Beautiful provocation

I encountered two opposite but complementary views about the nature of art this week.

One perspective was posted on Facebook and came from Joyce Carol Oates: “My belief is that art should not be comforting; for comfort, we have mass entertainment and each other. Art should provoke, disturb, arouse our emotions, expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish.”

The other was from legendary director Akira Kurosawa: “I want to make movies, beautiful movies. I’ve pursued that goal for more than 50 years, close to 60 years now. But I don’t think I’ve yet fully grasped what a movie is … I would like everyone to savor the beauty of cinema.”

The quote is in a documentary attached to Kurosawa’s classic film Ikiru, about a boring man who discovers he is dying of cancer and commits to spending his last days not being boring. I watched the film again and was comforted by the beautiful, iconic shot of the man, played by Takashi Shimura, riding a swing in the rain while singing a sad old folk song. The image is comforting and provoking at the same time.

Kurosawa may not have fully grasped what a movie is, but he made some of the most beautiful films in cinematic history. And I probably would never have exposed myself to his work had I not been intrigued by the image of Shimura — whom I knew from his work as Dr. Yamane in my childhood favorite Godzilla — in another role. So mass entertainment does play a role in this mix.

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