When nothing shocks us any more

Most people can pass by any image, however brutal, with a single look of horror and then give just a quick shrug of forgetfulness

The BBC 1 drama Care, broadcast last night, fielded a succession of horrifying images. Even if you had decided to put yourself through it as your Sunday-night viewing, in preference to the entertainments offered by other channels - such as the feelgood little film Jack and Sarah, or a jolly session of Never Mind the Buzzcocks - you might still have ended up leaving the room or looking away from the screen during its darker moments.

The BBC 1 drama Care, broadcast last night, fielded a succession of horrifying images. Even if you had decided to put yourself through it as your Sunday-night viewing, in preference to the entertainments offered by other channels - such as the feelgood little film Jack and Sarah, or a jolly session of Never Mind the Buzzcocks - you might still have ended up leaving the room or looking away from the screen during its darker moments.

If not, you would have seen a little boy's face pressed into a pillow as he was raped; you would have seen him flushing blood-sodden paper down a lavatory; you would have seen him being forced by an adult to rub his forehead into shards of broken glass. You would have seen another boy act out a suicide by riding a motorbike into a wall; you would have seen a grown man hanging himself. And you would have seen a man driving his fist into a woman's face and threatening his mother with a carving knife.

The makers of Care - the writer Kieran Prendiville and the director Antonia Bird - clearly felt that this was a moral and necessary piece of drama. Certainly, they have one unarguable point to make, which is that these things do happen and that we look away from them too easily. The drama was based on real events that happened in children's homes in North Wales during an epidemic of abuse that went unchallenged for years.

As the journalist Christian Wolmar makes clear in a book to be published next week ( Forgotten Children: the secret abuse scandal in children's homes), the magnitude of this scandal has never really been confronted, not by the courts, the press nor the public. And despite all the inquiries and prosecutions that have occurred in the past few years, it would be pretty implausible to suggest that kids in care homes are just fine now. No, abuse still goes on, children are still disbelieved, support is still patchy and prosecutions too few and far between.

So who would criticise the BBC or the film-makers for wanting to air these issues, to try to make them real to the apathetic public? If we cared a little more, a little less of this abuse would go on and vulnerable children wouldn't fall through the holes in support services quite so easily. An exercise in consciousness-raising must be a valid one.

But will a drama such as this help to raise consciousness? I wonder. The problem lies partly in the film itself, but just as much with the culture that now exists around such drama.

Bird and Prendiville wanted to shock us. They wanted us to rise from our sofas and say, "This must be stopped; this is too horrifying." They wanted us to remember those images of rape and violence. They wanted to have an impact. And for a few moments, they succeeded. The images were shocking. But they were given to us in a thin context. The film relied on the quick gasp, the impact of blood and fear, rather than the slower web of human emotion and betrayal that must be built up if a drama is to stick in one's mind.

And it exists in a world where we are constantly exposed to shocking images, where every day, writers, artists, film-makers and journalists compete to shove our faces into tragedy and anguish. In such a world, the power of images to disturb or to rouse us to action is dissipated.

So, many successful artists have little to offer but a desire to shock. One of the books that has unexpectedly reached the Booker shortlist this year, Trezza Azzopardi's The Hiding Place, relies for its effects on pushing you forward, further and further, into the intimate realms of family violence.

"Luca is only two; she hasn't learned to fear him yet. He lifts her by the scruff of the neck, catching hair and the soft skin at the nape and pulling it into a scream. Lifts her with one hand and throws her through the back door where she skids on her arm and face across the concrete floor."

This is a deeply disturbing image. But, like the images provided by so much contemporary writing, although it momentarily wells up in your mind, it lacks the power of great literature to stay there. Shock alone is never enough; we still need the more complicated artistic virtues of moral vision and rich technique, before we will be stirred into pity or horror.

I couldn't help feeling much the same scepticism when I visited the Royal Academy's Apocalypse exhibition. The debate around the exhibition centres on how disturbing each work is, as if that were the only value that art today can have. Certainly, the crowds are thickest around the most supposedly shocking works of all - especially the film by Chris Cunningham, which, as the delighted punters can read on the wall as they queue for entry to his little cinema, "contains violent and sexually explicit images that some may find disturbing".

Indeed, the images he shows should disturb us - a naked woman being socked in the mouth, spitting blood, panting, crawling away in apparent terror from a man with an erection - but do they? Do they remain in our minds for any longer than it takes us to walk from that room to the next? Divorced from any artistic context except their own slick brutality, such images live for a second, and then die.

In this cultural context, where every artefact has to be a bit more shocking than the last thing on show, the last excursion into childhood violence or the last image of blood and broken flesh, what chance does a drama such as Care have to raise our consciousness? Not much, I'd guess, though I'd love to be proved wrong.

Once upon a time, states used censorship and repression to make sure that images of their brutality didn't get through to a wider world that might then condemn them. But now, they can usually rely not on the censor but on the huge drift of indifference, which means that most people can pass by any image, however brutal, with a single look of horror and then a quick shrug of forgetfulness.

When you saw those images of 12-year-old Mohammed al-Durrah being killed by Israeli bullets last week, didn't you think - for at least a couple of minutes - that something would have to change? Didn't you wonder if the shame brought on the Israelis as they were seen to mow down a child civilian would make them think again about their policy of using machine guns, tanks and helicopter gun-ships against civilians throwing stones?

Even Bill Clinton seemed horrified by the sight of the violence that was brought home in those stuttering video sequences of the last minutes of the child's life, and spoke of his own raised emotions.

But it doesn't take long for indifference to prevail. New images have succeeded Mohammed al-Durrah on the world's front pages, and so it's easy for America, a week on, to abstain from a UN resolution condemning Israeli violence. No one seems very surprised any more, nor very angry - except for the Palestinians, of course, but until another one of their children is murdered on video, who is listening?

The news media have changed enormously over the last couple of decades, shifting their attention from high-level diplomacy and policy to the stories of victims. But sometimes it seems that the deluge of shocking images that has resulted simply feeds our hunger for horrifying spectacle - whether the spectacle is fictional, true, or somewhere in between.

We watch for a few minutes and then turn to the next image, and the damaged lives that might lie behind the spectacle tend to stay well hidden.

n.walter@btinternet.com

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