Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Freedom, Baby

It is with some trepidation that I venture into the arena of political theory, because it is definitely NOT an subject in which I have a thorough knowledge. But a comment by Joshua (whose comment prompted the title of this post), which reflects the ideas of many of you who have responded to my posts, leads me there reluctantly.

Many artists, including many of you who read this blog (and truth be told, me as well) are pretty liberal. We tend toward a leftist political orientation that favors programs to help the poor, to heal the sick, to educate the masses, to save the environment, to enforce equality in matters of race, gender, and sexual orientation, and to create economic justice. Some use their art to promote these ideas, some use their blog, some simply possess these values as foundations for personal behavior. At root, we want a society that is built on the respect and appreciation of all people. But when it comes to their art, libertarianism is the order of the day.

The artist should be completely free, giving no thought to anything other than the expression of their personal truth. The idea that an artist might have responsibilities as citizen, as members of a community or a society, that goes along with such safeguards as freedom of speech leads to cries of "Censorship!" To suggest that artists might simply think about the effect of their art, and whether it contributes to the improvement of their society, is greeted with arguments about "slippery slopes" leading straight to strict government censorship and the regulation of taste and expression. Thoughts immediately fly to government intervention and coercion, even when the suggestion concerns simple human civility. This response demonstrates a level of paranoia that may, in fact be justified -- it hasn't been that long since the McCarthy Era, for instance, and in the midst of a Bush presidency that labels any questioning of government actions as un-American, such watchfulness may be very, very necessary. Let me make this plain: government control of the arts, or control by any group outside the arts, is very, very wrong -- I condemn it without hesitation. But government control and self-control are not the same thing.

My political orientation combines a socialist economic stance with a Communitarian social orientation. According to the Responsive Communitarian Platform Text on the Communitarian Network website:

"A communitarian perspective recognizes both individual human dignity and the social dimension of human existence. A communitarian perspective recognizes that the preservation of individual liberty depends on the active maintenance of the institutions of civil society where citizens learn respect for others as well as self-respect; where we acquire a lively sense of our personal and civic responsibilities, along with an appreciation of our own rights and the rights of others; where we develop the skills of self-government as well as the habit of governing ourselves, and learn to serve others-- not just self. A communitarian perspective recognizes that communities and polities, too, have obligations--including the duty to be responsive to their members and to foster participation and deliberation in social and political life. A communitarian perspective does not dictate particular policies; rather it mandates attention to what is often ignored in contemporary policy debates: the social side of human nature; the responsibilities that must be borne by citizens, individually and collectively, in a regime of rights; the fragile ecology of families and their supporting communities; the ripple effects and long-term consequences of present decisions....

America's diverse communities of memory and mutual aid are rich resources of moral voices--voices that ought to be heeded in a society that increasingly threatens to become normless, self-centered, and driven by greed, special interests, and an unabashed quest for power. Moral voices achieve their effect mainly through education and persuasion, rather than through coercion. Originating in communities, and sometimes embodied in law, they exhort, admonish, and appeal to what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. They speak to our capacity for reasoned judgment and virtuous action. It is precisely because this important moral realm, which is neither one of random individual choice nor of government control, has been much neglected that we see an urgent need for a communitarian social movement to accord these voices their essential place." [ital and bold my own]

I believe in freedom of expression, and the preservation of that strong right; I also believe in personal responsibility for one's actions, and what those actions do in the world, and I believe in relationships based on mutual respect. Joshua, in a comment appended to one of my recent posts, writes: "If my friend, whom I respect, is just not getting it, I might grab his shoulders and shake him "Please, please, just listen!" I might say, "I have something important to tell you, forget everything else for just this one moment." I'm in his face, but I need to be there, because I care for him." The key phrase here, for me, is "because I care for him." Mutual respect does not undermine the need to speak truth, to argue vigorously, to get people's attention. But mutual respect does affect the way you do this. Joshua and his friend are not strangers -- they have a relationship that has been established that allows Joshua to shake his friend to get his attention. If Joshua were to go up to a total stranger and do the same thing, the likelihood that such shaking would lead to the stranger listening carefully is lessened, because the stranger will feel in danger. His focus will be on self-protection, not openness to a new idea. This is why I have called for artists to get to know their audience members, to get to know the people who make up their society, to become a part of their community; so that when they grab their audience's shoulders and shake them, the audience will listen because they have a bond.

If you believe that your audience is comprised of "ignorant redneck backward-ass country fucks," as Joshua characterizes his hometown community (and who am I to argue), and you can't find any point of contact or mutual respect, then the likelihood of communication happening between artist and audience is pretty low. Joshua can shake them all he wants, but all he's likely to get is a fat lip. For some reason, Joshua believes that I have told him "I cannot and should not say something like that." Not true. I have never said you shouldn't say it. What I have said is that an artist cannot communicate with his audience if he sees them in these terms. Continuing, he says: "I can and will. It may be mean and disrespectful, but it's my truth. And I love that I live in a society where I can express my truth freely every day. It's important, that freedom. I may disagree with you, I may say you're full of shit, but I'm not going to ever say you don't have the right to spout whatever you want to spout on your blog." I agree wholeheartedly. And I am alright with you telling me I am full of shit because we have an ongoing relationship that is based on (here are the words again) mutual respect. The same is true of George and me: I think we tell each other we are full of shit more than we applaud each other (which is actually, too bad, but that guilt is for another post), but early on we established a mutual respect for each other as thinkers and human beings. If some other person arrived in my comments box telling me I am full of shit, I probably wouldn't feel all that compelled to respond. Same with Alison and p'tit boo, who are currently whooping my ass. None of us are "friends" -- George isn't going to call me up to celebrate his birthday -- but we have established a relationship, and that relationship allows a level of honesty and directness. I listen, I think, I have even been known to alter my opinions because of George's, Alison's, p'tit boo's, Freeman's, MattJ's and Joshua's comments. But anonymous-reply blogger blasting into my comments box without a name or history? Garbage pail.

If you want to actually affect opinions (and there are some who profess to care only about expression, not about reception), then a relationship is necessary, one based on trust and foundational respect. As human beings, we are part of widening circles of community, from family to friends to world -- we are social beings. Art is a social act that is built on an exchange. I am proposing a simple thing: that the artistic exchange have a foundation of mutual respect, and a deep sense of responsibility.


Alison Croggon said...

Again hurriedly - the question underneath yours I think Scott is, are we speaking only to the converted? That's a good question, with many possible responses...yes, maybe, and maybe no...

I still think you mischaracterise in many cases provocation with disrespect: they are not the same thing, and in intelligent work, work with integrity, that very provocation can be expressive of profound respect. But, frankly, there is a reason I write popular genre novels, and not just because I want to make money. It grew out of a feeling that I wanted a lot of young people to read what I had to say, because on the whole I've given up on adults. They are fixed and damaged, and I realised a long time ago that stupidity is probably the most intransigent cause of damage to this world. And this damaged world is what we're handing to young people. Being a writer, there's actually not much I can do (futility seems to go with the territory); but perhaps I can suggest that some things are all the same worth struggling for. Some of my readers (to my surprise, frankly) go on to read my poems, which are a different kettle of fish entirely; but I find a hope in that.

At the same time, I see in a larger sense that possibilities of human expression are part of a larger freedom. Not just symbolic of it, part of it. That's why I think art is deeply political. That's why governments try to suppress it. It always suggests other ways of thinking; and the possibility of being offensive is, and must be, always part of that. What are we afraid of?

P'tit Boo said...

Well said Scott...
And please know, that "whopping your ass" is not the intent. If that was my intent, I would be a reactionary and that's not what I am trying to do.
Ifeel the same way about anonymous comments....
To me, it doesn't matter if it's written, i try to only say things on blogs that I would be ok saying in person.

Know that I respect you and feel enriched from all the conversations back and forth !

P'tit Boo said...

And also, I do see plenty of applauding. I don't think it's out of balance. But frankly, we grow more from being told we're full of shit then being applauded. That's just how it is.

George Hunka said...

And allow me also, Scott, to thank you for your comments. Again, quite well said.

Provocative characterizations of an audience, like "ignorant redneck backward-ass country fucks," are odd sorts of expression indeed: and in these words I sense a greater, more general hostility to a world than simply to a group of people in it. I believe too that it demonstrates a ... well, let's call it a modicum of reluctance to encounter the audience, at the very least in the sense of "encounter" that you mean, Scott.

And I do sigh again because I do recognize in all this, going back a few days to the who's-radical-and-who's-not debate which just proved in essence how insufficient these labels are, a way in which our consciousnesses are all affected, in one way or another, by Late Capitalism, the spirit of which is inescapable as it worms our way even into our very vocabularies, even those of the radical (if that radical's not paying careful attention). It has become our unconscious lingua franca. A large part of the communitarian spirit has its origin, after all, in Adam "The Invisible Hand" Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments (an absolutely fascinating document, by the way), in which the spirit of capital lays the base for the spirit of community. Or the other way around, always hard to tell with Smith.

This isn't to say that communitarianism isn't simply a subsumation or a co-optation of human activity according to a capitalist vocabulary (though I think it might be). And a post-industrial capitalism, the sort which Adorno postulates as responsible for the fractures of the 20th-century modernist spirit and practice (and, tragically, as inevitable), contains the seeds of destruction of the community, as I think we may all agree.

And the hatred and revilement contained in this Late Capitalism, so at odds with a socialist perspective, more perhaps than Early and Middle Capitalism, emerges oddly indeed. It emerges lately on theater blogs. It emerges with the assumption that the market is a good, or at least that cooperation with the market is valuable to art. It emerges with the emphasis on "professionalism," as if we should bring back the competition of the craft guilds (or, alternatively, cut ourselves off from the community by defining the rest of it as "non-professional," whatever that may be, or by characterizing those with whom we disagree as "unprofessional" or immature). It emerges with phraseology like "ignorant redneck backward-ass country fucks," speaking of your classist characterizations.

So what does the artist do with his freedom of speech, which was the whole point of your post, Scott? In what sense is speech responsible or irresponsible, and is that responsibility defined (as so much else is), unconsciously, by the spirit of Late Capitalism?

I do believe in control, and texture, and compassion, and discipline of chaos in the service even of presenting a vision of violent chaos: and the best artists always, of course, negotiate with self-censorship, with the fear of saying the unsayable. Those playwrights and dramatists I admire have the wherewithal to craft that unsayable so that it can rather miraculously be said and even understood. This is, at least for me, a central aim of art. And, all this being said, there can be no more dangerous repression than self-repression; the glory is in release and freedom. Yes, we all, I hope, respect that.

George Hunka said...

Well, censorship wasn't the whole point of your post; I mischaracterize. Apologies for that.

Joshua said...

2 points -

1) the comment "If my friend, whom I respect, is just not getting it, I might grab his shoulders and shake him "Please, please, just listen!" I might say, "I have something important to tell you, forget everything else for just this one moment." I'm in his face, but I need to be there, because I care for him." is, I do not believe, a comment of mine. I think you may have attributed someone else's comment to me. I'll surf through and check, but I'm pretty sure.

2) I never said my audience is comprised of "backward ass country fucks" - I said my hometown was, not my audience, not any of my audience. (I'm pretty sure that most of are big fans of Fear Factor and American Idol, however) - it's distressing to me, Scott, that you assigned that statement to my audience. I was referring to a discussion we had about offensive statements, remember? I never said that was my audience.

And even if it was, so what? Don't you think this is what Jeff Foxworthy says during every one of his shows, the audience is backward and country LIKE ME!

I think you're confusing things - I'm telling you that in order to have freedom of expression, there must be some disrepect for someone at some point. Otherwise, it's not freedom.

Joshua said...

The above comment you attributed to me was in fact Matt Freeman's comment.

Joshua said...

actually, I made a mistake - it was mattj's comment -

Also, I didn't mean to say my audience watched Fear factor or American Idol, rather most of the people in my hometown do . . .

I'll shake them if it's worth it, no worry about a fat lip. That's something they should worry about, given the history there.

Scott Walters said...

Sorry for the misattribution, Joshua. I had cut and pasted some comments to use, and failed to identify them properly.

Also, you are correct, you were discussing your hometown folk. I was projecting you, as an artist, into that milieu and imagining the result. I know you moved to NYC to get away from those folks, and have a much different relationship with them than I suspect you would have with the hometown community.

To Alison, p'tit boo, and George: I hasten to tell you that I am not feeling particularly wounded or battered because of our recent discussions. As I said in my post, we have a relationship, and perhaps have earned the right to occasionally rip each other a new one. "Whooping my ass" was my way of signaling I still have my sense of humor about me.

As far as preaching to the choir, I think there is a place in theatre for that. There ought to be theatres where theatre people and other artists go to have their sensibilities really challenged, and the boundaries really pushed, and to see big risks happening. Now THAT would be an experimental theatre -- especially if it were followed afterwards by a discussion with the audience of artists about what worked, what didn't, and what other applications it might have to other works. Lacking that, if somebody would publish the results, so that others might benefit from the experiments.

I'm all about focused audiences.

George Hunka said...

"Now THAT would be an experimental theatre -- especially if it were followed afterwards by a discussion with the audience of artists about what worked, what didn't, and what other applications it might have to other works. Lacking that, if somebody would publish the results, so that others might benefit from the experiments."

Ah hah! A rationalist! I knew it all along.

Joshua James said...

"I'm all about focused audiences."

Which is extremely disrespectful to those audiences with ADHD -

Alison Croggon said...

Hmm. Isn't there something patronising in the assumption that only theatrical practitioners would be interested in innovative theatre? I'm sure it's not true. The last Melbourne Festival had a program which leaned heavily on the innovattive - it was a great program with work from the US, Europe, Britain, Asia as well as here. And every show was absolutely packed out - and the majority of those audiences looked like a good slice of the GP. Maybe people actually like being challenged, puzzled, surprised, excited; it's something to discuss over the water cooler.

Scott Walters said...

Alison -- I wasn't saying only they would be interested. What I was saying is that there ought to be a "laboratory" where theatre people can do pure research without concern for appeal to any audience other than those of peers. Innovations could then we widely distributed, and applied to pieces that would appeal to a larger group.

Alison Croggon said...

Scott, forgive me, but this strikes me as a weird idea; you can't just pass around a process as if it's a new kind of software. (Though I suppose Grotowski did that kind of laboratory work, since he didn't want an audience at all, and his work has been widely influential.) There's something like an industry model here that makes me flinch, though; as if what matters is not the presence, carnality, excitement of the theatre itself, but what can be abstracted as "ideas", what is "useful". As you know, I am disturbed by utilitarian attitudes towards art - but I guess I'm gesturing yet again towards Sontag's Against Interpretation. Also, it seems that you're saying that the only point of theatre is ultimately to be popular, to reach bigger audiences (the rest is kind of just of specialist and ultimately minor interest), and that might not be the case; it is perfectly legitimate for theatre to appeal to small audiences, and much significant theatre has and still does just that, only seeking audiences of say between 50 and 200 people, because only with small audiences can an essential intimacy be maintained.

George Hunka said...

It may be also that intimacy is the thing that many people are seeking when visiting theater these days, and not finding: promised that theatrical person-to-person communication, in larger theaters they find only a sort of enacted movie. They want the one-on-one communion that the appeal to a broader audience denies them.

I really, truly believe that, to be effective in its most sublime manner again, theater must needs be small and intimate, for all the other art forms seem to reach for a broad generality that is simply, technically unavailable to the theatrical process. Aping the far superior spectacular techniques of film and television is a waste of time, film and television already has them. The time of the ancients has passed; when the theater of the Greeks was the only mass entertainment available, that communication obtained. Since then, the generality has been served in narrative performance by radio, film and television.

Experimentation in theater is an experimentation in perception. Why limit it only to those who seem to be an inner priesthood?