The art of discomfort
What scares us the most is what we remember. The moments in which we felt frightened, hesitant and uneasy are the moments that stick out to us, the events we remember years after the fact. It is what makes us uncomfortable that leaves a lasting mark.
“Parasite” did not win four Oscars because it reminded the Academy of home. It won because it didn’t. It was original, it was different, it challenged the perspectives of its viewers and forced them to reconsider what makes a good film. The subject was uncomfortable, the final scenes daunting, yet, as the film ended, the words spoken by audience members worldwide were “I need to see that again.”
It is through uncomfortable pieces of art that we learn invaluable lessons. What makes us ill at ease signifies that there is something occurring that we don’t understand. What is wrong is to stop yourself because of that feeling. To pause the movie, to dog-ear the page, to unplug your headphones. These seemingly minute actions terminate any possible chance for exposure to something beyond our realm, to something that has the power to change us.
The isolation created by the refusal to immerse oneself within uncomfortable art not only is a disservice to one’s self but also solidifies the preexisting barriers that separate people who are different from each other. Declining the opportunity to learn from other’s experiences is declining an opportunity to connect. The fear that stops one from crossing this bridge is nothing compared to the fear that results from division.
Art provides opportunities to become more knowledgeable about people, backgrounds and traditions different from your own. Stories of struggle, of loss, of pain expressed through poetry or music do not require a discussion. They only require your attention, your reading, your listening. You may not understand the world art opens the door to, but after spending a moment in it, you will not be so afraid of it.
This is not to say there is no purpose in the works of art that speak to you, artwork that was written for you, that was meant to make you feel safe. After all, art that makes you feel uncomfortable may be welcoming to someone else. Neil Gaiman’s art is known for its unique style — a style some avoid and others embrace. What inspires us may not come from the same place.
But because art contains an unimaginable power in its ability to connect and bridge and relate, a sliver or two will often speak to you. There is something behind the cover you preemptively judged that you will cherish forever. Something within the film not hinted at in the description. Something within the song written by someone who does not look like you.
What a shame it is for those who stop themselves from taking these chances. For those who don’t listen to an artist because they do not understand their language. For those who foolishly believe that music is entirely about the words and not the feeling that the piece as a whole evokes. To never hear the soft sadness of “Quiero” by Ed Maverick or the catchy rhythm of “C’est beau, c’est toi” by Philippine. To succumb to the sentiment that art is only meant to be understood in one way.
“Homie,” a collection of poetry by Danez Smith, was not written for a white cis-gender woman like myself. But the secrets they share, the stories they tell, the words they sew together make me so grateful to have had the chance to read along with them. For the opportunity to listen to the experiences of a person unlike myself and learn from them. For the opportunity to grow. For the opportunity to read the poem “I’m going back to Minnesota where sadness makes sense” among several others and feel it so deeply. There is magic in art, and it is a privilege to be able to participate in art like “Homie.” While some of Smith’s poems detail experiences unknown to me and others expose important lessons for me to learn, every word is magic.
The things we do not understand have kept us detached for too long. Do not miss opportunities to learn, to experience magic because they make you uncomfortable, because they make you afraid. Engage with art precisely because of those reasons; engage with art because you have the privilege to do so. And learn how to engage in different ways — not all art requires your input. Some art is meant to ignite us. Other art is meant merely to be seen.
Art that makes you uncomfortable is the most powerful art of all. Bask in it. Rejoice in the discomfort.
Revel in your fear.