As odd as it sounds, there are a lot of good reasons to spend some time with art that makes us uncomfortable. Pushing boundaries can change the way we think about the world and each other. Whether it makes us consider our social responsibility, work on our ability to really observe, or just make us laugh at the absurdity, uncomfortable art does us a service.
At the last PNCA MFA exhibit, students explored some of these uncomfortable elements with their thesis work. Savanna Youngquist’s Being Half and Whole looks serene at first glance: just some pieces of a bedroom. But as you progress through the installation, it becomes apparent that the simplicity—the rumpled pillows, the two facing mirrors—tell a story about complicated relationships and feelings of abandonment.
Fellow PNCA student Aruni Dharmakirthi’s Fissures of the In-Between has a similar sort of motif: something that seems benign on the surface but is far more uncomfortable underneath. At first, the tattered sari fabric hanging from the ceiling combines with the colorful animations to inspire a sense of beauty. But everything gets creepier when you notice that patterns contain hidden images of disembodied heads.
“I believe being made uncomfortable is a powerful way for us to learn what we care most about, where our boundaries really are,” writes editor Miki Johnson. “Most people see something like Kohei Yoshiyuki’s The Park or Tierney Gearon’s Daddy, Where Are You? and think, ‘Ew, I don’t like this. This makes me feel weird. This makes me sad.’ My reaction starts there, but includes a follow-up question that makes all the difference: ‘Why don’t I like this? Why does this make me feel weird and sad?’”
Johnson notes that difficult art can make us feel uncomfortable. Whereas it’s easier to judge—which makes us feel in control—uncomfortable art makes us second-guess our initial reactions and what we take away from looking at a piece.
There’s another reason to look at art that makes us uncomfortable: It challenges us to see things as they really are. As Amy Herman writes for Quartz Media, “We learn the value of looking closely at things that we don’t like or understand…In the age of Photoshop perfection and Snapchat ephemera, I want more people to practice looking at what appears ungainly, misshapen, disturbing, and cruel…Learning to thoughtfully move past these reactions can teach us more effective ways to contend with the economic, political, and cultural injustices that we face today.”
Of course we should be consuming art we enjoy. But there’s merit in taking the time to explore the art we don’t enjoy as well—and asking why we don’t enjoy it. And what we can learn from it.