Beware of 'Dangerous' Art

Beware of 'Dangerous' Art

It’s strange to think of queer, ostensibly progressive writers sharing any ideological space at all with Donald Trump, but in fact, they overlap at least once on a media-criticism Venn diagram. The intersection is at the word “dangerous.”

“You talk about racist. Hollywood is racist,” Trump said to the press earlier this month. “What they’re doing with the kind of movies they’re putting out, it’s actually very dangerous for our country.” Lest you be deceived into believing that Trump joined liberals in calling out Hollywood’s lack of diversity, reliance on stereotypes, and tendencies to tell stories about race through the viewpoints of white characters, his comments arrived as the controversy about The Hunt reached its boiling point. He never mentioned the now-canceled movie by name, but an earlier tweet thread about “the movie coming out” highly suggested that his target was The Hunt, whose premise rattled Republicans for its satirical portrayal of liberals hunting conservatives.

Way, way on the other side of the political divide, two movies released this year containing trans themes have also been called “dangerous.” “Why Adam Is a Dangerous Film for Trans People,” reads the headline for The Advocate’s review of trans director Rhys Ernst’s controversial film about a cisgender high school student who impersonates a trans dude to woo a slightly older queer woman. Belgian director Lukas Dhont’s Girl sparked even more fervent ire, in part because its director and star are both cis, but also because of its general darkness. “It’s the most dangerous movie about a trans character in years,” wrote critic Oliver Whitney in The Hollywood Reporter. For Vanity Fair, K. Austin Collins wrote that Girl is “a curiously unjust, myopic, even dangerous movie.” In the headline for its story on the controversy, the New York Times asked, “Is a Film About a Transgender Dancer Too ‘Dangerous’ to Watch?”

In criticism, there’s almost always a better word than “dangerous.”

The precise dangers portended are rarely specified—after all, these are movie reviews, not prophecies. Context and inference suggest that these movies are dangerous because they may help facilitate the continued marginalization of vulnerable populations via negative stereotypes and cynical world views. There’s a palpable anxiousness over the noxious effects of ideas. Often, it seems like “dangerous” is a synonym for “really bad,” a way to telegraph that the movie’s functional politics don’t align with those the writer (or speaker) feels should prevail in civilized culture.

But it is that lack of precision and the flair of melodrama that comes with “dangerous” that makes it such an abysmal word choice. It pushes reviews over the top and makes them harder to take seriously. The word is like a flashing light: Danger! Danger! In criticism, there’s almost always a better word than “dangerous.”

This is not to call out specific writers, nor is it to dismiss the entire content of their critiques. And as much as it makes me cringe whenever I read it, I think I understand why concerned critics seem to be so fond of “dangerous.” Social media takes the adage of “everyone’s a critic” and tacks on “…with a potential platform,” and has rendered formalized criticism a medium whose relevance is withering. And so, its purveyors are attempting to will it into significance with extreme language and piping hot takes. “Dangerous” ups the urgency, presenting criticism as if it were metro news locating specific, physical harm that must be avoided by all means.

In recent years, many movies (and some shows) and the ideas contained within have been deemed “dangerous” to suggest that they should be avoided: Call Me By Your Name, La La Land, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Nightingale, Zero Dark Thirty, Inside Out, American Sniper, God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness, Unplanned, A Star is Born, Game of Thrones, Hidden Figures, Crazy Rich Asians, and BlacKkKlansman among them. Beauty and the Beast is “the most dangerous” Disney movie, according to the University of East Anglia’s Dr. Victoria Cann, “because the Beast always feels on the verge of violence,” and Belle has Stockholm Syndrome. The R-rating for trans-teen flick 3 Generations was “dangerous,” according to GLAAD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis, because “it sends the message that something about being transgender is somehow not appropriate for children.” (Ellis and GLAAD, who teamed up with the movie’s distributor Harvey Weinstein just months before the sexual harassment and rape allegations effectively canceled his career, willfully ignored that the movie contained five instances of the word “fuck,” which clearly had more to do with its rating than its storyline; once they were edited out, the movie was reclassified as PG-13.)

Regarding HBO’s once-planned (now seemingly canceled) Confederate, activist Bree Newsome said “it’s dangerous to present alternative histories when people are still not clear on the facts.” She was commenting not on the show but its premise of portraying a United States in which the Civil War ended in stalemate and slavery remained legal. Her opinion was based on a widely criticized press release announcing the series. The rush to judgement well before any film could roll was described by Newsday’s Lane Filler as “a dangerous campaign” against the show. If you were listening to everyone who had something to say about Confederate when it was announced two years ago, and God help you if you were, each path was dangerous. We couldn’t live with it or without it, depending on the commentator.

