Is Art the Limit of Embracing the Uncomfortable?

In today’s polarising political climate, exacerbated by preferences for quick answers, it is becoming harder to appreciate the messiness of life. Except when we go to art galleries or find ourselves on a therapist’s couch. Why can’t we appreciate our discomfort anywhere else?

There are few human conditions that people fear or misunderstand more than schizophrenia, and it is likely to be the ‘uncomfortable’ and ‘unknown’ factors that make most people turn away from it. Unless you have considered the condition philosophically or experienced it directly or through other people, you might prefer to label it as a biological ‘disease’ rather than illness (involving a two-way sociocultural and biological relationship). It keeps things neater and more comfortable – at the price of reproducing wider social illusions.

Well, I have not actually written this particular blog to familiarise you with schizophrenia. Rather, I wanted to emphasise the tendency we have to turn away from (or quickly categorise) unfamiliar stuff, more generally. Distaste for the unfamiliar not only inhibits more productive understandings of schizophrenia (and strange-sounding disciplines like anthropology), it can help explain current political stalemates and social divides – such as difficulties in understanding so-called ‘deplorable’ Trump voters, or so-called ‘chardonnay socialists’. Distaste for discomfort also fuels the fake-news-real-news to-and-fro.

Unfortunately and understandably, most people prefer to stay comfortable rather than be temporally uncomfortable, especially when dealing with uncertainty and possibilities of changing minds. But, building on my first blog about my reaction to Trump, I worry that if more of us don’t all start questioning our own views and affiliations – and adopt some anthropological curiosity rather than fear towards ‘others’ – then the lives we have ahead of us might not be as ‘progressive’ as they might be, if we choose to think about discomforts as a valuable part of human processes.

The point I want to make below is that it can be very beneficial to doubt what you previously thought you knew (and felt), about everything. The first thing you might consider doubting is the political ‘sides’ you think you’re on.

Aggressive Diversions and Contradictions: the ‘Control Left’ and ‘Conservative-Centric’

Perhaps the best indicator of lack of conscious control is unruly aggression. Militant views are now evident from both ‘sides’ of politics, and the confirmation biases that reproduces – rather than challenges – these views results in inconvenient contradictions. For the sake of simplification, I will generalise and talk here in terms of the Left and Right.

On the Left, we have a view of social protectionism giving rise to a rhetoric of inclusion, equity, political correctness, and what anthropologists call ‘cultural relativism’ (respecting diversity in cultural values rather than hierarchizing them). On the ‘Right’ we have a view of social progress by way of economic liberalism, free speech, equality (not equity) of opportunity, and cultural protectionism. This polarisation gives rise to identity politics, and also dead-ends.

Leftist views can lead to a contradictory dead-end because celebrating differences tends to exclude, rather than include, the ‘uncomfortable’ views that free speech policies would allow. Meanwhile, Rightist views operate on a democratic fallacy of ‘equal opportunities’. Humans are never born equal – and Liberal policies affirm socioeconomic hierarchies, ‘filling’ gaps rather ‘closing’ them (or even opening up space for greater social mobility). What’s more, Centrist views run into problems because they are looser and more flexible, and so aren’t given much ‘comfortable’ space. There is currently too much pressure to pick a side and to act quickly, by drawing on common rather than uncommon knowledge.

Underneath and Beyond Common Knowledge and ‘Silo’ Thinking

‘Silos’ were all the (out)rage while I was working in the public service. “We need more cross-pollination”, I would hear time and time again. Then we’d all go back to our silos.

The status quo of not thinking about the unfamiliar (or uncovered reasons for why people are they way they are) will likely persist simply because people prefer to affirm what they already know rather than what they do not. But this preference for silo comfort comes at a social and personal cost. Beyond public service agendas, not only has wider politics become more unhinged and capricious than what most of us alive today could have anticipated, but the more one relies on ‘common’ ways of seeing things, the less likely one is to experience personal growth. Bear with me as I dig a little deeper into the world of anthropology and psychoanalysis (and no, it’s not all about Freud).

It can be said that conducting ethnography (the methodology and product of anthropological research) is a type of social analysis akin to the processes of personal psychoanalysis (interpersonal therapy that aims to make us conscious of what is otherwise sub-/unconscious). Not just by way of theoretical overlaps (and searches for ‘symbolisms’), but also because both practices are often misunderstood or dismissed by those not partaking in the explorations. For those taking part, both practices provoke discomfort while shining a light on ‘uncommon’ or concealed knowledge.  Now this can be liberating in terms of future thinking too – encouraging further openness and curiosity about things that otherwise occur as roadblocks of discomfort.

Moving confronting experiences into a more conscious reflexive process to be socially articulated is part of what I consider an anthropologists’ role to be. We try to take account of our subjective position that biases our thinking. We try to keep questioning our interpretations, and to be open to different ways of seeing things. Like with psychoanalytic pursuits, we want to keep moving more things into our ‘conscious’ awareness. We want to explain uncommon social knowledge so it is more relatable to everyone else.

Take Art as the Exemplary

A more relatable and emotionally ‘safer’ way of opening our conscious awareness into unfamiliar territories is through art or music. The enjoyment of provocative experiences of artwork (including performances, ‘dark’ novels, emotive music or film) may even suggest a subconscious need for ‘uncommon’ knowledge that we cannot otherwise confront in ourselves or in others. The ways in which people are provoked by controversial art, rather than directly personal social experiences, doesn’t have to be explicable. It may be better just felt.

But personal and political matters could do with a little more anthropological or psychosocial analytical scrutiny and accountability. Of course, unfamiliar explanations that are still one step removed from us might be a more palatable enterprise than being anthropological or psychoanalytic. Yet, just as we experience incommunicable things through the creative powers of art (including music), it is important to tap into uncommon and uncomfortable knowledge. Whether or not it will only be those of us vulnerable to personal and sociopolitical crossroads that want to compromise on comforts is up to our politicians to prod.

                                                                                                       [Image by Julia Brown]

3 thoughts on “Is Art the Limit of Embracing the Uncomfortable?

  1. Sorry, catching up on old posts. But this reminded me a lot of Mary Douglas’s work on purity, pollution and danger. She was working in the religious context, but she showed that much of what we consider ‘unclean’ or ‘pollution’ isn’t intrinsically so, but is ‘matter out of place’–stuff that isn’t where it ought to be. For me, this sort of boundary-maintenance sort of resonates with the way people seem to desperately want there to not only be ‘sides’ in political debates, but easily identifiable ones. Reckon there’s something to it? Or am I out on too much of a limb?

    • Hey Alex, actually no I don’t think you are overreaching. I’ve also been playing with the idea of using Purity and Danger to look at migrants and how locals respond to them – as ‘matter out of place’. So I think it’s a really flexible idea when it’s used as a metaphor, personally. But I’m no Douglas expert, would be interesting to hear what others have to say. Great comment!

    • Hi Alex,

      Thanks for your comment. I agree that part of the issue is about symbolic dichotomies, which save us from thinking about the things that don’t fit either side and create contradictions. Douglas’ work continues to be relevant to most social debates, especially in these times of political polarities. Here is one of my favourite quotes of Douglas’ (1966), which I put at the opening of my Honours thesis (as a provocative pipe opener if nothing else!):

      ‘It is part of our human condition to long for hard lines and clear concepts. When we have them we have to either face the fact that some realities elude them, or else blind ourselves to the inadequacy of the concepts. The final paradox of the search for purity is that it is an attempt to force experience into logical categories of non-contradiction. But experience is not amenable and those who make the attempt find themselves led into contradiction.’


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