John Dewey famously said that a work of art is not complete until it is experienced by someone other than the artist. This implies that the observer or, depending upon the medium, the reader, viewer, or listener, brings something unique and valuable to the experience. This connects directly to my assertion that a roleplaying game isn’t the rules or setting material, but the events that happen at the table. A book is just a book. This is also important to remember when evaluating controversial art.
Dewey’s stance further suggests that no interpretation of a work of art can be universally true. The creator’s intent isn’t necessarily what the observer will take from the piece. It can be as simple as not liking something because it’s not to your tastes. Your lived experiences might not be the same as the creator’s, so you don’t connect with all of their references. Things will be interpreted through your own filters, based on your background, preferences, and values. What it means to one person isn’t going to be what it means to another person.
Art Can Be Dangerous
Which brings us to the notion that art can be dangerous. I agree. It is meant to communicate ideas, to inspire us, and ideally to lift us up. As the Mexican poet and human rights activist Cesar A. Cruz put it, “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Again, what you take away is at least partially a function of what you bring with you. Art can be dangerous. Our level of concern is always based on how we answer the question: Dangerous to whom?
Periodically a controversy arises over some piece of art, or an entire form. A panic ensues, based on how people interpret that work or how they fear others might interpret it. Rock and roll is the devil’s music, Dungeons & Dragons leads to suicide, video games result in mass shootings. I could argue that this robs people of their agency, and absolves them of personal responsibility for their actions. The evaluation is that we want to protect whatever values, concepts, or institutions that the art allegedly threatens.
Except that not everyone who experiences a work of art responds the same way. Many people have listened to rock and roll over the decades; few have become evil cultists or serial killers. I would speculate that the leading cause of death among people who played D&D in the 80’s is old age. There is ample research that first-person shooter-style games do not, in fact, cause people to go on killing sprees. The threat is always hypothetical.
Evaluating Controversial Art
This does not in any way diminish the reality that art can embolden people to do terrible things. It’s not that it puts an idea into their head, but often it helps them to quantify it. The work succinctly expresses their thoughts, feelings, and opinions, because that’s what art does. It’s not always a bad thing when it manages to touch some disenfranchised corner of the zeitgeist. We want it to do that, most of the time. Sometimes it does become a rallying point for bad actors. That’s a risk we take.
But the experience of controversial art is not a zero-sum game. If I have an ethical concern about, say, how others will react to a movie, my boycotting the movie and refusing to see it doesn’t prevent a person who might feel validated by the film’s message from seeing it. At worst, any sort of boycott will discourage the creator from making similar art in the future. The only result is more of the same safe, boring, and easily palatable material, rather than things that might challenge us and allow us to grow. It won’t stop a person who already has a predilection for atrocity from doing something bad.