The current rise of “dangerous” as a pejorative has coincided with social media’s rise and the imperative of performative wokeness.

This, I think, illustrates that the word “dangerous” has so many meanings and so many implications depending on which side of whatever debate or divide you are on, that it means nothing. It wasn’t always that way. The current rise of “dangerous” as a pejorative has coincided with social media’s rise and the imperative of performative wokeness on the internet. Just a few years back, in 2011, Mental Floss published a piece on “9 Really Dangerous Pieces of Art” (as in art that has actually injured people) that opened with a caveat: “Normally when artwork is described as ‘dangerous,’ it means it challenges the viewer to think and feel outside their comfort zone.” Such a definitive, optimistic explanation of the word seems so quaint in retrospect. Premiere’s listicle “The 25 Most Dangerous Movies Ever Made” was intended to celebrate, not warn against. “They are galvanizing experiences that place squarely in your face all the stuff Hollywood usually presumes you go to the movies to get away from,” read the intro copy, which concluded with: “Thank God for them.”

“Dangerous” occasionally pops up even today as a compliment. The Guardian called Paul Verhoeven’s 2016 rape-revenge flick Ellea dangerous delight,” and described HBO’s Euphoria as “rather daring, perhaps even dangerous.” NPR said 2015’s Get Hard was “dangerous,” but in a way that may surprise you if you’re familiar with the accusations of homophobia that film faced upon its release: “It allows the filmmakers to play hot-button bingo with race, class, and the prison-industrial complex in ways that feel dangerous without being crass.” Critics calling 2018’s Hereditarydangerous” agreed that was a good thing indeed for such an unpredictable, unsettling film.

“Dangerous” has even been used as marketing, perhaps to lure with the forbidden and to suggest that in addition to being potentially destructive, danger is also fun and thrilling. Milo Yiannopoulos dubbed his 2015 campus speaking trek The Dangerous Faggot Tour, a trollish re-appropriation of feedback he’d received (often by calculation). His 2017 book was called simply Dangerous. Now that he’s a non-entity, having been de-platformed and effectively banished from the media that once covered his antics breathlessly, this title is hilarious. Elsewhere, N.W.A. became known as “the world’s most dangerous group” after Dr. Dre pronounced his crew as such in the interlude “Kamurshol” on their 1990 EP 100 Miles and Runnin’. The group’s many critics who attempted to silence, censor, and blame crimes on them, seemed to agree. Here, the divide wasn’t over the meaning of the word “dangerous,” but whether the supposed danger was good or bad, enticing or repellant. The prospect of danger continues to attract music fans: Careers of rappers like 6ix9ine took off only after news of their crimes circulated. YNW Melly’s “Murder on My Mind” exploded in popularity after he was charged in February in connection with the deaths of his friends Anthony “YNW Sakchaser” Williams, 21, and Christopher “YNW Juvy” Thomas Jr. His charges? Two counts of first-degree murder.

“It’s always flattering that people think your book might be dangerous, because it creates an air of glamour around it,” British author Melvin Burgess told The Guardian. Burgess’s 1996 YA novel Junk was controversial upon release as people feared that his depictions of heroin use would serve as a how-to manual for teens. “Like most ‘dangerous’ books, it is in fact only a threat to people who are themselves dangerous—people who want to control others. If you want to decide what’s right and what’s wrong, to be obeyed, then any book that assumes people can make up their own minds is dangerous—but only to yourself and your little clique.” The history of books being banned and burned for their perceived dangers is vast. Kevin Birmingham’s 2014 chronicle of the circuitous path to publication taken by James Joyce’s Ulysses and the furor it caused was titled The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Here, the use of “dangerous” was multivalent, not merely describing the assessment of those who would have the book banned. Wrote Birmingham:

Ulysses was dangerous because it accepted no hierarchy between the empirical and the obscene, between our exterior and interior lives. It was dangerous because it demonstrated how a book could abolish secrecy’s power. It showed us that secrecy is the tool of doomed regimes and that secrets themselves are, as Joyce wrote, “tyrants, willing to be dethroned.” Ulysses dethroned them all.

