Flight MH17 – The Spectacle Grief & the Role of the Artist in Society

I remember clearly, after the Sandy Hook massacre, watching a news interview with a father of one of the children who had been killed. It was literally hours after the event, and this African American man, a professor of economics at a nearby college, this erudite, marvelous communicator vented his grief and his rage to a camera.  It was hard to watch, and impossible not to watch, and even as he communicated his emotions with such breathtaking eloquence, I thought ‘this news team must think they’ve died and gone to heaven – this guy is so powerful.’  But it left me feeling disgusted. I wondered, looking at this man, whether he would have refused an interview 24 or 48 hours after the event when he had a little more control of his emotions. He seemed like a very self-contained man, a private man, driven temporarily mad with grief.

This morning, my mother was watching the BBC. There was an interview with the Dutch mother of one of the people who died on the Malaysian flight shot down over the Ukraine. It was very similar. Some people, completely unconsciously, give better grief than others.

I have thought long and hard about whether to embed the video of this interview. I’ve considered whether embedding it just exacerbates the central ethical issue I find so problematic. But this is the world we live in, and this is what the media thrives off.  So I’m posting it here. It’s exceptionally emotional, but I would ask that you try to step back a little from what is an intensely emotional documentation of raw grief, and ask yourself who airing this serves.

It got me thinking about the balance between a liberal democracy with a strong and free press, the public’s need to know, and the ability to make wise decisions about how much public exposure any individual might want or allow. How sane are we when we are in the grip of this kind of grief? Who has the need or right to see this? Who benefits from grief made spectacle?

Clearly, the Ancient Greeks believed that grief and rage as spectacle was important to humanity. Plays like Medea, Electra, Antigone and Oedipus Rex are all spectacles that examine how emotions like grief, shame, betrayal, helplessness, pride and rage work on the human heart. They believed there were important lessons for us to learn in witnessing remediated, fictionalized, unimmediate versions of these human emotions. Shakespeare’s tragedies are very much the same and serve similar purposes. We come to understand ourselves better when we bear witness to the extremes of human feeling. Paintings like Edvard Munch’s The Scream, or Goya’s Jupiter,  the prose of Franz Kafka, No Theatre and Butoh dance, just to name a few forms of art. These sorts of works allow not only for the spectacle of grief and other extreme feelings, but also demand the audience contemplate the consequences for the individual and the society.

These days, high art disdains strong emotion. It is embarrassed by anything that moves its audience too much. It uses words and phrases like hysterical, histrionic and sentimental as pejoratives for low-brow entertainment. The only emotions it is permissible to reproduce are alienation and banality. And even that is now considered passe.

I think that ‘high art’ has reneged on one of  its most important functions in society. At the core of our beings, we are drawn to extremes – fascinated and repelled by them in equal measure – because we learn something about ourselves in witnessing it. And when those extremes are delivered up to audiences in the context of art, of fictions, we get to do that within a more considered context of the artificiality of art.

Now, we are forced to play the part of vicarious mourners and unsuspecting voyeurs into the raw wounds of grief-stricken people who are probably not sane enough to determine whether they actually want to get on stage and bleed for us.