Francisco de Goya, "Saturn Devouring His Sons"

I am fascinated by our long human history of violence. There is something disturbing and moving about our creativity-in-destruction. At the same time, I am wholly invested in beauty. The splendor of what is good and true. This is my great contradiction.

What can I say? Martial arts amaze me, but I will not touch a gun. I love action movies, yet (with Thomas Aquinas) I believe we must never personally intend the death of another human being. Whether or not I admit it to you (and more than likely I will not), I am often deeply moved by beautiful things. Still I comprehend the ugly power of annihilation, and know that art in some way is marred by this, too.

Art, with its taut relationship with conflict. Art, which in some secret fashion betrays to us the knowledge that there are those who desire to destroy what is good – and that the good is worth defending. That is what art does, you see. It reminds us of what is worthy.

But when is violence worthy?

Art and violence in some way pull at one another, and not as mere opposites. If art is to be a reflection of reality, after all, it should show us the wounds of this reality as well as its glory. That is why no story exists without conflict: our lives are lived marked by conflict, weltering in the shadow of evil – and the rejection of evil for the sake of the good.

Again, this does not make violence good. It only shows us that violence has wounded us, and that evil is a threat.

Or I think now of my beloved martial arts movies. I do not enjoy them for the sake of their blood; in fact, my favorites (all from Hong Kong) have very little blood at all. I appreciate them for their conviction that what the human body can do is amazing, and should be seen as such: the camera leaves room for us to see the action, leaves room for us to comprehend that there are some things worth defending. (Before the plot devolves into an all-too-typical nihilism, perhaps unable to bear the weight of any other conclusion.) The characters rise up in beautiful conflict. A beauty and a conflict felt more deeply by the old Westerns, yet perhaps never more accurately perceived than by Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai).

In such a movie, we see the human body harrowed.

“Purer” arts than this know this secret even better. There is dance, which makes no concealment of conflict yet finds no need to break bones. Or sculpture, which freezes the human body in a series of dynamic arcs. Or song, in which the human body itself becomes the entirety of an instrument.

A song will at times agonize us with longing, or a sculpture press us to tears. Or dance will contort the human body to its disintegration. Art reminds us of sorrow as well as victory.

And violence – violence is the terrible mask of a humanity disfigured by tragedy. Violence is the testament to the cost of existence. Art has, for better or for worse, learned this, too.