While studying the effects of tragedy and its performance in theatre, Aristotle mentions in Poetics for the first time the term “katharsis”. Now, over the two millennia since there has been significant philological debate among scholars as to the nuances of this concept. However, the general consensus, to which I subscribe and will try to present, is that katharsis encompasses the idea of emotional purification through art. My personal reading of it is that, essentially, by approaching the performance of tragedy, the viewer is offered a safe medium where their emotions can be released. Keeping this conception of artistic apprehension in mind, it is absurd to suggest, like many people seem to do in regards to ‘Joker’, that the screening of a film, to take the current case, incites to violence. What art does, if anything, is the opposite of that: it wraps the manifestation of our feelings within the fictional world. We understand this tacitly, long before our aesthetics professors explain in to us, and we accept it as part of the complex contract between art, author, viewer, and outside world that we sign. Children playfully discover by themselves that things are possible in language that are not possible in the world (see Joyce) and around the same time that things are possible in fiction that are not possible outside of it, where they reside. The two worlds then, the real (whatever that may mean) and the fictional are perceived by our minds as distinct and separate. That is, however, far from saying they do not influence one other: the fictional world draws from the objective one constantly, both explicitly and implicitly (assumptions, laws of physics, etc) while history shows that the latter can be transformed by art as well. But this differentiation is why people don’t kill each other at the end of any action movie. Our relationship with the fictional differs greatly from our relationship with the fictional.
Movement in the outside world can be explained away as having been provoked by art, but it is still the result of conscious and responsible human agents. Violence is an integral part of human nature and its manifestations among individuals have to do with agency and free will, self-control, and, ultimately, morality. It is true that across all movements and currents throughout history art has been labeled as either acceptable (moral) or decadent; the criteria for what constitutes either changing constantly. However, this is still a reflection of human subjectivity and their ability to invest things with meaning (which creates symbols, and therefore art, in the first place). Changes in our relationship with the outside world (such as manifesting violence) seldom come from contact with artistic expression. And even if they do, sovereignty over the self makes us completely responsible. Asking for the forbidding or censoring of artistic expression for this reason is silly and can become downright dangerous (but we will not touch on the political aspect here). This incessant insistence on external factors as the driving force of human behaviour comes from a series of theories within the standard social science model such as moral relativism, social constructionism, and cultural determinism. Again, this is not to oversimplify and consider them wrong. The impact of cultural artifacts and constructs upon our development and behaviour has been greatly studied and documented and it would be foolish to deny. The problem, I believe occurs only when theory is raised to the rank of dogma. The extreme view and tendency to disconsider beliefs and values such as responsibility, objective morality, and free will (though I understand one runs the risk of seeming unfashionable) is what pushes people to ask for movies to be taken out of theaters.
‘Joker’ distances itself from all previous depictions of the character. Gotham’s Clown Prince of Crime never lacked the ability to trigger deep, philosophical thought, as can be seen from the great many articles, studies, and books written about him and the relationship with Batman. However, the audience always understood that Joker represented the chaos that simply exists. Whether we agree or not with how Batman approaches life or his view on crime and criminals, audiences always understood that the Joker represented evil. He always justified himself with his ontological inversion of the relationship between norm and insanity: he was perfectly sane in this mass of abnormality protected by the Caped Crusader and he acted out according to his perverted existential principles. However, we judged his deranged results by the standard of our consciousness and shared values and morality. The attempt to justify evil by questioning its very nature is still an attempt to justify evil. Collective wisdom, what rebels like Joker view as the tyrannical, unfair norm, also has the function of correcting ethical derailing. In the context of all this, what happens when you give the character a background of mental illness due to abuse is a powerful friction that I believe is responsible for the worldwide outrage the film caused. The uneasiness I mentioned in the title surfaces because the viewer is caught between conflicting feelings. On the one hand, mercy for the character of Arthur Fleck, who is beaten repeatedly, has a history of mental illness, has been abused as a child, is fatherless, lives in poverty, has to take care of his mother, is unable to form meaningful connections (even though he imagines, hence, desires them), and is abandoned by the social system which was supposed to help him. On the other hand, the solutions he chooses to deal with all these come into conflict with our traditional sense of right and wrong and transform the character into a harbinger of evil. I have seen the movie twice and it is still difficult for me to say if this tension is precisely what the creators were going for or if they simply followed the standard social science model in an attempt to portray how we push evil into existence through our constructs and artifacts. If the latter is the case, like many people seem to believe, the outrage should come as no surprise. The view disconsiders our ability to choose our response to the challenges of the external world, so presenting someone like the Joker as a potential object for empathy upsets our morality. And no matter how much we try to throw it into the oblivion of relativity, eventually people will see through the post-modern bullshit.