Violence and the Moral Responsibility of the Artist

My movie-watching habits changed some 18 years ago when, having seen and laughed through much of Quentin Tarantino’s comic-violent second movie, Pulp Fiction (1994), I backtracked to his debut film, the less comical, more violent Reservoir Dogs (1992). Alas, so nonchalantly, relentlessly violent was the latter that I found myself in the movie’s aftermath wishing I could hit the reverse button in my brain and thus wipe clean all the imagery from my consciousness. Those thoughts occurred because I knew the opposite would actually happen: the images of brutality and casual carnage would stay with me forever.

And so they have, with the only consolation being that I haven’t seen a Tarantino movie since. Ditto for Martin Scorcese and other directors whose affection for highly stylized, almost romantic evocations of human flesh being sliced, battered, bulleted and otherwise violated usually left me with the feeling that something similar had been done to my soul.

Humanity’s dark side has provided endless fodder for artists in every genre and age. It’s not like we don’t keep feeding them good material, and in any case, simply ignoring evil or violence or pretending we are beyond its reach only ensures that our dark impulses go underground, where they can wreak a different kind of havoc.

So it is good that artists can explore, on our behalf, the black places in our hearts. Much great art uses it as a jumping off point, and we are the better and wiser for it.

The big questions, though, are: Toward what end? With what combination of blunt depiction and nuance? Should the exploration be informed by any sort of moral vision, or is it enough just to splash the violence up there on the screen or canvas and let its sheer existence speak for itself?

And when does exploration become titillation, a mere steeping in the juices of blood, gore and human degradation, with no overarching sensibility beyond shock, wallow, and ultimately, detachment from the suffering that is being so casually, off-handedly depicted on screen, canvas or printed page?

Film violence enters our brains in living, unmediated color, forcing us to confront horrors at which we are naturally disposed to cringe.

Unlike writing, where even the most explicit depictions of human action require the mediating influence of the imagination, film violence enters our brains in living, unmediated color, forcing us to confront horrors at which we are naturally disposed to cringe. Some people—and I wish I were among them during my screening of Reservoir Dogs—simply stop watching and leave the theater.

Others of us who stay for one reason or other (because it’s good for us? we think we might learn something we didn’t know before?) cope by steeling ourselves, holding steady, trying desperately to objectify the imagery confronting us in order to get the requisite emotional distance.

We may even find ourselves laughing nervously. Anything to get us through the revulsion born of human empathy. Filmmakers like Tarantino assist us in this distancing by adding comic, absurdist elements to the action, even making the characters engaged in the brutality likable, in a certain way.

So in order not to cringe, faint or get sick to our stomachs, we adapt, inure ourselves to the violence, perhaps chuckling, haha, and soon enough we can fetishize it, celebrate and intellectualize it, consider it avant garde, hip and even comic. That makes it easier to get through the next time we are assaulted.

At what price, though?

What do we lose as conscious creatures, as conscious societies and cultures, struggling still to figure out how to live peacefully with one another (and with our own sometimes brooding hearts) when depictions of horrific violence and cheapened life become just another form of entertainment rather than exploration?



Perhaps the most violent artistic depiction of the 20th century was not a movie at all, but a painting, Picasso’s “Guernica,” seen above. It shows, in harrowing but compelling imagery which one can stare at without any impulse to avert the eyes, the agonies suffered by Basque villagers amidst a brutal bombing raid conducted by German and Italian warplanes at the behest of rebel troops led by the fascist General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

Horrid violence fills the frame, but moral vision and righteous anger take up even more of the space. Picasso rears up on his artistic heels in a howl that would shake the world and make Guernica a permanent symbol of the wretched excess of war and the cost to all sentient life—human and animal alike—of unthinking, unmitigated aggression.

What is Tarantino’s artistic vision, what is his stance toward the kind of violence that humans seem prone to keep visiting upon one another in such inexhaustible profusion? It would appear to consist of a shoulder shrug, a chuckle, an “It is what it is” dismissal as he plots his next scene of jolly mayhem. Life is absurd, humans are unto bugs, let’s put them under a magnifying glass in the sun and note how they fry.

It’s just a movie.

The late director Sam Peckinpah is widely credited with redefining movie violence in his 1969 film, The Wild Bunch, which showed bullets entering and blood spurting in close-up slo-mo to a degree never dared before. Peckinpah at least indicated he wanted to show the actual fleshly experience of what had previously been highly sanitized versions of violent death in film. The fact that he seemed to get entranced by his own artsy depictions of gore made it difficult for many in his audience to get through his movies, though.

In this memorable scene related by film critic Roger Ebert, Peckinpah is sitting through a somewhat tempestuous press conference after a film festival, and Ebert writes:

Another critic asked: “Don’t you think you may have occasionally passed over that thin line between what an audience is willing to accept, and what it isn’t? We felt that when the general slits the kid’s throat, that was the point beyond which we really had difficulty…”

“I know what you mean,” Peckinpah said. “There is a very, very thin line, and I think we operated as close to it as we dared. We hope that, for most audiences, we stayed on this side of the line. But I am willing to admit that we may have passed over it at some point. We feel the violence is a catharsis, a release, but sometimes the line is hard to find.”

