Art, Deviance, and the American Imagination

It was someone’s off-handed description of something as “very noir” that got me on a haphazard brain-storm about deviant behavior and where we Americans tend to compartmentalize it and allow for it in our culture. Those compartments seem to be art and humor (and verbal abuse, with thanks always to E. Leach). (We’re not going to deal with outright derision, just those phenomena that index deviant behavior’s status as deviant from the socially mandated norm.)

It seems as though an awful lot of art–literature, music, visual art, movies, etc–is devoted to topics that showcase deviance. Deviance means interest–it’s almost an obsession. Film noir, which takes ordinary people and places them into seedy situations with the criminal underground, is one obvious example. Or any contemporary action movie or thriller, which generally involves a protagonist navigating some odd subculture or two while avoiding the “bad guys” and trying to solve some conspiracy, well-plotted or otherwise. There are more books about the extraordinary, the strange, the wrong, than the mundane and good. We love being voyeurs of that-which-is-not-officially-condoned. As members of the socially responsible majority, we cannot help but be fascinated with these alien underbellies that we would not dare participate in other than through the consumption of art.

The deviant Other is indeed in the savage slot. We imagine it as so close, yet completely removed from our own lived experiences, and we indulge our imaginations with graphic depictions of what these Others must be like. These anti-social savages with their disregard for social norms. We make joking, disparaging references to them in daily discourse–perhaps slyly comparing a similarly mainstream compatriot to a deviant Other of choice. And it is in the joking that we call attention to the fact that these Others are in fact deviant. It is in the joking that we signal our simultaneous fascination and discomfort.

Perhaps this is a vestige of puritanical culture-policing (because why not make tenuous discursive connections to that historical narrative?). Because deviance is not condoned in polite, everyday society, we have outlets for it; outlets that are clearly marked as not real; just art. (Art, of course, is real and a cultural product, but art that has deviance as a subject is often marked as deviant itself, depending on how puritanical or Victorian the climate is at any given time.) Such deviant art is both a reaction against and a validation of the existence of social-control strictures that we all embody and internalize, albeit not always consciously. Hegemony is everywhere and nowhere, man. We are all participants in the mass indoctrination and the mass-creation of our culture and its social norms. Deviant art is partially an acknowledgment of this, and also a place to let those normal among us experience–or look at or talk about–what we are not strictly supposed to experience. Art and jokes as outlet, as compartmentalization, as keeping-safe, as drawing boundaries between that which we condone, and that which we do not but enjoy by proxy. There will always be spaces for hedonism, even if they are explicitly marked as such, and bad to boot.

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Filed under Art of all Kinds, Contemporary, Historical

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