As part of the closing weekend of the London Film Festival, the ICA hosted a day-long symposium entitled Violence and the Arts. The aim, writes Chris Darke, was to examine why the artists deal with violent subject matter rather than the effect it has on the audience.

The opening was provocative: a screening of Michael Haneke's controversial film Funny Game and an interview with the director. Haneke's film traumatically details the exploits of two excessively well-mannered psychopaths who trap, terrorise and kill a well-heeled Austrian family. When a director declares that Pasolini's seminally gruelling Salo: 120 Days of Sodom provided his cinematic road to Damascus, you know you're in for a rough ride. Funny Games is self-consciously tough going. It could be called an example of sado-masochistic cinema. As Haneke put it: "This film is so unpleasant that you have to talk about it to rid yourself of it." This made the director's rather cursory responses to some of the more interesting questions disappointing. He was unwilling to consider any connection with the work of fellow Austrian Hermann Nitsch, the conceptual artist and founder of Viennese Actionism, whose work is currently showing in London.

"You shouldn't confuse apples with pears, even if they both come from Austria" was Haneke's unhelpful response. While he railed against the use of irony in the treatment of violence in the films of Quentin Tarantino, he went on to claim his film as being utterly ironic in its use of cinematic conventions. That begged the question about whether one film-maker's form of irony, if presented as austere modernist moralising, is somehow better and more improving than another's.

Gordon Burn is a writer who has tracked psychopathic violence more closely than most. Author of the Peter Sutcliffe study, Somebody's Mother, Somebody's Son, and of a forthcoming book on Rosemary West, Burn came up with revealing anecdotal details about the cost to a writer of staring deep into horror. He told of how, in his notes, he found himself unable to refer to the Wests as Fred and Rose but abbreviated them to RW and FW. He had to wrestle with calling Sutcliffe by his first name in his account. The details he had accumulated following the Wests had made him want to walk out of the screening of Haneke's film.

The question of personal proximity to violence and the place of the body in its representation was imaginatively explored by the novelist Jenny Diski. Reading an excerpt from her novel The Dream Mistress to a back projection of a corneal operation from the 1960s TV medical documentary Your Life in Their Hands, Diski launched into a charmingly casual but thought-provoking meditation on the body.

Perhaps the most terrifying screening came in Diski's judicious choice of the closing moments of Nic Roeg's Don't Look Now. Donald Sutherland, fragments of his life kaleidoscopically edited, reminded one of the potential of a visionary cinema and was a liberating experience.