Uncomfortable Art

The screen dimmed. The credits began to roll. I let out a sigh and untensed my shoulders. Behind us, as moviegoers shuffled out through the rows, I heard dark, muttered comments and one loud “That was the worst movie I’ve ever seen!”

We’d just seen “Sorry to Bother You,” a trippy, surrealist movie that starts out as a kind of quirky comedy but quickly transforms into a psychological thriller slash social commentary touching on themes of class, race, art, and capitalism. The story took several shocking, even grotesque turns, and refused to comply with the simple, familiar tropes of a normal comedy.

You may be beginning to understand why it was so unpopular in the theater that day.

Was it the best movie I’d ever seen? Nope. But was it the worst? Not even close.

The movie had something to say, and it wasn’t afraid to say it. It tackled complex issues—issues we usually try to dodge—unapologetically and head-on.

It wasn’t bad. It was uncomfortable.

Most people don’t like to be uncomfortable, and we certainly don’t want to pay for the privilege of sitting in a movie theater for two hours with raised eyebrows, open mouths, and tense shoulders.

But I think uncomfortable art and media are necessary.

Sure, sometimes we just want mindless entertainment. Sometimes we need it. And I get that—sometimes life gets a little heavy, and all you want to do is watch some “Office” on Netflix.

But when’s the last time you watched something that bugged you enough that you thought about it for days afterward?

In the days after watching “Sorry to Bother You,” I wrestled with the plot and the characters, trying to understand motivations and themes. I examined the movie’s arguments and tried to understand their relevance in our culture today.

The movie made me uncomfortable. So it made me think.

Uncomfortable art has other purposes, too: to stir us to awareness, action, new ideas, and empathy. To disrupt the status quo and shake us out of apathy.

When we engage with uncomfortable art, we’re forced to step out of our known routines, relationships, and environments, and encounter the artist’s work naked and shivering. (You know that half second when you just step out of the shower, right before you grab your towel? Like that.)

In the same way that citizens of a democracy have a duty to vote and to stay informed, I believe we have a moral obligation to encounter art that makes us uncomfortable.

Especially in today’s political climate, in an increasingly polarized and partisan America, I believe uncomfortable art has the power to plant seeds in us. If we come to uncomfortable art with open minds and open hearts, the result will be an increased empathy for those we classify as different, as other. Our core beliefs may not change, but at the very least, we’re forced to reexamine them, to ask, “Do I still believe this? Why?” And we’re forced to face the people we disagree with, are given glimpses into their lives and what drives them.

So, go see “Sorry to Bother You” this week. Just be prepared to be uncomfortable.

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