Saturday, March 04, 2006

To a Man With a Hammer

Sorry for the slowness in posting -- as I mentioned below, it was a very busy week. Of course, I have been dying to join the discussion of My Name Is Rachel Corrie, and Isaac's prompt combined with the time afforded by Spring Break (which begins today) finally has goaded me to do so.

First of all, I want to take what I suspect will be a very unpopular position regarding one part of this issue: I think using the word "censorship" in this case isn't justified. Producing organizations cancel productions every day, and for reasons less defensible, without cries of censorship. I remember that the initial production of Assassins was cancelled because it seemed inappropriate given the geopolitical situation (if I am remembering correctly, Desert Storm), and I don't remember an uproar over censorship. To me, censorship comes from outside the theatre community, and means "the play can't be done -- period; or it can't be done unless certain changes are made." NYTW has no formal obligation to produce this or any other play. I'm sure they have cancelled plays in the past without cries of censorship, so what makes this different except that there are some who want the play heard? Nothing prohibits another Off-Broadway theatre from deciding to produce it, and if they did, they would likely sell a lot of tickets -- nothing sells like controversy these days.

Perhaps the issue is self-censorship, which George Hunka calls "the worst kind of censorship." At the risk of sounding like Socrates, define self-censorship. What it sounds like to me is: putting any considerations other than your own to the fore. Apparently it is wrong because we should put individual artistic will ahead of group responsibility, which I see as artistic libertarianism. "If it feels good artistically, do it. Nobody tells me what to do." But the fact is that we self-censor every day. There are things that I do not say in front of my students, not because they aren't true, but because they are inappropriate in that context. And this is right and proper. James Nicola decided this play was inappropriate at this time for his community, that to do it would lead to the play being examined within a context he didn't wish it to be. Again, I think this is his right as artistic leader, and the act of considering such issues is not an act of intellectual or artistic self-betrayal. I would like all artists to ask such questions.

Saying that Nicola has the right to cancel a show, and that he was right to consider his audience in his decision, is not, however, to say that I think he made the right decision. He didn't.

For me, this is the damning quotation: "the fantasy that we could present the work of this writer simply as a work of art without appearing to take a position was just that, a fantasy." [ital mine] If he ever held such a fantasy, it reveals a depth of naivete that borders idiocy. Nicola wants to have it both ways: he wants to present a play that is deeply embedded within political events, that will receive attention only because of its politics, indeed a play that has value only because of those political events (surely no one is saying that this play, which was not written but rather edited from documents, is an artistic masterpiece that will survive the ages), in short he wants to present a play with an actively committed political purpose -- but he wants to maintain a Kantian belief that the work is "simply...a work of art" that he hopes will be regarded through an aesthetic lens outside of political debate. This is breathtaking in its simple-mindedness. In justifying his actions, Nicola seems surprised and horrified that "there was a very strong possibility that a number of factions, on all sides of a political conflict, would use the play as a platform to promote their own agendas." Well, of course they would! After all, that is purpose of a provocative play, and it is what the play asks you to do. How could it be otherwise? This will not be changed by the passage of time, unless Nicola postpones its performance until after the Israeli - Palestinian conflict is ancient history. Then we might be able to regard it in the same way we do the politics of Shakespeare's Henry V. But not now, and not in foreseeable future.

When I read this story, what I see is what I have been writing about for several months now (and thus the self-referential title of this post): the desire of so many artists to provoke the audience as long as there is no chance that the audience will actually respond to that provocation with equal force. I can punch you, but you can't punch me back, which doesn't work on the playground and shouldn't work in the playhouse. Nicola seems afraid that a play that has a clear political purpose will be reacted to politically. Duh.

Why the surprise? Because he has bought into an artistic belief that provocation is a one-way street. That spectators are supposed to play subs to to artistic doms. Thank you, sir, may I have another? And suddenly, he found that this wasn't the case. That plays affect people, and when affected they respond, and not always politely, and sometimes the artist's voice will be eclipsed by "the din of others shouting for their own purposes." Welcome to the real world.

We saw this same attitude at work with the artistic reaction to the uproar over the Danish cartoons: wait, you're not supposed to talk back! It's "just a cartoon," for crying out loud! We want to play politics until somebody responds, and then we want to scurry back to our Kantian safehouse and plead "art." Literary and legal scholar Stanley Fish, in a provocative letter to the editor in the NY Times about the Danish cartoons, wrote: "The first tenet of the liberal religion is that everything (at least in the realm of expression and ideas) is to be permitted, but nothing is to be taken seriously." [ital mine] James Nicole suddenly found himself in a situation where ideas were taken seriously, where provocations were responded to, in short where the rules of the genteel game of artistic provocation, where anything can be said as long as it isn't taken too seriously, were not accepted.

I say: stand up straight and face the music, Mr. Nicole. You scheduled a provocative play, now have the courage to defend the play forcefully and with all the integrity you can muster. Schedule public discussions, put together forums to examine the issues, write a damn good program note -- grasp a prime teachable moment. You have an opportunity to advance this debate -- sieze it, don't run from it. The time for considering your community has passed -- Sharon and Hamas may have made them "edgy," but this play would have made them feel edgy at any time, and that didn't seem to bother you when you first scheduled it.

And to the theatre community: Nicole and NYTW have a history of doing good work and promoting new playwrights, so you have done well not to rip his throat out publicly. But that doesn't mean maintaining a complicit silence. Like others, I hope that prominent NYTW alums are speaking backstage about this issue. Others should be taking this opportunity to discuss with Mr. Nicole and his board the larger issues involved, and making sure they know the errors of this decision. Write letters, contribute to blogs, and think broadly about how this whole thing might reflect larger issues in the way we think about the theatre. And question yourselves -- would you have responded differently? If so, how? And how might that approach have worked?


