Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Offending the Audience

On the sidebar on the right side of this blog you will find five principles, one of which includes "mutuality." This admittedly awkward word is an attempt to boil down the idea that there needs to be a more dialogic relationship between artists and audience. If you click on the link provided, you find yourself at a "Welcome, New Readers" post that elaborates:

If the theatre is decentralized, and if the aesthetic reflects a local aesthetic, then it follows that the relationship of the artist to the community must be a close one. Artists must be a part of the community in which they live, and fully participate in the life of the community. Arts ghettos, where artists huddle together and only speak to each other, but be opened up to let the voices of individual people into the conversation. The Romantic idea of the artist as outsider, as mysterious stranger, must be replaced by the much older idea of the artist as community voice and leader.
In a post on March 28th entitled "Mick Montgomery on Mike Daisy," I wrote something similar, quoting poet, novelist, essayist, and farmer Wendell Berry's belief that the artist not as "an isolated, preeminent genius who materializes ideas from thin air, but ... a person who has been in a community a long time, has been attentive to its voices...and who is prepared to pass on what has been heard."

An interesting exchange then occurred between Matt Freeman and Mick Montgomery in the comments for this post:
  • Matt: "How does this jive with the idea that many communities are hostile to artists? The assumption here is that artists are embraced members of a community who somehow cherish and reflect on that community. The fact is, artists are often outcasts or critics of their communities. They're not always welcome voices. Nor should they be."
  • Mick Montgomery: "The idea that the artist in a community must be critical to the community in an abrasive way may be the reason why the ARTS and ARTISTS are struggling to gain traction in certain communities. Why can't artists learn to deliver their message in a way that challenges their audience, but at the same time allows for the message to be heard. I'm not saying the Artist can't go out on a limb from time to time, but doesn't the artist want their message heard? Can ART be relative to the community when the Artist is operating in a vacuum?"
  • Matt: "I think characterizing confrontational theater or a critical posture or even a hostile posture as abrasive is reductive. We shouldn't want for toothless messages or ones that, like medicine, are delivered with a spoonful of sugar. Where would that have gotten Ionesco? Arthur Miller? Henrik Ibsen? David Mamet? Tony Kushner? I also don't necessarily believe that being unwelcome in your community means that you're delivering an unwelcome message. It may mean that a majority of your community doesn't identify with you, or understand your work, or find you palatable. It's possible for an artist to aesthetically stand outside his or her community. All of this is a good thing. We should want artists to make us question, think, and see things we're not used to. That is necessarily uncomfortable. An artist isn't operating in a vacuum when they're in opposition to their communities values."
A few days later, in a post entitled "Hostility," in which Matt objected to the attempts to justify the arts' place in the economic stimulus package from an instrumental viewpoint, Matt wrote, "Artists, though, exist to agitate, provoke, shock (yes, shock), and question. It's for this very reason that communities, national to local, will always view them as troublemakers, try to marginalize them, or assimilate them."

The role and responsibility of the artist in a society, and the relationship between artist and audience, has been an ongoing and rather heated argument in the theatrosphere, and on this blog especially. It has a tendency to arise particularly in relation to discussions of localism and the idea that an artist ought to be a part of his or her community. It connects to my posts on "The Wal-Marting of American Theatre" (Parts 1, 2, and 3), and provides a necessary foundation to the <100K Project.

The answer to Matt's first question is that a community is not a single, unified thing; some parts of a community, any community, will embrace an artist, and some parts will not. No matter how small the community, there will be people who value you, and people who don't. To expect, as a precondition to joining a community, a big sloppy kiss from everyone within it is unrealistic. What Matt is actually asking, however, is whether being part of a community requires you to sing from the same hymnal as everybody else, whether you lose your ability to criticise values with which you disagree.

The easy answer is simply to say "of course not." If you've ever lived in a small community, you know that there isn't full agreement about whether the sky is blue, so an artist ought to fit right in. Where there are people, there will be different opinions. The key, however, is how you are heard as an artist if you function within a community, versus how you are heard if you are an outsider. Not surprisingly, Wendell Berry discusses this topic beautifully.

