacklist.’

The marketing of literature also trusts in part that a reader expects the same things again. The word ‘thriller’ seems to have a soothing effect on publishers and readers alike. Well, you know what to expect, there will be no serious disappointments resulting from your investment, what you buy is safe. (Sex, violence and horror maybe?)

But why do we have to know beforehand what we will experience in, say, reading a work of fiction? Are we afraid of finding out what we might like, or not like?

Isn’t that just the exciting prospect – finding out?

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