Art, Horror & the Socio-political Order?

I have been following an interesting discussion over on Facebook about art and society. The origin of the debate is that the Danish government has decided to make a deep cut in the grants that authors can receive from the Danish society.

This brought back some old, dusty thoughts and musings from my past… It is technically not stream-of-consciousness, but it has been written down very much in that fashion. So bear with me, will you?

I have often encountered the opinion that “real art” (or, similarly, “good art”) is supposed to influence society. That this is somehow a prerequisite for it being art at all.

I stand in absolute opposition to this. Yet I am very curious, and really want to know what, exactly, the underlying arguments for this position is. Most of the time all I’ve heard is some belief or opinion that it “simply is so” (and if I can’t see this “common sense” point of view, I am apparently a lost case to the Believer, and they see no point in delving more detailed into it… But I wonder if it’s because they won’t or because they can’t?). So if anyone reading this can help enlighten me, please feel free–I urge you–to contact me. On this blog or via e-mail, it’s all fine. I honestly want to know. (I may not change my mind, but that’s not the point anyway.)

For now, I’ll narrow “art” to literature–and with horror literature in mind, although some of my thoughts here will be presented in more broad terms. Can–and should–horror literature have as a goal to influence society? Obviously, yes, it can have such a goal. When such a tale becomes too didactic (I think this happens about 99.9% of the time when the author sets out to write a story with this firmly set in his mind) I think the horror element really disappears–perhaps to end more in the vicinity of science fiction or some other genre. Nothing wrong with that… Except if the story also happens to be boring. (I think that happens 99.9% of the time too.)

So, yeah okay, it can have such a goal. But ought it to? No, I don’t think so. And it is not less literature for not having this goal. (I won’t even call it a noble goal, which some people think it is; I do not think it is particularly noble at all. It is just another goal among other goals.) In fact, many a time a horror story is probably better off without it.

A story written with the current socio-political situation in mind almost inevitably ends up being old-fashioned–since it is too focused on particular cases, situations, local politics etc.–be that the early 2000s, the 1950s or the 1930s.

I don’t mind old-fashioned. My favorite author is Howard Phillips Lovecraft, so if I did I’d better think of someone else to admire, and fast. And one of my all-time HPL stories is The Shadow Out of Time, a story he completed in 1935.

In The Shadow Out of Time HPL shows the reader what kind of society he envisions would be the best kind of society. An elitist society with a socialist-like foundation. And HPL was well aware of this when he wrote the story. Because in his later years his outlooked had changed quite some, spurred both by his encounters (whether physical encounters or via correspondence) with intelligent people of other temperaments and viewpoints and the Great Depression in the US. He took an active interest in politics, and solutions to real-life problems.

So here is a tale that I shouldn’t like very much, if at all, right?


I don’t read The Shadow Out of Time as a story about the current Socio-political order. I read it as a horror-&-partly-science-fiction tale where the main focus is on atmosphere of dread, the single important keyword in any of HPL’s stories.

Of course, it is also a story where ideas about what “ought to be” (in the best of all worlds, to refer to a standard philosophical notion) plays a part, but only insofar as it underscores the protagonist’s horror when he realizes that the dreadful aliens living on Earth so many, many years ago were intelligent, civilized creatures with a hunger for knowledge, not unlike us human beings (“They were men!“). And it is used as a background for the even more underlying theme of HPL: The insignificance of man (and all creatures), and the doom of even the best of all societies. In other words: The cosmicism brings a healthy dose of balance to a tale that could have ended on the wrong side of the fence.

But it doesn’t. And that’s the point. The political ideas do not interfere with the the more grand, all-embracing theme of cosmicism, with all the horror & awe that brings along with it.

HPL was well aware of the politics of his times, and aware of what kind of society he considered the best. And he inserted some of this in  his story, yes. But he does not try to lecture the reader. And even more, it is interesting how few references he makes to actual the political situation at the time. It is really no more than a footnote. Deliberately so, of course, since that is a point he kept stressing again and again–with or without including politics.