In the title essay of his book Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, Berry discusses the 1989 Actors Theatre of Louisville world premiere of Arthur Kopit's play Bone-the-Fish, and specifically a newspaper article that appeared prior to the play's opening in which Kopit is quoted as saying "I am immodestly proud that [the play] is written in consistently bad taste. It's about vile people who do vile things. They are totally loathsome, and I love them all... I'm almost positive that it has something to offend everyone." The writer of the article goes on to explain that "Kopit write 'Bone-the-Fish' out of a counterculture impulse, as a reaction against the complacency that he finds corrupting American life."

Neither Berry nor I am interested in discussing the "quality or point of Kopit's play," but rather in the article itself "as an example of the conventionality of the artistic intention to offend -- and of the complacency of the public willingness not to be offended but to passively accept offense." In other words, there are two focuses: the artist's intention, and the audience's reaction, and these are both tied to Kopit's outsider status. Let's start with the audience reaction.

Artists don't actually want to offend people. Artists like Kopit say that's what they want, but in reality actual offense by an audience provokes outrage. Look at the reaction from artists when audiences are actually offended and express their offense, say the people who walked out of Mike Daisey's performance, pouring water on his notes on the way out, or the conservative Christians who were offended by Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi and had the temerity to picket the theatre, or when right wing politicians tee off on NEA grants for art work that is explictly designed to offend. Artists want polite offense, or, as Berry writes about Kopit, the "preferred audience is therefore one that will applaud his audacity and pay no attention at all to his avowed didactic purpose..."

Berry adamantly defends any artist's right to offend as protected speech. "A community, as a part of a public, has no right to silence publicly protected speech, but it certainly has a right not to listen and to refuse its patronage to speech it finds offensive, It is remarkable, however, that many writers and artists appear to be unable to accept this obvious and necessary imitation on their public freedom; they seem to think that freedom entitles them not only to be offensive but also tobe approved and subsidized by the people whom they have offended."

Berry then makes an important distinction, one that is central to the issue of the artist as delivering an "unwelcome message." He writes: "Does my objection to the intention to offend and the idea of improvement by offense mean that I believe it is invariably wrong to offend or that I think community and public life do not need improving? Obviously not. I do not mean at all to slight the issues of honesty and of artistic integrity that are involved. But I would distinguish between the intention to offend and the willingness to risk offending. Honesty and artistic integrity do not require anyone to intend to give offense, though they certainly may cause offense. The intention to offend, it seems to me, identifies the would-be offender as a public person. I cannot imagine anyone who is a member of a community who would purposely or gladly or proudly offend it, thought I know very well that honesty might require one to do so." [all italics mine]

This seems to me to be an important distinction between offense as an end in itself, an intention; and offense as a result of painful but necessary honesty. This point was brought home to me recently when I caught a portion of This American Life during the recent fund drive for my local public radion station, WCQS. The episode included a reprise of a story they did during the election about racism in the Presidential primary, and the union's attempt to persuade its members to vote for Obama despite the fact that he is African-American. The reporter recorded a phone bank caller who was trained to counter anti-Obama misconceptions, and also interviewed someone who had talked to a friend of his who was struggling with voting for a black man. The phone bank person, when confronted with racist beliefs, quickly switched to talking points about how Obama's views about labor coincided with the union's, choosing to persuade them on the issues without directly confronting the racism; the individual argued against the racism, using examples from his friend's friendship with blacks at work, and telling him in no uncertain terms that he really needs to root out this racism from his whole life. This is the difference between knowing who you are talking to, and not knowing. It is the difference between being in relationship, and being a paid phone caller. For my money, the guy talking to his racist buddy has a much better chance of changing, even slightly, his friend's opinion, because he can make his argument more personal, and because he has an emotional bank account that allows him to speak his "unwlecome truth" more directly. In fact, far from being less effective because part of a community, I would argue being in community would be more effective.

That conversation cost the guy something -- he was putting himself on the line. It wasn't an anonymous talking point from someone who could hang up and roll their eyes afterwards, this guy was going to go to work with this guy the next day. And he cares about his friend, it isn't just some guy. And his friend is more likely to listen, because he is hearing it from his friend and not just some guy. The conversation reflects the willingness to risk offense, not the intention to offend. That's how community works, that's how people work, that's how artists function within a community. Their roots and relationships allow them to speak "unwelcome truths," because they've earned that right, but they will do so in a way that will be specific, effective, powerful, tailored. And if they give offense, they do so knowing they will have to face those they offended in the grocery line the next day, or at church, or at the little league baseball game. They can't just blend into the mass. They have to take responsibility for their actions, and to have the true courage of their convictions.