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Be Persuasive - Not Punishing

23 Aug 2021
You don’t reach crowds by trying to make them uncomfortable. Verity Johnson lifts the lid on the uneasy artistic practice.

We’ve all sat through performances that are the artistic equivalent of being locked in a room with someone screaming at you for 90 minutes. 

No amount of cold sav, warm looks from your partner or nostalgically overpriced Maltesers can soothe the feeling that you’re being bludgeoned to death with whatever’s on stage. 

I was at a show recently where someone dismembered a dummy corpse, choked themselves on its faux entrails, and tore off their clothes to a soundtrack that had the same incessant shrillness of an apartment block’s fire alarm test. 

And, just in case the delicate subtext hadn’t been hammered into our trembling skulls, there was an accompanying monologue which scream-whispered “I WANT YOU TO FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE!” 

Needless to say, I was. 

Every one of my senses was flinching, retching and heaving long before the last faux-intestine had splattered the ground. And so too was everyone else, if the queasy exodus to the bar was anything to go by after. 

But as we all stood there, bracing ourselves for the second half, it occurred to me that this was what the artist wanted. 

Even if there hadn’t been a monologue, it was obvious they wanted us to be uncomfortable. You can always tell when someone wants their audience to suffer a bit.

It’s very in vogue at the moment to create artworks that actively aim to make the audience squirm. There’s a spiky, punishing note in a lot of the attempts though, as though we think the audience deserves to feel crap. We seem to think that if we make them feel shit enough, they’ll be persuaded by the message we were aiming for. 

Where do you draw the line?

Now I know you can say the role of the artist is to shock, provoke and jolt. Especially if you have an audience who needs to be shaken out of the pastel-toned comforts of middle-class life. I too want to storm the boujee barricades with riotous artistic enlightenment. 

But I don’t think it happens by making audiences uncomfortable. Often it just feels selfish. Like those times when you watch something and get the inescapable feeling that the artist’s saying, “well I went through all this crap - so now you should too.” 

But more fundamentally, setting out to provoke crowds often does the very opposite of what we were aiming for. Far from reaching them, it makes them turn off. 

Crowds know when artists want to make them suffer, in the same way we know when someone instinctively doesn’t like us. We’ve got primal wiring that flares up when we detect someone wants to rip our guts out, from caveman days to the modern stage. 

If the art becomes threatening, it means the last thing you want to do then is listen, absorb and respond to it. Regardless of how poignant the message may be.  

I’m not suggesting that all art should then be marshmallows and Hello Kitty kitsch. I still think discomfort has a powerful place in art - I just don’t think you can lead with it. 

Lull them in with laughter

One of the smartest things I was ever told about writing was to make people laugh before hitting them with something unpleasant. If you can get people in with humour, draw them into open-mindedness with charm or humour, then you can reach them.  

But the really, really smart thing to do is lead with the truth. 

That is kinda the whole point of art - to illuminate and illustrate personal truths so that they become universal truths that unite onlookers. But best of all, if you lead with the artistic truth, you actually do still make people uncomfortable. 

That’s how the truth works; it sets you free and irritates the hell out of you. The difference is this discomfort doesn’t feel like a personal affront, which makes it far too easy to dismiss. 

Instead, because it’s wrapped inside something honest, it has the sticking power to sit in your head until you’ve examined it properly. 

It makes us absorb and reflect - which was the whole persuasive aim of the art anyway. And we need these smarter approaches if we actually are going to change anyone’s mind. 

Shouting at a crowd doesn’t engage anyone except the people who already agree with us.

Which would be fine, except art is all about reaching people who don’t already think like us. Often the ones who think we’re fruit loops. We need to woo them cleverly, lull them into open-mindedness, and only then will they actually listen to what we’re trying to say.


Disagree with Verity? If you're interested in writing a response piece, email [email protected] with your take.