And then, in a supreme note of irony:

“To tell you the truth,” Peckinpah added after a short pause, “I really cannot stand to see the film myself anymore. It is too much an emotional thing. I saw it last night, but I do not want to see it again for perhaps five years.”

In Peckinpah’s defense, one might say he was at least struggling to find the “thin line,” indicating some sense, some recognition, of a responsibility not to overwhelm his audience’s natural defenses against excessive violence. (Perhaps his struggle had more to do with film censors than moral vision, but we will give him the benefit of the doubt.)

Because truly, do any of us past a certain age need fresh reminders, in full-on graphic detail, that flesh bleeds from gaping wounds, that humans are capable of visiting the most appalling injuries upon one another, that sociopaths abound in every era? And do we benefit from having it all rendered within a guise of cool comic detachment?

“With freedom comes responsibility,” the old dictum goes. If so, what responsibility do serious artists carry to project a sense of moral vision and at the very least, respect for the travails of human flesh, in all its tender vulnerability?

To see that flesh—and the respect for it—torn asunder in movie after movie depicting the most heinous depredations, within a climate of amoral, bemused  observation, is to note that we have come to a perilous time in our entertainments.

What kind of society and what kind of human being are we positing in what, along with music, is probably our most influential art form?

If it matters at all what our movies tell us about human life, then should we not be disturbed aplenty that some of our more successful moviemakers shove relentless, unfeeling violence in our faces as if to say, “That’s it, end of story (and thanks for your $10).”

Is it really?

Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:

For a tender (and under-appreciated) artistic homage to Guernica, give a listen to the Katie Melua song, Market Day in Guernica, written by her longtime musical collaborator Mike Blatt, here on Grooveshark audio and You Tube:

4 comments to Violence and the Moral Responsibility of the Artist

  • Dennis Ahern  says:

    It was Taxi Driver for me. A bit of a watershed, after which I became increasingly unwilling to subject myself to film violence. In my college days, whilst taking film appreciation classes I would be apt to nod knowingly at any violence in the belief that one looks without turning away because that's the way you "keep it real" (of course in those days we knew nothing of street cred, so I'm sure we used a different phrase). QT was recently on Fresh Air (maybe you heard it) and when Terry asked him about that same line of violence Peckinpah flirted with, she asked him why he pushed it so far, his bemused and breezy answer was "because I like it". So there it is. My 16 year old son loves film violence. What 16 year old doesn't? Maybe it's a psychic compensation to their sense of invulnerable immortality. And I would not say I hate it or think it inappropriate in all cases. I just don't wish to watch it anymore. I'd rather spend my time otherwise occupied. The news is filled with horrors enough.

  • Layne  says:

    Your topics are fascinating, Andy. I'm listening to the song now…

    As long as artists are able to cope with or negate their own experiences of violence by depicting them in art, violence will be part of every artistic form. And the voyeurs who rubberneck in slowed traffic around car accidents seem to need the experience of violence at a distance, if only to be able to whisper, There but for God's grace.

    I'm not sure anyone can know if the experience of artistic violence is going to help assuage an audience's pain or dull his senses. Aren't they the same thing? The answer to this may be a question of degree. The numbing of a mind can be medicinal and soothing for one whose suffering has already been excessive. And don't medical students have to learn to accept that flesh is flesh in order to become surgeons?

    We're free to choose. Like you, Andy, I don't want to validate the excesses of war or thug mentality, and I agree that violence has become too much an accepted part of our culture. But if film makers are successful, it means that their audience is huge–and needy for one reason or another. I'd be curious to know how many of these participants, both film makers and viewers, were raised without fathers. The release of psychological anger into art can be cathartic. I believe in the freedom of choice both for the artist and his audience.

    The nice thing about these essays, Andy, is that they tend to keep me thinking about the topics for days after I read one. Thanks for your updates.

  • Fred Greenstein  says:

    I went to the see "Life of Pi" with my son but had the time wrong, so we saw "Django" instead. I am horrified that this platform for portraying graphic violence is so popular in America. It certainly encourages more violence and definitely does not qualify as a Western. "Life of Pi" on the other hand was life affirming.

    Another movie all should see is "Chasing Ice". Playing only at small independent theaters, it is a beautifully photographed and powerful documentary on the melting glaciers and climate change threat our generation of humans has created.

  • Raymond Daigle  says:

    It's interesting to note that while we currently have a whole slew of filmmakers running around screaming that violence and gun play in their films has nothing what-so-ever to do with real-life atrocities, at some point we DID, as a society, come to the understanding that cigarette smoking in films was responsible for the increase in teenage smoking. Now, it's comparatively rare to see people smoking in movies. But not guns. Never the guns.

    We keep pushing the envelope in all areas of media, because we feel we have to. In my day, Madonna was quite the shocker, but even she would have blushed at the things Brittany Spears did. The economics of Rap music dictate that more records sell if they demean women. First Person Shooter video games dominate the charts. Django Unchained is up for Best Picture at the Oscars.

    Following the events of 911, we even had a new genre of film – Torture Porn. Makes my head hurt.

    All that said, even I still find exceptions. I can't quite put Tarantino and Scorsese in the same box. Sometimes violence is necessary to the overall tale an artist is attempting to tell. Of course, the defining example of ruthless violence without actually showing anything is Hitchcock's Psycho. All in the editing. That's why we refer to him as "The Master."

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