Why Art Should Hit You Over the Head

Subtlety isn't all it's cracked up to be, writes Forrest Wickman
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 2, 2015 12:06 PM CST
Why Art Should Hit You Over the Head
Taylor Swift performs during her 1989 World Tour in Vancouver, BC, on August 1, 2015.   (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP)

Forrest Wickman isn't a fan of subtlety in art, though he's probably in the minority. Today we tend to use phrases like "hits you over the head" or "lacks subtlety" as criticisms—a trend that came with the rise of highbrow and lowbrow cultural hierarchies in the 19th and 20th centuries. The aim, then, became to keep art from the masses or to let only a few in on a joke. But Wickman would rather we go back in time. "To be clear, I'm not saying that all art must be unsubtle," he writes at Slate. "But it's when subtlety is held up as an unquestioned virtue that it does the most damage. Because bluntness is also a virtue." When art is bold, "we're rewarded with work that resonates in every seat in the theater, not just in the orchestra section. And the more a work has something important to convey, the more it should not be subtle," Wickman says.

Artists shouldn't hold back when dealing with people's emotions, in particular. "People feel things, strongly, and creators that underplay that are making it harder for their audiences to connect purely and viscerally to their work," he says, adding Taylor Swift gets it right here. While we often claim that to be blatant insults the viewer's intelligence, the truth is that we don't actually like subtlety, Wickman argues. Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List "stand the test of time—in part, perhaps, because [of] their unsubtle appeal." As does F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Wickman adds. "When we demand subtlety, privileging masks, and minimalism over on-the-sleeve feeling and on-the-nose meaning, we turn ourselves into a bunch of Tom Buchanans," he writes. And wouldn't you rather be bold like Jay Gatsby? Click for his full column. (More opinion stories.)

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