We are talking about an honest-to-god (or whoever/nothing) piece of literature that can rightly be called art. Real and good art. Not because of the political elements, but because petty politics shrink in the shadow of Nyarlathotep & Azathoth;-) *

No, horror literature ought not have as a goal to influence society.

*) Yeah, yeah, I know they do not play an active part in The Shadow Out of Time, but permit me some poetic liberty here, okay?

8 thoughts on “Art, Horror & the Socio-political Order?

  1. “Real art” is meant to do many different things, depending on the type of “art” and the goal.

    Entertaining the viewer/reader ranks up there, together with making one stop and think a bit deeper, or see something a bit differently.

    “Real art” does NOT have to influence the world. That would fall more in line with “politics” (although art certainly has change society in a broad way, albeit very rarely).

    Art should be fun, beautiful, powerful, transcendent, and cool. Those who demand that it be society-changing are probably in it for the wrong reasons.

    • I tend to agree. But am am puzzled and curious, wondering about that “other” view. One that seems to be rather well established, at least here in Denmark.

      Have you encountered that position, T. E.?

      • I most definitely have, HH.

        Usually, it comes from overly-serious, overly-precious people who are more into BEING an artist than actually DOING the art. “Hipsters” in the U.S. fall under this category quite often, as do art snobs of various stripes and textures. They over-complicate and celebrate something because it makes them look serious, high brow, important, and/or smarter than they actually are.

        Art should flow naturally, and as such, be a natural extension of who we are. We don’t decide to “make art,” it is just made, because that’s what we do. Art should be fun, and also able to move you to a raw, giddy geek-out without looking for the ironic sneer.

        I just think people take art, and themselves, WAY too seriously. Art is in the everyday, and everyday doesn’t have to change the world. It could just make you smile, make you look a different direction, or make you “ooooo” at the coolness of a well-turned phrase.

        Although, I must admit, every artist wants to leave their stamp on society in whatever small or large way. But, I don’t think the sign of a good artist or work of art is actually CHANGING society. I wouldn’t turn down the honor of doing so, though, should it find me. 🙂 But, that has never been the goal. I just want to write/create cool shit, and have fun with the process.

        “Not the victory but the action. Not the goal but the game. In the deed the glory.”

  2. Thanks for your reply, T.E.,

    Yes, that is essentially my experience too: That the “society view” comes from that kind of people. It is a weird kind of intellectualism, IMO. And apparently traditionally linked with the left-wing political stand.

    (I’d like to say a little more, but I am out of time… Argh!… Will post more later;-))

  3. First and foremost, great post.

    I only saw this post now so I’d just like to say, a little belated, on the topic of art as an influence that,
    I don’t think that it should necessarily be the PURPOSE of art to influence the ‘world’ but I do see art always as a REFLECTION of the world we live in or a reflection of the artist him/herself in one way or another. Therefore it’s almost inevitably going to influence someone out there IF the piece of art in question (be it a book, painting, song, film, whatever) is exposed to the right person(s) who would find inspiration in such a piece of art. Of course not all art is equally exposed and doesn’t always find an audience but I do think that art is a reflection that bounces back and forth between artist and spectator and it’s that ‘bounce’ that makes a piece of work an actual ARTwork, instead of ‘just’ being words on a page that no one has read, or a painting no one has seen or a song no one has heard. The piece of work exists no matter what but it only truly comes alive as a piece of art when someone is exposed to it and somehow responding to the artwork. Does that make sense?

  4. I want to make clear that I don’t mean that a piece of work can’t be fantastic and brilliant without an audience. I’m just not sure it’s worth thinking in terms of ‘art’ until other people have seen it and responded to it. Until then it only exists to you and an ‘artist’, in my opinion, shouldn’t be obsessed with whether it’s art or not, but should just create because it’s part of one’s natural being to do so. Whether it’s art or not shouldn’t be the concern of the artist, that should be left to the audience to decide

    • But very interesting thoughts, Ida. Thanks for chiming in:-) I will write a reply some day… Consider yourself warned;-) (Not that we’re disagreeing much, as I see it, btw.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s