How Art and Education are Not about Making People Feel Comfortable

  • Today’s reading is about art and education and how they’re not intended to make students feel comfortable, but rather to challenge their parochial assumptions and expand their worldviews;
  • And a bunch of everyday items, today mostly about the right’s conspiracy theories, religion, and morality, in a more concise format.

Today’s reading is a guest essay in today’s NY Times by Jen Silverman, playwright and author.

NY Times, Jen Silverman, 28 Apr 2024: Art Isn’t Supposed to Make You Comfortable

The writer discovers a social media account “dedicated to collecting angry reader reviews,” including those of works long regarded as classics. The trend detected is how often readers disapprove of works because they disapprove of the characters.

Here on my screen was the distillation of a peculiar American illness: namely, that we have a profound and dangerous inclination to confuse art with moral instruction, and vice versa.

As someone who was born in the States but partially raised in a series of other countries, I’ve always found the sheer uncompromising force of American morality to be mesmerizing and terrifying. Despite our plurality of influences and beliefs, our national character seems inescapably informed by an Old Testament relationship to the notions of good and evil. This powerful construct infuses everything from our advertising campaigns to our political ones — and has now filtered into, and shifted, the function of our artistic works.

Maybe it’s because our political discourse swings between deranged and abhorrent on a daily basis and we would like to combat our feelings of powerlessness by insisting on moral simplicity in the stories we tell and receive. Or maybe it’s because many of the transgressions that flew under the radar in previous generations — acts of misogyny, racism and homophobia; abuses of power both macro and micro — are now being called out directly. We’re so intoxicated by openly naming these ills that we have begun operating under the misconception that to acknowledge each other’s complexity, in our communities as well as in our art, is to condone each other’s cruelties.

When I work with younger writers, I am frequently amazed by how quickly peer feedback sessions turn into a process of identifying which characters did or said insensitive things. Sometimes the writers rush to defend the character, but often they apologize shamefacedly for their own blind spot, and the discussion swerves into how to fix the morals of the piece. The suggestion that the values of a character can be neither the values of the writer, nor the entire point of the piece, seems more and more surprising — and apt to trigger discomfort.

While I typically share the progressive political views of my students, I’m troubled by their concern for righteousness over complexity. They do not want to be seen representing any values they do not personally hold. The result is that, in a moment in which our world has never felt so fast-changing and bewildering, our stories are getting simpler, less nuanced and less able to engage with the realities through which we’re living.

The essay goes on with the writer’s experience in Hollywood, where executives pass on screenplays with characters who are too morally ambiguous (i.e. not obviously good or evil). And concludes:

But what art offers us is crucial precisely because it is not a bland backdrop or a platform for simple directives. Our books, plays, films and TV shows can do the most for us when they don’t serve as moral instruction manuals, but rather allow us to glimpse our own hidden capacities, the slippery social contracts inside which we function, and the contradictions we all contain.

We need more narratives that tell us the truth about how complex our world is. We need stories that help us name and accept paradoxes, not ones that erase or ignore them. After all, our experience of living in communities with one another is often much more fluid and changeable than it is rigidly black and white. We have the audiences that we cultivate, and the more we cultivate audiences who believe that the job of art is to instruct instead of investigate, to judge instead of question, to seek easy clarity instead of holding multiple uncertainties, the more we will find ourselves inside a culture defined by rigidity, knee-jerk judgments and incuriosity.

In our hair-trigger world of condemnation, division and isolation, art — not moralizing — has never been more crucial.

Here again is the simple vs. the complex. The simplistic Old Testament morality of good and evil, clung to by Americans perhaps in reaction to the changing world in which their own tribe must struggle to get along with many others.

I have two adjacent thoughts. One, education isn’t supposed to make you comfortable either; you to go university precisely to expose yourself to others’ experiences, other points of view, and to learn new things, and grow as a non-parochial person. Otherwise just stay at home and go to church. Two, “classics” of the arts, of literature especially, but also paintings and music, are precisely those that challenged conventions of their time, and created something new. In all these forms, there are the popular bestsellers and crowd-pleasers that made their creators lots of money. But it’s the new things created that are remembered.


Let me try a more compact format for the numerous links I collect every day. Links and brief comments.

Every day I reread and copy-edit my post from the evening before. If this comment is still here, I have not yet done so for this post.

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