Why Good Art Makes You Uncomfortable

Judging = control

A few months ago* some friends here in San Francisco started a Photo Book Club, where we all get together at someone’s house for wine, food, and photo book perusing. If you have a photo book collection, I’m guessing, like us, you don’t take them out to enjoy as much as you’d like. This is our solution.

Jackson and I hosted the third installment of Photo Book Club last month. It was rowdy and crowded but I was proud that I could feed everyone (albeit using a medley of mismatched bowls and cups) and that people actually spent time looking at the books. (It’s easy to get lost in conversation, especially with the array of talented, fascinating creative photo people assembled, and never make it to the looking.)

One friend in particular seemed to have a “can’t look away” reaction to several books I had selected for perusal. “I feel like I’m about to cry,” she said, picking up yet another book on an uncomfortable subject. “You sure like them weird and intense.”

I’m the kind of person who loves when someone shows me something about myself that was formerly invisible. Although I’d never thought about my taste in photography that way, it made perfect sense. I crave challenges; I am a proponent of “risk with rewards”; and I believe that being made uncomfortable is a powerful ways for us to learn what we care most about, where our boundaries really are.

Most people see something like Kohei Yoshiyuki’s The Park (above) or Tierney Gearon’s Daddy, Where Are You? (below) and think, “Ew, I don’t like this. This makes me feel weird. This makes me sad.” My reaction starts there, but includes a follow-up question that makes all the difference: “Why don’t I like this? Why does this make me feel weird and sad?”

Consider The Park. Is what bothers me that it feels voyeuristic? That the girls look like they might not be entirely consenting? Or is it also that I want to see more? That I find myself a little turned on by something I thought I disapproved of? Or is it really the ambiguity, that I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about this that I dislike the most?

With Daddy, Where Are You? I’m able to further refine my attraction to this particular kind of uncomfortableness. In part the book intrigues me because it treads the line between documentary and staged photography. Gearon is using her mother and infant (either too young or not of sound enough mind to truly give their permission) to act out scenes that reverberate with her memories and feelings of being a child with an absentee father and unsettled mother. As a viewer, this adds an extra layer of discomfort: “Are these images ‘honest’ or ‘true,’ let alone ‘fair’?” They are beautiful but of ugly things. I feel like I am being manipulated subtly because of this. I want to know which are spontaneous and which are staged because this will make it easier for me to judge them. Judging makes me feel in control.

And so I find in thinking through my attraction to both these books, everything comes back to the fact that they make me feel out of control. I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about them. I don’t know if they are “true” or not. That ambiguity serves two purposes for me. First, it lights up my discomfort with ambiguity and loss of control. I know this is a hot button for me. And like a soldier with PTSD, I have prescribed myself dulling exercises, taking small steps in the direction of uncontrol in order to make my experience of it less intense. And so I seek out (whether consciously or unconsciously) things that make me uncomfortable and lacking in control.

The second reason I’m drawn to ambiguity is, as I mentioned at first, that it helps me understand what really matters to me. If I can feel my way through the fear of not knowing how I’m supposed to feel about these books, I come out on the other side with a better understanding of how I actually feel about them. In this moment I think I might like them simply because they illuminate something honest about humans. I am, after all, an anthropologist at heart. They remind me that humans like to watch other humans, that humans can have huge impacts on other humans, that humans prefer to be told how to feel about things.

Finally, I’m reminded that the power of creative works is only half in the seeing/hearing/reading. The other half is in the reflecting back of other’s perceptions. Of weighing your own reaction in comparison to theirs. If my friend hadn’t pointed out my “strange” taste in photo books, I might have sensed these insights, but I would never have been able to see them straight on like I can now.

*I first published this post in March 2014 on a now-defunct blog that ultimately held just this one post. I think it still makes a good point so I’m reviving it here.