There are two types of people in the world: those who spend time reading about serial killers on Wikipedia, and those who do not. If, like me, you are one of the former, you've probably come across the game Super Columbine Massacre. Part satire, part hugely insensitive personal project, Danny Ledonne's video game recreation of the infamous school shooting was widely criticized when it was released in 2006.
Like it or not, Ledonne wasn't alone in making art out of tragedy. The newest film in Paul Greengrass' tragedy-cum-cinema canon, Captain Phillips, does the same. The film, a cinematic exploration of the Maersk Alabama hijacking, was adapted from the eponymous captain’s book. As of writing, Rotten Tomatoes has given the film a 94% fresh rating. What is it the magic ingredient that differentiates Captain Philips and Super Columbine Massacre? Why should the former be considered a valid artistic endeavour while the latter is considered distasteful exploitation?
The event portrayed seems to have little to do with it. The Holocaust, for instance, has been the topic of some exceptional pieces of work, from Schindler’s List to The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas. (While Rabbi Benjamin Blech described the latter as a "profanation," his response was unique, and quickly countered by fans who saw the work as a sensitive exploration of the genocide.) Other portrayals have been roundly condemned. Earlier this year, Dusseldorf-based opera company Deutsche Oper am Rhein staged Wagner’s Tannhauser with a concentration camp aesthetic. People responded so strongly to images of chorus members dying in gas chambers that they stormed out, booed, and even sought medical help. The company acknowledged that the staging was controversial, stripped the show of its directorial vision, and performed it as a concert for the rest of the run.
Gravitas matters, as does the controversial subject matter's centrality to the piece itself. Consider a corollary to the staging of Tannhauser. Imagine if people in their ballgowns going to the Met were to find their champagne and chit chat sandwiched by a restaging of Tosca before the backdrop of the Rwandan genocide. If the tragedy portrayed is tangential to the piece, or tacked on, it can feel exploitative and unexpected, especially in the context of a night that's as much about socializing as it is about appreciating theater. In the case of Ledonne's game, a massacre was paired with a medium that's thought of as fun.
We depend on critics to alert us to such missteps. However, if we allow critics to define what is tasteful and what is not tasteful, then we leave artistic merit in the hands of the very few. In the case of Captain Phillips, critics leaped to laud it as soon as it premiered at the New York Film Festival. As a result, an entrenched fanbase will now counter any claims that the film is profane by citing its reception as a well-acted and well-directed piece of cinema. Similarly, Titanic, though factually dubious, survives in popular memory thanks to its big profits and swath of Oscars. And in contrast, despite its stellar cast, Diana has been torn apart for poor pacing in the wake of a hostile response to its release at all.
Rather than depending on critics' after-the-fact responses, perhaps we should engage audiences in the creation of controversial works of art, giving them less reason to storm out or become offended. An example of this might be Kickstarter-funded projects, or Brenda Romero’s Train, a board game and work of art that makes the audience complicit in turning entertainment into tragedy. Romero's work lays bare what Super Columbine Massacre did not: that by taking in these works of art, and responding to them, the audience is just as voyeuristic as the artwork itself.