Usually when I talk about art, it’s the specific realms of fantasy, science fiction, or horror. However, I’m going to talk about something that affects all art. Recently, I read an article in the Providence Journal that you can read here. The gist of it is that, after viewing The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, the article’s author was incensed by the blatant antisemitism of the play. After comparing it to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation the author says that, like the racists drivel of that film, Shakespeare’s classic “should be quietly removed from the public stage.” Antisemitism, actually, any form of discrimination or bullying makes me sick. It’s one of those human behaviors that makes me shake my head at my species and reminds me that no matter how advanced and special we think we are and despite all that back-slapping “Aren’t we just the greatest? Look at our art, science, and culture! How much better than every other living thing are we?!” bullshit, we’re still just apes. Having said that, I still cannot condone censorship of this play or any work and I find people crying for censorship because something disturbs their oh-so delicate sensibilities to be a disgusting indicator of where we are as a culture and where we are going.
One thing that always amazes me is how short our cultural memory is. It seems that our hyper-world has not only given us all a major case of ADHD but has made us forgetful of things that should never, ever be forgotten. I guess the memory of Nazis burning books, persecuting Jewish intellectuals and anyone associated with them, and stifling free thought just doesn’t pack the punch it used to. Is this a bit of a stretch? We’ve only got one overly sensitive person in this article taking potshots at a piece of culture. Well, it isn’t just that when you think about it. We’re living in a culture where it is becoming increasingly difficult to express yourself without offending someone. For further elucidation, I highly recommend listening to some George Carlin. Getting back to the point, we should have had the mark of such atrocities indelibly seared onto our collective cultural memories and thus value and treasure the right to say what we want and express ourselves without having to dilute it to please people. If people had had the ability to stand up to tyrants and monsters without fear of persecution, maybe we could have avoided some of the tragedies of the past century. But of course, these tyrants and monsters, no matter how horrible, were intelligent and knew that if you want to control the population, you have to control what they can say. That is why I find the thought of people living in a time of unprecedented freedom calling for more restrictions, more taboos, more censorship so offensive and infuriating. As I said, this is not an isolated incident.
Just take a look at this story of a high schooler whose mural was painted over because the high school administration felt it didn’t accurately represent the path of all their students. To some degree, yes, I agree that it is far from representative and that it is a very traditional conception of what is considered normal. However, if art is a representation of what the artist sees and we are all partially products of our culture and individual life experiences, what is so wrong with this? Is it even feasible to say what is representative anymore with such a multiplicity of paths and choices available to each and every one of us? There would be no way to represent such a legion of possibilities without putting on an addition to the school building. The point is, the girl meant no harm and was just working off what she grew up with. If art, at least representational art, represents life, especially life as the artist experiences it, and one of the strongest things that shapes our lives and our ways of viewing the world is family, then this mural is simply a reflection of a person who came from a particular family unit that she, based on her experiences, unconsciously sees as the default model. And before anyone says that such a view is indicative of not having one’s consciousness raised sufficiently to encompass every one of the various ways of having a family, let me cut you off and say that there is a huge difference between having tolerance and being accepting and the basic hard-wiring that occurs through experience of a particular kind of life. Essentially, if you see something enough, you just generalize which is what happens if you come from a particular culture, family background, or ethnicity. One thinks, “This is the way it was for me and this pattern held so I can thus use inductive reasoning to make an assumption about the world.” Much of it is unconscious, heuristic processing, just making snap decisions and judgments about the nature of the world.
And now here is one more example of people not wanting anyone to impinge on their special, sacrosanct corner of the universe and so calling on creators to erase the offending material. The recent release of Mass Effect 3 has brought out the vitriol of people who want EA to excise the homosexual, lesbian, and bisexual character options from the game. In a valiant move, EA has pretty much told these people to crap in their hats. This one is a pretty straight-forward case of bias just played out in a public medium. But it fits with the other cases because it is a case of micro-minded people wanting to dictate what is and is not suitable for art and thus what is and is not suitable to think and say. I hate to turn to the Rand inspired Andrew Ryan but by God the man has a point and I wish that conditions were such that the artist didn’t need to fear the censor. Unfortunately, it isn’t just the censors we need to fear anymore, but a public with such a sense of self-entitlement that it’s a bloody wonder they haven’t all sealed themselves in their rooms for fear anything whatsoever would ruffle their self-satisfied sense of calm and peace.
There are many reasons for this trend in smothering what could be considered offensive material. Though, let’s not forget that this isn’t something recent. Art and science have always sparked anger when they hit a particularly juicy nerve. We don’t need to trot out Galileo again do we? And what about the art installation titled, “Piss Christ,” in which a crucifix is submerged in a beaker of urine? Art and science have always pushed boundaries and brought offense but it was usually a particular bull they were poking. In fact, art can and has been used as a weapon to not just poke the bull, but gore it. But still, calling for it to be banned is just a show of hegemonic bullying and cowardice and it used to be that large institutions were the ones calling for blood most often. Those were the simple days when it was a well defined ideology that was having its toes stepped on. Now, as with everything, the ire has been diffused. Everyone wants in on the action and everyone has a right to say what is suitable. What’s more, people expect the artist to comply! Is this some sort of joke? If it isn’t your creation, unless you are the editor, you don’t get a say. What’s more, if you don’t like it, don’t watch it, listen to it, look at it, or play it! No one has nailed you down and forced you to take it in! This isn’t the bloody Ministry of Love! But again, their’s is the belief, a mistaken belief I want to reiterate, that everyone is entitled to a world that conforms to exactly what they think it ought to be. Unfortunately, most people who think like this are hopelessly unoriginal, uncreative, and prosaic which puts chains on the artist, the mystic, and the scientist (Though lets face it, no one’s perfect. The artist creates movements; the mystic, religions; and the scientist, clockwork worlds in which anything not explainable or testable by science is written off as childish. Remember, all three are human and thus prone to screwing up.). Why do I make this sweeping judgment? Because anyone who thinks the world should conform to his or her narrow view of how things ought to be is just the type of simpleton who can’t tolerate that the world is filled with complexity, always challenging us to adapt, change and think new thoughts. For further reference, look to George Orwell who said, “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” This is probably one of the main things that ticks so many people off when it comes to art. As Antonio Tabucchi said, “It’s the job of intellectuals and writers to cast doubt on perfection. Perfection spawns doctrines, dictators, and totalitarian ideas.” People hate to doubt themselves and doubt that they could possibly be wrong. It’s human nature to want certainty but that isn’t what life is about and things won’t get less complex and ambiguous just because one can’t deal with the reality of things. Sometimes things are ugly and unpleasant but by changing the words around doesn’t change the thing itself. This is the classic case of confusing the signifier with the signified. Just because you change the signifier, doesn’t mean you’ve changed the thing signified. This can be clearly demonstrated by the clip from Spinal Tap.
One reality of things is that good, bad, or ugly, we are all perceiving the world a bit differently. It is inevitable that some people are going to put forth ideas that we don’t agree with or even like! But that is just another example of complexity. I know that people who express cruel, hateful, ignorant things make me want to scream but they are entitled to say it just as I am entitled to tell them how profoundly ignorant they are then break their argument over my knee point by point. Still, some people just rather not hear or see things that they don’t like. A perfect example of what happens when we start feeding into these people’s delusions that the world is just for them and their pleasure is Ray Bradbury’s bracing Fahrenheit 451. If you haven’t read it, go out and buy a copy, you’re going to be tested on it later. Also, buy and read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Actually, just read everything Huxley ever wrote. I am not even joking. But back on topic. If we allow for censorship to run rampant, we may find that it’s simpler just to give up on the whole enterprise of doing anything creative at all. Any machine can probably be trained to put together a bunch of ideas that have been pre-screened for their lack of offensiveness and create the perfect entertainment for the masses. Or just do away with any pretense of creativity and just burn away anything and everything that hints that human beings have a creative gyre turning in them. It seemed to work for the society in Fahrenheit 451. And as I’ve said many times before, sometimes the things we have to deal with in art are not pleasant. Isn’t that part of what art is? It is a way to safely explore unpleasant, dark, or frightening aspects of our reality. This is what art is for, or at least it used. But the problem with confronting unpleasant truths we have to deal with in life is that, well, it’s unpleasant. And this unpleasantness make some people feel not so good. And God forbid anyone should ever feel even the least bit uncomfortable or challenged. We all just want to live our pleasant, boring, uncomplicated lives, don’t we? You can have that if you want but for some, this vapid way of relating to the world isn’t enough. For these people, life retains is vivacious essence. Life is not always pretty but it is life; it is moving forward, it is striving and reaching and it is worth diving into regardless of how messy it is.
Yes, this was a rant. Yes, I am furious. And yet, I still would not prefer that these people be silenced. Do I think very little of them? Yes. Nevertheless, they have a right to vent their small minds to the rest of us because that is exactly what freedom of speech is about! It’s about dialogue, it’s about the sharing of ideas, no matter what they are. Unfortunately, the twin ideologies of religion (not all religious people are so hard-lined. In fact, I think most are pretty moderate.) and political correctness (sometimes there is a good reason we stop using terms in certain ways and that there is a taboo, though it certainly does help route out the sexist, racist, or other -ist scum-bags out there so I still think you should be able to say what you want. It would take me another article to go into the excesses of this trend and it’s easier and funnier to just listen to George Carlin’s stand up routine where he talks about this issue. The video is included in the bottom of the article for your convenience.) are closing in like sliding walls of doom to choke us so we can’t say what we want. Here’s an idea for anyone who has the urge to make a call to ban something: Instead of bitching, create something of your own. Engage in an artistic dialogue. Anyone can critique, deride, and abolish, but it takes a person of actual merit to create something and dive into that restless sea of the human spirit.