It’s not news that the Internet can get out of hand, but stories like these, or the response to a Marvel comic showing Captain America as a Hydra agent, suggest something about the changing nature of the relationship between audiences and the art they love.
What bothers me about stories like these is not so much that they’re about adults getting upset about a children’s cartoon or comic book, or people having extraordinarily strong emotional reactions to a television show or comic character, period.
Powerful art can be made in any genre, or in stories intended for any audience; that’s why grown-ups find themselves deeply touched by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s chronicles of her family’s pioneer wanderings or J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” novels. Art is supposed to have an impact. If you emerge from a work completely unmoved or unengaged, the artist has failed on some level. And when these kerfuffles erupt over stories about characters from communities who are largely marginalized in mass culture, I understand that more generalized frustration is boiling over, even if I don’t think it’s a particularly strong tactical choice to make a single story bear the weight of an entire industry’s failures.
But that these reactions have spilled over into threats and harassment is troubling both because I hate to see public discourse escalate to that level no matter the subject, and because these incidents represent a fundamental breakdown in the relationships between audiences and artists.
The idea that fans should be able to get their art made to order has always felt odd to me, because on a fundamental level, art is about trust. When we open a book, put on an album, start a new television show, or settle in as the lights go down in a movie theater, we’re preparing ourselves for what is fundamentally an act of submission. We’re giving ourselves over to a world of someone else’s making, a piece of music that emanated from someone else’s brain, a story where we have no ability to control the outcome, or, at minimum, someone else’s interpretation of a familiar narrative.
This is why art is genuinely transporting, rather than simply satisfying. If we had total control over what we were getting from art, we wouldn’t experience true surprise at a plot twist, the thrill of pieces of a story falling into a place we could not have anticipated, or the joy of sounds we couldn’t have juxtaposed ourselves, but that together are perfection. Our pleasures might be more precisely tailored, but they would be missing that particular experience of art giving us the thing we didn’t know we needed or wanted. The best art expands our sense of the world and what we can experience from it, rather than keeping us within neat, comfortable, pre-existing confines.
None of which is to say that this is a one-sided experience. There are plenty of ways for us to withdraw our consent to the artistic contract if we find that we don’t like what’s happening in a piece of work. Critics may grit our teeth and work our way through to the end, but audiences can always put down a book, change the channel, click over to the next Pandora station, or walk out of a movie, concert or stage performance, as I’ve done at two successive operas.
That said, having had enough of a particular artistic experience is not the same thing as changing the nature of artistic consumption. And newly-assertive fandoms are not the only way in which the relationship between audience, art and artist feels deeply unsettled right now.
Demands for specific plot elements are happening side-by-side with the rising expectation, fueled by Netflix’s business model, that full seasons of new shows will be available immediately, and complaints that the content that people love so passionately costs too much. This is not to say that all of these developments overlap into a simple Venn diagram, a vortex of bad fan behavior.
Rather, it’s that in the midst of a new, innovative, often very exciting age of media, a rather old-fashioned impulse is emerging. Like Renaissance artistic patrons, some of us want work to be tailored to our own personal desires. But unlike the people who bought portraits or church decorations, we aren’t reckoning with the financial and artistic costs of having our visions realized.