Art that glamourizes society’s dark side may be blurring reality and fantasy


For most artists, pushing the envelope comes with the job description: taking controversial subjects and interpreting them aesthetically can often help to get an artist noticed.

However, according to Mitch Kern, associate professor of photography at the Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD), stylized images of violence may have the effect of blurring the lines between reality and fantasy.

“As we have moved from more traditional forms of media into the social media landscape we find ourselves in today, I think viewers definitely have a hard time distinguishing between the different contexts,” Kern says.

For Kern, this means creating an open dialogue with his students in order to ensure they understand the subjects and are creating art that is meaningful. But this doesn’t always solve the problem.

BouquetWith the rise of social media, adding glamor to topics such as addiction has exploded in popularity according to Kern, but adds that this art has always been in society, just in different forms. Photo by Jodi Brak

“Where I think artists go wrong,” he says, “is when they [glamorize], violence gratuitously or nihilistically with no rationale or rational thought process.”

But according to ACAD student and artist Naomi Reinhart, artists are attracted to creating art with dark contexts because it has the ability to draw attention to the artist and their work — even if it means sacrificing a bit of morality. If an observer can feel an emotional connection to the art by reading its composition, Reinhart adds, that contributes to it’s appeal.

“When you’re an artist,” says Reinhart, “you want to try and get attention, and the most easy way possible to do that is creating something that reads, something that the viewer can understand, has an appeal too and connects with on an emotional level.”

Reinhart adds that although artists have the liberty to play with controversial subjects, they do have a responsibility.

Think of a pink gun, for example. It could have a feminist or protest meaning, but the issue, according to Reinhart, is when people are uneducated about the reality of the gun instead of the fantasy.

“I think as a designer we have a responsibility to send clear messages and speak to people,” says Reinhart. “As an artist we have the ability to really speak [in] different terms. But you’re looking at what is appropriate for what you are trying to depict.”

John Gaucher, a local photographer and instructor of visual art at ACAD, agrees with Reinhart, adding that artists have the power to dive into dark and violent matters to get value from them.

LipsAccording to visual art professor John Gaucher and other artists, art can go a long way towards starting a discussion around controversial topics. Photo by Jodi Brak

“One of the great things about fine arts,” says Gaucher, “and the arts field is that artists need to be able to delve into those dark corners and pull things out and examine them for people who otherwise might not do so. I think that’s the value.”

Interpreting and understanding a work of art based on the viewer’s own experiences is part of the power of art, according to Gaucher.

“It’s not necessarily a black and white answer,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to confront the viewer with a set of ideas or an idea and for them to examine their reaction to it.”

Chase Key, President of the Student Association at ACAD, adds that art depicting darker subject matter can also be healthy for artists and those who view their work, as it allows them to explore thoughts and ideas they might otherwise have ignored.

“Making art about vices allows the artist to confront something very real and relatable to them selves and others,” he says. “The world can be a terrifying place whether we like to admit it or not, and art around that subject matter shows everyone that they are not alone with the dark thoughts that plague their minds at 3 am.”

Nonetheless, Kern says fine arts are imbued with an ability to show dark subjects in an artistically beautiful manner because the final product can help enlighten people as a society.

“The great tradition of art takes you to a sublime place that’s really elevated in thought,” says Kern, “that hopefully has social justice as a component and has a kind of intellectually illuminating creative factor that enriches our society.”

Thumbnail photo by Jodi Brak 

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