This actually is a much broader topic than just art, but I’m going to limit my criticism to just art because I think that’s inflammatory enough. I’ve mused before on why artists make the narrative choices they do and the unfortunate implications of those choices. Since I am probably guilty of unfortunate implications as much as the next aspiring artist, I want to tease out why those choices are made. I’ve written about conversations that may have happened and creative control in comic books, lambasted recent choices made by DC for their New 52, and wondered why so many writers and other artists choose to make their worlds so horrible.
And I wonder if those choices were made out of malice or ignorance. How much thought was behind the creation of a world full of torture at every turn? How much thought was behind deleting Stephanie Brown from existence? How much thought was behind writing a protagonist who was so vapid, so undeveloped, and so obviously little more than an Author Avatar? Perhaps because I am an optimist, I don’t think such choices and the resulting unfortunate implications were made out of malice (at least in most cases). I think (and this is less optimistic), unfortunate implications result from ignorance.
In fact, I posit that most unfortunate implications come about because artists are so caught up in their own life experiences that they simply have not thought about people who are not like themselves. I do this too, absolutely. I honestly think, for example, in the early days of superhero comics, the reason for so many white, male heroes was because the writers were white males. In the early days of Marvel, women were included almost as that token woman to be rescued. I’m not letting myself off the hook either. If someone describes a co-worker to me whom I have never seen in vague detail such as, “Chris is young but seems nice,” I am going to assume by default that Chris’s gender and ethnicity matches my own. When I actually meet Chris, and it turns out Chris is the other gender and not my own ethnicity, I have to readjust that initial mental image.
In fact, I tried this experiment on my friend, D. I do in fact have a new co-worker named Chris starting soon. So I said to D, “I have a co-worker named Chris starting work next week. What do you think Chris looks like?” D answered, “A petite blonde from California who spells her name ‘Kris.’” That took me completely aback and I asked D why that was his default mental image. His answer, “I’ve watched too many ’80s comedies.” So there you go; we are indeed the sum of our experiences and sometimes in strange ways. We have default settings, if you will, derived from our understanding of our worlds.
What we don’t understand doesn’t exist, or doesn’t matter, and that’s very unfortunate. “I don’t understand it, so it doesn’t exist,” is also lazy. The world of fiction is, by definition, full of people, places, events, and technology that do not exist. Writers make up worlds based on what they know, but they make it their own based on what they want. And often times that confuses the hell out of me, as I’ve already gone on about. Part of overcoming the tendency of unfortunate implications is to be aware of our own limitations as artists. We can grow past our initial impressions and learn to be more inclusive than the circle of our own little worlds.
It’s not necessarily easy. Like I said and wrote, I have a default setting when a new person is described to me. Everyone does. And people like things that are familiar to them. So we have to broaden our scope. And as artists (and as people, in a broader sense), we shouldn’t limit ourselves because it is hard. Certainly we shouldn’t lack for imagination. After all, if a man can fly and shoot laser beams out of his eyes, why can’t there be a visibly disabled superhero? Art is meant to push boundaries. There’s no excuse for staying so enclosed in the same world-view. Not only is this almost a sure path to unfortunate implications, but it also has destructive impacts on beloved, established serial art works.
So that’s my rant. This is a reminder to myself to try to move past my default settings, to try to expand my horizons, and hopefully try to avoid unfortunate implications in my writing.