Aesthetics and Evil

So, I’ve been thinking about something lately. It’s a bit hard to explain, having to do with a lot of sort of vague concepts that I am not particularly educated on. But I will endeavor to be as clear as possible.

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This has to do with how evil is presented in fiction, and in media in general. Bad guys, acts of cruelty and violence, and those who perpetrate it. The power of aesthetics to shape the way that people view the world around them. The morality of using the finely honed skills of modern artists to push an ideological agenda, and what effect that can have even, and especially, when it’s unintentional.

I think that fiction warps the way people perceive the world, and makes them reach for easy, aesthetically-oriented answers instead of actually engaging with ideas. This isn’t to say that people are lazy, but the world is complicated and loud, and they’re going to take shortcuts whenever possible. It’s only human.

But that’s a bit heavy and dense. Let’s start with something simple: The Picture of Dorian Gray.

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In this famous novel by Oscar Wilde, a young dandy has his portrait painted by a friend. He becomes obsessed with the idea of not growing old, but more importantly not having his appearance blemished by any sins he may commit in his life. And lo, a miracle happens and it comes true, the painting suffers the effects of his misdeeds, and ages in his stead.

In modern interpretations, it is often simplified into the painting aging while he remains young. But it is a big point in the original that for every horrible thing Dorian does, the painting is altered in some way. The idea being that the evil in his heart is externalized more and more as he indulges in it.

When I saw a stage version of this story at the Book-It theater last year, this really stuck out to me, because that’s not actually how it works, in real life. You can’t see a “curl of cruelty” on someone’s lip. Immorality is not necessarily externalized, and even in the modern media climate we have to learn this lesson over and over again. Bill Cosby didn’t get uglier every time he assaulted an unconscious victim. Louis CK didn’t have a shine of cruelty in his eyes even as he continued to victimize women. Evil thoughts and actions do not have an effect on appearance, actually.

Who do we have to keep learning this lesson? What is the cause of this cultural amnesia? We expect evil people to announce themselves through their aesthetics as well as their actions, because that’s the way it works in basically all fiction, everywhere.

Stories are crafted, by human hands and minds. They don’t spring fully-formed from the aether, people think about what they’re making, and the put a lot of work into it. There are all sorts of techniques of various sorts used to imply things subtly, to clue the audience in without saying it outright. The use of colors, shapes, tones, staging, camera direction, all sorts of different things, combine into what I refer to under the broad umbrella of “aesthetics”. This is what I mean when I say that “evil” is usually accompanied by appropriate aesthetics.

So, when you spend your whole life seeing this presented to you in media, that evil always warps the world around it to be presented a certain way, why, it’s only natural that you actually think that way. When you’re taught something, so universally if subtly, it can only affect the way you think!

This isn’t to say that this is universal, or absolute. I absolutely do not mean to say such a thing. It varies from person to person, and even then there’s the matter of taste, which is in fact the most dangerous and troublesome thing of all.

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You see, the intentions of artists don’t really amount to a hill of beans when it comes to interpretation by the audience. When I was a kid, watchin’ cartoons and movies, I often sympathized with the villains because they were more interesting, visually and conceptually.

Let’s use a concrete example: I love the aesthetic of the Republic of Zeon in the Universal Century series of Gundam media. They’ve got the cooler-looking giant robots. They have cool uniforms. I like the idea of a group of space colonies declaring and fighting for their independence from Earth.

Also, Zeon is fascistic and unimaginably monstrous, according to the fiction of the series. But that almost all plays out off-screen. In the lead-up to the original Mobile Suit Gundam, one third of humanity is killed in a variety of atrocities committed by Zeon. Their leaders are horrible, power-grubbing monsters who fall to infighting, but they’re characters and they’re interesting. So, despite all that, I still like them.

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Now, I happen to be aware of all this extra backstory, but there are an awful lot of fans of Zeon among the fans of Gundam, who are in it purely for the aesthetics of the robots and whatnot. There’s a lot of Zeon merchandise. There’s a lot of sympathy for these horrible fascists, who keep coming back and losing over and over again.

This kind of appreciation can start out as ironic, and morph into something more sincere with repetition and time. Or with the intervention of just the right kind of charismatic individuals. The appreciation for this kind of aesthetic is easy to co-opt, especially since it’s based on fascistic regimes in the first place!

The problem is that people will engage more with aesthetics than ideas, because media presents aesthetics as a shortcut to ideas. But it’s all open to interpretation, and people aren’t always going to take everything seriously.

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This all goes back to an idea I’ve had rattling around in my head for ages, and I’m not sure exactly where it came from. A lot of different places, I suppose. But it’s this: it’s impossible for evil people to create good art. Anything they make is ugly. All art produced by Nazi Germany, for example, is actually ugly, because it’s promoting fascism and genocide and whatnot.

But that’s just not true. That’s sticking your head in the sand, and saying that the sky is green. It’s putting ideas ahead of aesthetics, which is all well and good when you’re talking hypothetically and engaging only with ideas, but in reality it falls completely flat.

Look, I’m not comin’ out here going to bat for fascists and murderers and rapists, saying you should give their art a chance. What I’m saying is aesthetics have no inherent ideology. Using aesthetics is just a skill, like any other. You wouldn’t say that a plumber must be bad at his job because he’s a racist. The evil of great art and artists isn’t something that’s just for you, personally, to confront, but to consider in a wider, societal context.

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You can say that fascism is inherently ugly ‘til the cows come home, but I will still look at the fight between Norris Packard and the 08th MS Team and think he looks super fucking cool. If you teach people to rely on aesthetics for hints towards ideology, they will do it.

All I’m saying is… be aware of it.

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