MattJ said...

Scott, I generally agree with your analysis and think you are right on with regards to the NYTW discussion.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, I have issues with this idea: "the desire of so many artists to provoke the audience as long as there is no chance that the audience will actually respond to that provocation with equal force."

I think you underestimate theatre artists with this proclivity. I believe the opposite is true ofthese artists, the old and new Artauds....These artists expect the audience to respond with a GREATER force, and not back to them, of course, what is the point in that? The audience is made to think and take action, the intensive provocation simply an important, and deemed necessary tactic based on the kind of glazed over audience they are used to dealing with. I just think you're making too many assumptions here about the intelligence, nature, and naivete of these artists.

Now, when it comes to NYTW, naivete, I agree, is the name of the game, followed by a response which is rash and cowardice.

Anonymous said...

You raise some strong points. But on the question of self-censorship, I think you muddy a distinction that needs to be kept clear:

Nicola has said that he cancelled the play NOT because it was in some way wrong for NYTW *subscribers*--in fact, he's gone out of his way to say that that's not the case. He's said, instead (as you acknowledge in your post) that he worried it would raise a ruckus among people who objected, in principle, to the play being staged.

So your analogy about your students isn't an apt one.

This isn't similar to a professor restricting her classroom comments to what she thinks it's appropriate for her students to hear.

This more like a professor restricting her comments to what some critic, outside the university community, deems appropriate.

And I'd submit that a professor who tailors her lectures to the preferences of external critics is failing her students.

It's a question of constituency: Does Nicola see his colleagues, other artists, and NYTW subscribers as his constituents? Or is his constituency, instead, the people who have objected to this work being mounted at all?

To my mind, taking cues from external critics--at the expense of what you perceive as the best interests of your audience and colleagues--counts self-censorship.

But call it whatever you want. The fact is, no one would hire an artistic director who professed his loyalty to theatre outsiders over theatre artists and audience members. And they'd be right not to.

Joshua said...

Scott, it's censorship. It's a stretch to call it anything else. So in essence, it feels like you're stretching, quite a bit.

Alison Croggon said...

Perhaps the issue is self-censorship, which George Hunka calls "the worst kind of censorship." At the risk of sounding like Socrates, define self-censorship. What it sounds like to me is: putting any considerations other than your own to the fore. Apparently it is wrong because we should put individual artistic will ahead of group responsibility, which I see as artistic libertarianism.

Hi Scott

I think George is talking about another kind of responsibility: not the indulging of whim and appetite, as if artists are spoiled kids, but a commitment to values that art potentially makes and expresses. There is a difference: the libertine is interested only in self-gratification, but an artist believes in something beyond herself, with its own imperatives, that might well operate at the expense of the artist.

I can't see this particular instance in any way as "artistic libertarianism" - perhaps this play has a compelling aesthetic quality (I don't know, because I haven't seen it: but I will say that it doesn't sound especially cutting-edge to me); but the main reason to do it does seem indeed to be for the "good of the community". Isn't it good for a community to be aware of injustice, to consider the ideas of injustice, to contemplate the suffering of others? Doesn't this fit your "doctor" metaphor? Isn't this play, rather, earnestly committed to community? From what I've read, this seems to be the case to me.

Nicola didn't decide the play was "inappropriate" for "his community": it was (at one stage anyway) inappropriate for some unspecified other community, as the commenter above points out. I totally agree with your point that Nicola should stand up for the work that he has chosen to program.

Scott Walters said...

Josh -- you're going to have to do better than an assertion.

My personal preference -- and it is personal -- is to reserve words of power like "censorship" for really heinous acts of government censorship, so that when I use it, it has sharp edges that haven't been blunted through overuse. I think this is an example of over-cautiousness and an unwillingness to truly engage the issues that a work of art raises. Intellectual cowardice.

As far as censoring one's work according to an outside critic, I agree entirely: wrong in every instance. So you're right: the professor analogy is flawed.

Alison, you are right that this isn't artistic libertarianism. But it arises from a desire to escape being held accountable for one's artistic choices. To me, this is cowardice.

I just provided support of the Sex Worker's Art Show that came to my campus. The administration wanted faculty to provide "blurbs" to support the appropriateness of such a show on a campus. I examined my principles, and provided a statement about educational institutions introducing students to a large variety of viewpoints as a way of developing a citizen's sense of understanding. When the controversy began, I didn't have to backtrack -- I knew what I stood for. Would that Nicola had done the same.

If a play is important enough to do at one time, it is important enough to stand behind when there are protests.

freespeechlover said...

When I think of "my community," I think of citizens in a democracy. Citizens in democratic theory and practice are robust adults, not quasi-children in need of protection. This has virtually nothing to do with libertarianism, which is a red herring in this case. In addition, censorship is not just when the government literally cuts or excises something. As for Rickman's comment about censorship, he is correct. The reason is derived from the kind of understanding of the first amendment that is taught in intro. of American government courses in universities. To be an advocate of freedom is to tolerate the offensiveness of others. I cannot say that I defend free speech, unless I'm willing to defend the right of others to offend me. That's the basic philosophy supporting democracy, and its not libertarianism. To limit censorship to some purified notion of the government stopping expression (do we really want to let ourselves off the hook so easily and attribute censorship only to the government or actors in the state?) is to not take freedom of speech or expression very seriously.