Horizons of Discomfort: some thoughts on Dissonance
Updated: Sep 30
By Vicki Benn
We go through life feeling reasonably comfortable and in control, right? We are on a path, a track towards the future. Systems are in place to help us get there-society chugs along like a well-oiled machine. If we want to, we can seek solace in the idea of an afterlife.
But wait, what’s that sound? The path may have some potholes, some detours, and the voices in society aren’t always singing in unison. Billy Bragg once wrote about ‘the sound of ideologies clashing.’ He was talking about the sound of dissonance. Dissonance as a concept is relatively easy to grasp. It’s the opposite of harmony, its something that disrupts: a dropped beat in a song, a change in a poem’s rhyme scheme, an unexpected element in a painting. The harder thing to grasp is the value of dissonance: why does it matter?
Modern philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) celebrated the concept. Where the Classical philosophers generally strove for harmony and put faith in an ideal realm beyond this world (as does religion), Nietzsche wanted to get down into the nitty-gritty of this world. He celebrated noise and disruption as ways of shaking us out of our complacent beliefs. One of Nietzsche’s complaints was the way we reject the messy present, preferring to live in the realm of the ideal. Dissonance understands the present as full of competing, fragmented voices. It helps us to see our own reality as just one among many others.
In the visual arts, what could be more dissonant than Patricia Piccinini’s strange hybrid creatures? The more we examine these hyper real but entirely fictional creations, the more we wonder, the less we know. Piccinini herself encourages this dissonant state between wonder and revulsion. As long as ‘the viewer is held through their discomfort’ the encounter is productive.
To be open to the dissonant is to be open to the impossible, to that which challenges our preconceptions and offers up new possibilities of truth and knowledge. And as Nietzsche says, it allows us to fully engage in the messy present.