Participating In The Evil

In his essay “On Evil in Art” (issue of December 17, 1971), Professor Thomas Howard of Gordon College asked: “Does there come a point at which the portrayal of evil passes a certain line and begins to participate in the evil it is portraying?” Clearly the mere portrayal of evil characters and deeds does not constitute participation. The crucial factor, as Howard notes, is not the presence of evil but the way it is treated: Is the artist standing on the side of the evil figures and acts he describes, leering at the audience, or with the audience sharing its revulsion and dismay?

To say that a writer has not participated in evil does not necessarily imply that he has explicitly condemned it. Indeed, because of the complexity of evil and the ambiguous situation of fallen man in a darkened world, a novelist or dramatist who realistically grapples with the problem of evil may find it impossible to sum up his work with an unambiguous moral judgment and the meting out of appropriate punishments and rewards.

This is done in medieval miracle and mystery plays and in some specimens of early modern mass culture—for example, the “Gangbusters” school. While not without a certain educational value, especially for the young, these highly moralistic efforts are seldom satisfactory. Not only do they frequently fail from an artistic perspective, but they generally are morally deficient as well, since they minimize the power of evil in this world. That evil will ultimately be judged and punished is a valid and necessary statement. But in this fallen world, evil may go unpunished, and art that depicts a situation in which the due punishment for evil appears inevitable may not ...

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