You've probably read the Neil Gaiman essay about making good art. If not, go read it, or go check out this great cartoon adaptation of it.
I'm reminded of something Jonas Mekas once said, which I paraphrase here. He was disgusted by the cult of ugliness in art, the need to show ugly things as a way to confront them or to neutralize them. This he did not believe in. The best way to confront or neutralize ugliness in the world was to create beauty; that way you had one more beautiful thing in the world, the better to put the ugliness in its corner and crowd it out and outnumber it.
I used to be a pretty big fan of the, as I called it, Endurance Test school of entertainments, where the measure of a creative work's worth was how deeply the experience would scar you. That was before I realized a work could affect you in ways that had nothing to do with being scarred, and I realized I'd been missing out. (I don't know if practicing Zen had much to do with it, but my starting to practice Zen seemed to coincide nicely with the change of heart.)
The biggest way it affected me, though, wasn't just that I stopped trying to look for a movie even more messed-up than Salò or what have you. It was in how I sought out things to write about, and how to write about them. Again, nice coincidence: I started taking such thoughts seriously right around the time I wrote the first book I was really proud of, Summerworld. That was 2006 or so. It didn't take me until a book or so later that I realized why I was proud of it. It wasn't just because it was imaginative or lush (although it was those things); it was because it was humane.
People like to say things like, in the times we live in, prettifying things doesn't help, only action helps. Well, sure. If there's something that has to be done, don't shy away from it. Call or write your congresscritter. But also don't shy away from trying to make life a little more bearable in other ways.
You are probably as tired of hearing the expression "You can't fight hate with hate" as much as I am. So cheesy. So clichéd. But entirely true. You can't put up a bulwark against the bad things in life by way of more bad things, because, as Barrows Dunham put it, the gains hardly seem worth the degeneracy. Yes, plant yourself wherever you are and say "No, you move." But be a physician, too. Do no harm, first of all; don't make things worse than they already are. It's never your job to create suffering (Brad Warner), not even in the name of a "higher good". Maybe some people don't have the luxury of saying no to such things, like soldiers. But don't automatically assume, out of the gate, your condition is that intractable.
It's never ever ever in a billion jillion years a bad idea to start from the assumption that creating beautiful and humane things is itself beautiful and humane. There's a fan of my work, a woman who went through some truly awful times in her life right around the time she discovered Flight Of The Vajra. Reading that book kept her together, she told me; it gave her strength to keep going. No blurb by any critic or big-name author could even come close to that for me. But I also know I can't ask for such things. If they happen, just say yes to them and move on. If they don't, don't get hung up on that either. Life's too big for that.
Okay, some say, but what about reaching one person versus thousands of people? Don't we get bigger bangs for our buck by appealing to as wide an audience as we can? Sure, I say, but how can you guarantee that? Answer: you can't. You never know what a lot of people are going to end up liking, and it's not worth trying to second-guess all of them at once to find out. I'd rather reach one person earnestly and honestly than thousands deceitfully and mendaciously.
The vast majority of the time in this life, you don't get to choose such things anyway. Some creators have fame thrust upon them that they were totally unfit to deal with, and while it got them more widely known, it did terrible things to them psychologically, and the quality of their work suffered in turn. Also, being popular doesn't mean whatever it is you want to promulgate is being validated; a lot of people believe stuff that's total horse puckey.
I shouldn't make this sound like I'm arguing against fame. It's more that we shouldn't think of selling to millions, or even thousands, as being the goal, the only worthy good. It's a nice by-product, a Cracker Jack toy. Great if you get it, but that's about all. Better that you should connect with something beautiful in yourself, turn that outwards, and add decency and kindness to the world, because god knows there's a dearth of that these days.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind