Below is the text of a recent lecture I gave to a group of freshmen (and also my Theatre History I class, who came for moral support -- and because I was taking attendance) who are in a freshman colloquium class investigating the topic of censorship. Both the freshmen and my students were a wonderful audience.
This is a long post, but I don't know how to link to it instead of putting it on the blog. Also, a chunk at the end is cut and paste from a recent blog post (can you plagiarize yourself?). Anyway, none of this will be new to anyone who has been reading this blog of late, but it does put my argument into a wider context. Here it is:
I came here today to talk about the role of the artist – specifically, the artist’s responsibility. I want to start today with an argument between two old philosophers, Plato and Aristotle back in the 4th century BCE. Aristotle was one of Plato’s students, and he spent 20 years studying with him. The argument arose out of a book Plato wrote called The Republic, in which he wrote that artists should be banished from the ideal republic.
His reasons were these: 1) Poetry contains much truth, yet the poet may be wrong in some of the beliefs he expresses. He cannot be expert on all subjects, but of necessity know a little bit about them in order to write about them. He cannot therefore be taken as a reliable teacher. 2) His presentation of the gods are not morally satisfactory. The divine must be true and unchanging, but the poet tells of many wicked deeds done by the gods. If readers accept these stories, they will be misled. 3) Nor are all the human characters of poetry admirable. A young man should certainly not imitate all of the actions of Achilles in the Iliad. 4) Many of the ideas found in the poets are also not worthy of belief, and proverbial sayings found in poetry do not always deserve full ethical approval.
Therefore, poetry should not be used in education. For a child to grow up good, “they should from childhood imitate only what will aid them in their duties, namely, the characters of the courageous, wise, holy, free, and the like, but they should do nothing that is slavish nor be good at imitating it, nor anything else that is evil, for fear that from the imitation they may get some of the real thing.” (The Republic) Future leaders must not be allowed to imitate slaves, or women, or bad men, or madmen…
We continue to have this discussion today: does the watching of violent movies, or playing violent video games, increase the tendency of children to behave violently? In the wake of the Columbine incident, this is the basis for the arguments about violence in the media and especially in computer games and video games: that imitation leads to habit. It follows, then, that children should only see positive things, things that will lead them to be better people.
Aristotle directly refutes his former teacher, Plato, in the Poetics. In his discussion of the origin of tragedy, he says that “the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood,” and that the pleasure from imitation is derived from that of learning about something. This idea would be agreed to by Plato, and he would say that imitating evil or base things teaches baseness and evilness.
But Aristotle refutes this in several ways. First, he says that poetry is superior to history because history expresses only the particular – that which actually happened to a specific person -- whereas poetry can express universal ideas, and thus is more philosophical – so children learn philosophy, which is good. Plato believed philosophy to be the highest form of thought, and said that the ideal republic would be led by philosopher-kings, you see how Aristotle is trying to hoist Plato on his own petard. He then comes up with his concept of catharsis.
He says in seeing tragedy -- in which, don’t forget, bad things are imitated (for instance, killing one’s husband (Agamemnon), killing one’s mother (The Libation Bearers), killing one’s father and marrying one’s mother (Oedipus), or killing one’s children (Medea) to name just a few Greek tragedies – yikes!) – he says that “through pity and fear” the spectator experiences “the proper purgation (catharsis) of these emotions.” (23) Let’s examine this three terms: pity, fear, and purgation
Pity “is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves.” (30) Put this together: pity and fear “is aroused by [the] unmerited misfortune…of a man like ourselves.” Therefore, he concludes, a plot shouldn’t show a virtuous man being brought from prosperity to adversity, which would merely be shocking; nor should it show an evil man triumphing. Rather, a good plot should show “a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.” So: we can identify with the hero, since we ourselves aren’t perfectly good or perfectly evil, but mostly good with a few missteps
And we experience fear when we see someone like us is brought low by “some error or frailty” – perhaps a poor decision, or a flaw of character. It could happen to us! At the end of Oedipus the King, the chorus sums up what we have just seen: “Dwellers in our native Thebes, behold, this is Oedipus, who knew the famed riddle, and was a man most mighty; on whose fortunes what citizen did not gaze with envy? Behold into what a stormy sea of dread trouble he hath come! Therefore, while our eyes wait to see the destined final day, we must call no one happy who is of mortal race, until he hath crossed life’s border, free from pain.” We learn not to take things for granted, not to envy other’s lives, because who knows…
And from seeing that person just like us experiencing misfortune and experiencing pity and fear, we experience the purgation of these emotions.” There is a disagreement over meaning of catharsis. Some believe it is homeopathic: eliminates passions by exposing to a small dose of it. Others believe it is purification: it removes the badness from those passions. Some say it is internal to the play’s plot: it resolves the passions in the plot.
But however you interpret it, it is a GOOD thing, not a bad thing as Plato would have it. We can learn a positive lesson from seeing badness imitated; we can purge bad feelings from our system by having them acted out by someone else; we can see where the passions go wrong
So Aristotle is arguing for a place in the Republic for tragedy. By watching bad things, and experiencing pity and fear, we cleanse ourselves of those emotions that we see imitated. During the Columbine coverage, an acquaintance of the killers talked about how, when the killers would take part in a weekend day of Paintball, for instance, that they seemed calmer, and better able to cope. Perhaps by imitating violence, they purged those emotions from their own psyche for a while.
Our tendency is probably to react negatively to Plato – he is in favor of censorship; in fact, he wants to banish artists from his ideal republic; and to applaud Aristotle, because he seems more open to artistic freedom. But actually, they are both in total agreement about one important thing: that people can be influenced by the arts. In this, they would both be in opposition to the author of your book, Marjorie Heins, who says in the chapter you read from Sex, Sin, and Blasphemy: A Guide to America's Censorhsip Wars for today, “Scapgoating Speech,” that “words and images don’t cause bad acts.”
Now, to some extent Heins rather dishonestly stacks the deck in her favor in several different ways. First, what she really means is that “words and images don’t always cause bad acts.” This we, and Aristotle and Plato, can certainly agree with. Most people who acquire a decent moral and ethical system as they grow up can see bad acts without being compelled to reproduce them – true.
She also stacks the deck by using the word “cause”: “words and images don’t cause bad acts.” What she really means is “words and images alone don’t cause bad acts.” And again, this is hard to argue with. Words and images alone don’t always cause bad acts. What’s ironic is that I suspect that supporters of artistic censorship would also agree with this sentence – because it is too extreme. To believe such a thing would mean that seeing and hearing the words and images of, say, Mel Gibson’s film Passion of Christ alone would always cause good, fundamentalist Christian folk who saw the movie to kill Christ when he comes back –which is what happens in Passion of Christ. So obviously there is a flaw in this argument.
Where Heil runs into more trouble is when she takes a page out of Aristotle. She writes: “Blaming words or images is not merely an ineffective way to address social problems; it ignores both the cathartic and consciousness-raising functions of art. If feelings of anger, frustration, protest, or desperation can be expressed through the creative process, they’re less likely to explode through in antisocial behavior. And if society can see itself through the mirror of art, it will be more likely to pay attention to social ills than if unfortunate ideas or realities are suppressed and ignored.” This is pure Aristotle! The problem is that it is a Trojan Horse: once you admit that art can have a positive effect on people, it is contradictory to deny that it can have a negative effect as well.
So let’s start with a more honest statement of the issue, one that could be supported by Heil, Plato, and Aristotle: words and images can have an influence on the people who see them: a good influence, a bad influence -- but an influence nonetheless. It is hard to argue with this statement – it is the foundation for all advertising. In advertising, you use words and images to influence people to do something – to buy your product. And it must work, because corporations spend billions and billions on advertising every year, and I don’t think they do it out of a charitable desire to help out the owners of the mass media.
So now that we have replaced Heil’s straw man argument with a more reasonable one -- that words and images can have an influence on people, we can shift the discussion to the real subject of Heil’s book, and of this class: censorship. In Heil’s opinion, the enemy is censorship by the government. I agree wholeheartedly – governments are notoriously ham-handed when it comes subtle arguments in general, and the arts in particular. They tend to have a very melodramatic view of the world: black or white (or lately, red or blue). What I would argue, however – and this is my main point, so write it in your notebooks – what I would argue is that if we artists don’t want the government to make stupid decisions about art, then we as artists better start making better decisions about art ourselves.
If, for instance, we are going to argue for government subsidy for our art because of the myriad ways that the arts improve society (because, we say, words and images can influence people to do good acts) -- And we do this regularly, by the way. A recent report by the RAND Foundation, called Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate about the Benefits of the Arts, describes some of the arguments often made by the arts when they are asking for public money, which include cognitive benefits -- the development of learning skills and academic performance in school-aged youth through improved academic performances and test scores; improved basic skills, such as reading and mathematical skills and the capacity for creative thinking; and improved attitudes and skills that promote the learning process itself, particularly the ability to learn how to learn. Attitudinal and behavioral benefits: increased self-discipline, more frequent school attendance, reduced dropout rates, development of more-general life skills (e.g., understanding the consequences of one’s behavior, working in teams); and development of prosocial attitudes and behaviors among “at risk” youth (e.g., building social bonds, improving self-image). And social: the promotion of social interaction among community members, the creation of a sense of community identity, and the building of social capital. So when we are asking for money, we tell everyone how words and images in the arts positively influence the way people act. But when it comes time to admit that we can also negatively influence the way people act, we swear up and down that it ain’t so – people have free will and if they do something bad, well, it ain’t our fault.
We can’t have it both ways, folks, and the public shouldn’t allow us to have it both ways. As artists, we need to realize that rights – like the right to free speech – are balanced with responsibilities – the responsibility to use that speech to improve the world in some way, or at the very least (to borrow the words of the creed that doctors swear by) to do no harm. I disagree with the assertion of Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita, that the artist is responsible to no one but himself.
Unless we artists want the idiot savants of the fundamentalist right and the fanatical left to tell us what we can and can’t say, draw, film, sing, or dance, then we need to start asking ourselves as artists what affect of our art work will have on the people who see it and hear it. I venture to say that the likelihood of government censorship is directly related to the lack of personal artistic responsibility taken by society’s artists. The more we don’t care what we say, the more others will.
Now what am I suggesting? Am I saying that a responsible artist only creates art that supports the values and mores of his or her society, and so does not draw the ire of our elected officials or anybody else? No, I am not saying that at all. Sometimes you’ve got to raise a ruckus in order to draw attention to a problem. What I am saying is that we should question ourselves about the impact of artwork on those who see it. Not just children – everybody. Advertising doesn’t just affect kids, it is primarily aimed at adults. Just ‘cause we’re old don’t mean we can’t be affected by words and images. So we should question ourselves about the impact of artwork on those who see it and make sure that any ruckus we raise is worth the damage.
Also, I am saying that it is irresponsible for artists to hide behind the excuse that the artist’s only responsibility is to himself, to expressing himself. The idea that art is about the artist expressing himself has been repeated so often that we have now come to think it is a universal idea that has been accepted since time began, but that is not true. It actually is an idea that became prominent a mere 200 years ago around 1800 with the poet William Wordsworth and the Romantics. The general idea is this (to quote M. H. Abrams’ The Mirror and the Lamp [p22 - 23]): “A work of art is essentially the internal made external, resulting from a creative process operating under the impulse of a feeling, and embodying the combined product of the poet’s perceptions, thoughts, and feelings….The first test a [work of art] must pass is no longer, ‘Is it true to nature?’ or ‘Is it appropriate to the requirements either of the best judges or the generality of mankind?’ but a criterion looking in a different direction: namely, ‘Is it sincere? Is it genuine? Does it match the intention, the feeling, the actual state of mind of the poet while composing?’”
The fate of the audience in this aesthetic is drastic: “the poet’s audience is reduced to a single member, consisting of the poet himself. ‘All poetry,’ one Romantic theorist wrote, ‘is of the nature of soliloquy.’ The purpose of producing effects on other men, which for centuries had been the defining character of the [arts], now serves precisely the opposite function: it disqualifies a [work of art] by proving it to be rhetoric instead.” (25) “I never wrote one single line of Poetry with the least Shadow of public thought,” Keats said. This is utter nonsense. If it were so, neither Keats nor any of his fellow Romantics would have tried so hard to get their work published – they just would have put the poems in their desk drawer and been done with it. (Also, he wouldn't have tormented himself while he was dying with obsessive thoughts about whether he would be remembered.) Of course they cared about the public – they just didn’t think they should have to care about what the public felt or thought about their work.
What goes along with this denial of responsibility for any concern other than the expression of one’s inner emotions is the emphasis on the artist as Genius. Being a Genius releases the artist from responsibility for anything other than expressing that genius through his art. It’s like an entire life of recess.
For Carlyle, “the poet utterly replaces the audience as the generator of aesthetic norms. ‘On the whole, Genius has privileges of its own; it selects an orbit for itself; and be this never so eccentric, if it is indeed a celestial orbit, we mere stargazers must at least compose ourselves; must cease to cavil at it, and begin to observe it, and calculate its laws.” (26) In other words, us mere mortals just have to stand down here on earth and admire whatever crap the so-called geniuses drop on our head. This also is utter nonsense. Just because a person is an artist does not mean that they are somehow “special” and should be treated like a god on earth.
But once this sense of moral and intellectual superiority is granted to the artist, once the Genius has been taken bodily up into Heaven, the next step is for the artist to hurl thunderbolts at all us earthbound schmucks unlucky enough to have been born without the Genius Gene. Now it isn’t enough to simply express yourself and know you’re a Genius and special, but you also have to rub all the schmucks noses in this “fact” by ridiculing their poor, non-artistic, non-Genius lives.
And so is born the cry “epater le bourgeois” – shock the middle class. Do whatever it takes to make them understand that they are inferior to you, the Almighty Artist. Take a picture of a crucifix floating in a glass of your urine. Take a picture of yourself with a bullwhip up your butt. Write a play that shows that Uncle-Niece incest might be seen as sort of sad and sympathetic. And if anyone dares to take offense, or to question the value of your “vision,” call them close-minded, unsophisticated, unenlightened, not “with it.” Say, along with artist Robert Rauschenberg that “It is extremely important than art be unjustifiable.” Take that, all you middle class tightasses.
I tell you, it makes me tired, and it makes me ashamed to be an artist.
Instead, I call on artists to be a part of their community, not hovering above it like Zeus hurling thunderbolts from the clouds. Join the human race. Get to know the people around you, not just your fellow artists. Listen to the things that regular people struggle with, worry about, feel, believe. And ask yourself: what do these people need.
In his 1997 book The Politics of Meaning, Michael Lerner writes about the hunger for meaning that he found among the middle class people he was interviewing as part of a sociological study in 1976. "Our aim was to better understand the psychodynamics of middle-income working people..." What they found is quite interesting, and important for this discussion:"What we learned from the thousands of people who participated in these groups challenged many of the beliefs that prevailed among us, and, more generally, in the liberal culture from which we researchers had come. We had thought of ourselves as psychologically sophisticated when we started this work, but we quickly learned that our assumptions about middle-income Americans were mistaken, prejudiced, and elitist. For example, most of us imagined that most Americans were motivated primarily by material self-interest. So we were surprised to discover that these middle Americans often experience more stress from feeling that they are wasting their lives doing meaningless work than from feeling that they are not making enough money. We found middle-income people deeply unhappy because they hunger to serve the common good and contribute to something with their talents and energies, yet find their work gives them little opportunity to do so. They often turn to demands of more money as a comepnsation for a life that otherwise feels frustrating and empty. In the Left and among many academics it has been almost a rule of reason to believe that what people really care about is their own material well-being, and that believing anything else is just some kind of populist romanticization. But we uncovered a far deeper desire -- the desire to have meaningful work, work that people believe would contribute to some higher purpose than self-advancement."I think artists, as a group, tend to share the mistaken generalization about the middle class that Lerner outlines above. We think that exhaustion symbolizes apathy, and that a seeming unwillingness to be "challenged" is the result of intellectual apathy rather than emotional and spiritual rawness. There is a TV commercial for car insurance with the tag line "Life comes at you fast," and I think this could be the slogan for the last twenty years. We are daily bombarded with more and more information delivered in ever louder and more intense voices; we run from place to place, trying to keep up with everything that is happening; we work longer hours and at higher speeds, and when we come home we are tense and tired and drained. So my question is: just what does such a person need?My tentative answer is: he needs meaning. He needs an artist to sort through the avalanche, slow down the onslaught, and make sense out of something in his life. Perhaps he needs someone to imagine the world another way, perhaps a world that values something more meaningful, more fulfilling, more human, where contemplation is encouraged and where serenity is a possibility. He might need to see the mystery in life, the holiness of a person or a piece of nature, the grandeur of the human endeavor.Viktor Schlovsky, in his 1917 essay Art as Technique, wrote about how we normally experience the world: "If we start to examine the general laws of perception, we see that as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic." Therefore, according to this theory, the more we get used to a thing, the less clearly and firmly we perceive it. Art exists, Shlovsky writes, "that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known." In other words, art changes the way we know the world. It changes our rhythm, our angle of perception, our way of seeing. If art simply reproduces what already exists, then it loses it purpose; it simply joins the cacophony that is daily life. This is the error of Realism and its muscle-bound cousin Naturalism, who found their greatest achievement in the reproducing of life as it is lived.So if our experience of daily living is fast, intense, overwhelmed, bombarded, meaningless, violent, intellectually simplistic, emotionally deadening, and spiritually empty -- then shouldn't we, as artists, try to alter perception by doing its opposite? If a late-capitalist consumer society is decidedly materialistic, would not a truly revolutionary act be to create art that finds meaning in non-materialistic perceptions?This is a vision of the artist as balancer, a healer, as someone who looks at what aspects of a community's life is out of balance and creates art that seeks to provide what is missing or weakened. What people long for is not what there is already a glut of, but what is missing. In American society, I would venture to say that what is missing is a sense of meaningfulness, of purpose, of serenity and contemplation, of reflection and generosity. Might we, as artists, try to provide what is missing?
Might we use our freedom of speech to try to make life a little better for the people around us?
The image I have is of the shaman. The shaman was, of all people, the MOST active and involved in the community. Keeping the community together, working for the common good, and healing the community was his or her job. The whole point of contacting the spirit world, of being "different" was to benefit, support and guide the community. Now, this did not mean that the methods of contacting the spirit world were somehow made common -- that the magic leaked out. But the shaman saw themselves as a part of the community, and the magic that they undertook was for the purpose of helping that community in some way. Their skills were not shared by all, but they were not set aside and worshipped because they possessed those skills. Everyone believed that they would use those powers in service of the community.What if we, as artists, conceived of our role in the same way?