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Atrocities Blamed on the Arts

July 23, 2012

Opinion: Denver shootings

As Batman lit up the screen in a Denver cinema last week, a young man wearing body armour and a gas mask stood up, threw two gas canisters into the stalls and opened fire. Twelve innocent people were killed and 58 wounded in an act of horrific violence that defies explanation. But an explanation is what the survivors and families of the victims need. Reasoning behind the evil; something to explain the cold-blooded murder.

And, as is so often the case, some parts of the world’s media were quick to apportion blame to the Batman trilogy. Director Christopher Nolan gave what had essentially been a camp superhero romp a realistic edge that seemed to mirror current world issues. The film was accused of glamourising violence – the nihilistic attitude of The Joker for example – and ultimately influencing the cinema massacre.

Blaming the arts for acts of horrific violence is not new and examples across cinema, music and literature are manifold. Born Innocent, a 1974 film dealing with the physical, psychological and sexual abuse of a teenage girl, showed a girl violated with a broom handle. The controversial film was later accused of inspiring a brutal attack on an 8 year old by a group of girls. In 2002, Marilyn Manson was blamed for the Columbine massacre by reactionary politicians and religious leaders. And Texan alt-rockers Drowning Pool felt obliged to release a statement condemning the shooting of 6 people and US congresswoman Gabrielle Gliffords, when it emerged that their 2001 hit ‘Bodies’ had been a youtube favourite of the offender, Jared Loughner. Even Bugs Bunny and Road Runner have been accused of desensitizing children to violence.

Yet blaming the arts only serves to excuse the perpetrator. It undermines a complex explanation – childhood trauma or mental health issues for example – and replaces it with reactionary one-dimensional reasoning. However, it must be conceded that art can be incredibly influential, in any medium. It might not be the root cause, but few would deny that it has the ability to inspire ideas – good and bad. Disturbed minds are just as malleable to violent ideas in books, films, and music than those with a healthy amount of morals.

The Catcher in the Rye provides an interesting case study. The rebellious and blasphemous protagonist, Holden Caulfield, in J.D Salinger’s classic, meant the book has been dogged with censorship over the past 50 years. And those hostile to the classic have had a number of cases to back up their argument. None more infamous than when Mark David Chapman was found with a copy of the book upon arrest after assassinating John Lennon. Inside was a scribbled note reading “Dear Holden Caulfield, From Holden Caulfield, This is my statement”. But how can Salinger be blamed? As an author, it was not his responsibility to censor. It is not the duty of any artist or creative to be a moral arbiter. Instead, it is their job to entertain, to push boundaries, or to challenge attitudes.

Batman certainly fulfills this criterion. The tragic event in the Denver cinema is understandably now indelibly linked to The Dark Knight Rises, but any notion of blame shouldn’t be.

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