There is also art that has been unambiguously harmful to its participants. This is the purest dangerous art, and it has absolutely nothing to do with art that is deemed “dangerous” in today’s media-speak. Seventy people were injured during the making of the 1981 film about large cats, Roar, the so-called “most dangerous movie ever made.” Uma Thurman was hurt on the set of Kill Bill in a stunt director Quentin Tarantino urged her to do; she called the circumstances “negligent to the point of criminality.” Brandon Lee died after being shot with a prop gun on the set of The Crow. Artists like Marina Abramovic and Throbbing Gristle incorporated self-harm and -mutilation into their performances. All of that is so straightforwardly “dangerous,” no thinkpiece is needed.

“Dangerous” could also justifiably be used to describe art that has afflicted its audience physiologically. There’s that which triggers the so-called Stendhal syndrome, named after the 18th-19th century writer Stendhal, who experienced “palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves,’” amongst the tombs of Niccolò Machiavelli, Michelangelo and Galileo Galilei, at the Basilica of Santa Croce. Reading, per Leah Price’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, was once thought to provoke indigestion, gout, and vertigo, among conditions. Chuck Palahniuk wrote an essay about people passing out during public readings of the short story “Guts” from his book Haunted. I fainted when I read it, too, though I was sitting down, thereby curbing the story’s apparently innate danger, I guess. Incredibles 2 has also been described as “dangerous” for people prone to seizures because of its use of strobing lights. And who could argue with that?

A huge problem with ‘dangerous’ is that it assumes everyone absorbs art directly and without question, when in reality, art is a subjective experience that’s unique for each of its spectators.

These examples are not “dangerous” in the abstract way that many critics who employ the word today mean when they say “dangerous.” It is rare that anything proves to be. Even the most criminally influential movies, your Clockwork Oranges or Natural Born Killers, provoke a direct, violent response in a fraction of a percentage of their overall viewers. Taxi Driver inspired John W. Hinckley Jr., to shoot Ronald Reagan, but the movie’s millions of other viewers were far less galvanized by it. And though it’s impossible to say for sure, it is likely that if Taxi Driver wasn’t the catalyst for Hinckley’s assassination attempt, something else would have been for some other attempt at a violent crime. A huge problem with “dangerous” is that it assumes everyone absorbs art directly and without question, when in reality, art is a subjective experience that’s unique for each of its spectators.

Furthermore, “dangerous” is only an assessment that can be truly determined in retrospect. D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was dangerous for being able to resuscitate interest in the Ku Klux Klan, though at the time of its release, no one could have predicted that outcome and virtually no one would have had the means or drive to, anyway. Jaws was dangerous for shark populations, but it wasn’t until years later that people got their dangers straight and realized en masse that what’s dangerous for sharks is dangerous for them as well. (Respect your local apex predator.) Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why provides a rare example to suggest the warnings were justified. It was deemed a “dangerous” depiction of suicide upon its release, and the results of two studies released this year show that suicide rates spiked after its debut. Of course, this finding is one of correlation, not causation, but that’s more than can be said about the vast majority of art deemed “dangerous.”

To label art “dangerous” has signaled many things: It’s bad for your brain, bad for your body, bad for your soul, transgressive, subversive, fun, shocking, exciting, enticing, hateful. And that breadth of meaning makes “dangerous” about as useful an adjective as “interesting.” It is as sure a sign as the use of the similarly vague “problematic” that more thinking was in order before hitting “publish.” (The difference between “problematic” and “a problem” named is a lack of conviction on the writer’s part.) Last year in the New York Times Magazine, Lauren Oyler wrote about the emptiness of calling art “necessary.” The opposite of “necessary” here isn’t “unnecessary”—for that which is “unnecessary” is ignored practically by definition and rarely spoken about with such self-seriousness—but “dangerous.” “[‘Necessary’] is a discursive crutch for describing a work’s right-minded views, and praise that is so distinct from aesthetics it can be affixed to just about anything, from two-dimensional romantic comedies to a good portion of the forthcoming books stacked beside my desk,” wrote Oyler. “Necessary for what is always left to the imagination — the continuation of civilization, maybe.” With a few tweaks (changing “right” to “wrong” and “praise” to “criticism,” for example), a lot of that argument holds for “dangerous.” But there’s also a major distinction: While “necessary” invites the spectator to lean in and stroke their chin, “dangerous” in its most popular contemporary usage warns the spectator against thinking too much. “You might get ideas,” says “dangerous,” “and we can’t have that.” It is a word that is at odds with the very nature of art itself.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin