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.