Over the past week or so, I’ve gotten more and more irritated by the indiscriminate use of the word “controversial” to describe art and pop culture. It’s a classic case of a word not meaning what the people who use it seem to mean. And in some cases, deploying it can be actively unhelpful in communicating to an audience what’s actually interesting or moving about a piece of art.
Take Compliance, one of my favorite feature films out of Sundance. The subject of the movie, the detention and sexual assault of a young fast-food restaurant worker named Becky, is undoubtedly uncomfortable viewing for some people. The first time it aired at the festival, some members of the audience by images of star Dreama Walker underdressed or nude and being mistreate (and in proof that being a rich progressive doesn’t make you classy, some creep decided to shout things about how hot Walker is in the midst of that discussion). But the subject matter of the movie isn’t actually controversial: nobody thinks that the things that happen to Becky should have happened, and the movie makes it clear that they’re awful. And the making of the movie itself doesn’t seem to be the source of the controversy. As director Craig Zobel told me, he worked with Walker both to make sure she felt she wasn’t being exploited as an actress, and to make sure she felt like the movie would be something audiences would walk away from having absorbed the messages that Zobel intended to send. There may be a controversy over whether artists should portray bad things happening to women at all, but our culture seems to have settled on an agreement that it’s generally fine as long as you’re not making snuff pornography. Compliance is challenging, uncomfortable, and deeply moving. It is not controversial.
The Los Angeles Times does a nice job of fisking another occurrence of the phenomenon, this time NPR describing the long-dead and long-canonized artist Jackson Pollock’s work as controversial. There are controversies adjacent to Pollock, of course: if a toddler does the same thing, but without intention, is it art? Is the painting authenticator Paul Biro claims to have verified as the work Pollockreal or part of a scheme by Biro to pass off fakes? But Pollock’s work itself is not the subject of a genuine controversy: describing it that way is just a way to gin up pageviews.
Or worse, alleging controversy where there is none is a way of indicating false equivalence in an attempt to avoid charges of bias. The claim of false equivalency is one of the biggest debates in journalism right now, the source of the debate over whether the New York Times should “fact-check” (probably the wrong term for it) politicians’ claims. But art, even more so than politics, is an arena where writers should feel comfortable making judgements and refusing to pretend there’s an equal debate, or a debate at all, where there isn’t. Labeling something controversial or treating it as dangerous when it’s merely challenging is a way of keeping people away from art rather than getting them to engage with it.