Roses Are Red, Violets Are Blue, I Find You Offensive, Shut Up, Will You?
Alternatives to censorship and outrage when dealing with art that offends you.
One person made a movie in which they deliberately portrayed community X in an unfavorable light. Another person repeatedly took jibes at politician Y in their stand-up routine. Yet another person released songs that were crude, misogynistic and frankly, rapey. Someone else wrote a play which featured jokes about disability, abuse, dead children, and war crimes.
All of these people called it art. One of these people is me.
There’s a wide range of opinions about what should or shouldn’t be considered art, what should or shouldn’t be protected as art, and what should or shouldn’t be created as art. Your own opinion might fall anywhere on the spectrum of celebrating art as a free-for-all regardless of content or viewing art as a means to a social end, holding art-makers responsible for the messages and influences they send out to society.
I have no opinion on your opinion, and I’m not here to try to change it. I’m here to open up a discussion about honesty, and about maybe giving artists a break.
So, question one. What is art?
Is it a reflection of the human experience as it is and has been, is it a projection of the human experience as it could be, is it an instigator of the human experience as it perhaps should be? Is it an amalgam of those things and more? If it is (and I believe it is), why should anything be beyond the scope of what art is allowed to or is even encouraged to portray?
Question two. What is an art-makers responsibility?
Is it to faithfully portray whatever it is they’re seeking to portray or to successfully impact their audience in whatever way they’re seeking to impact them? To put it another way, what should art-makers be held accountable for? The content they create, or how their audience takes it? Whatever the answer to that is, leads us to question three.
Who are artists even accountable to? And how do those people then enforce artistic accountability?
I’m person 4 from the examples, by the way. I wrote a play (A Medium-Sized Battery) which featured jokes about disability, abuse, dead children, and war crimes. Some of you might despise me for this. Others of you might laud me for it. Or you might reserve your judgment till you have perused my script for yourself. Or you might be indifferent. Whatever it is, it doesn’t really matter. I take pride in my art, and as long as I believe in it, I will stubbornly defend it against any amount of outrage.
Not that there was any outrage.
Not a single audience member “had words with me” after the shows (except to say that they enjoyed them). And my video recordings are full of the sound of audience laughter. Laughter at the unexpected, laughter at relief after a tense moment, cringe laughter, even uncomfortable, pre-reflection laughter. But not laughter that anyone showed signs of later regretting.
This may have been helped by justifications within the script for the use of this sort of humor. One conversation between the main characters went somewhat like this:
“1: Why would you joke about something as serious as abuse?
2: Because sometimes that’s the only way to get people to listen.
1: No, you talk directly to make people listen!
2: You do that too, of course you do! But people don’t willingly seek out heavy topics and choose to reflect on them without prompting.
1: Doesn’t making jokes about it just trivialize big issues, though?
2: It can, although that also depends on what the joke is and how it’s delivered. But sometimes it’s the only way for someone to share their story.
2: As an example: you can’t easily talk about the Holocaust at work, or at a dinner party. But you can make a joke about the Holocaust being worse than a worm in an apple. You get an uncomfortable laugh out of people; you feel relief that the Holocaust has been acknowledged. That joke doesn’t make anyone think that it’s okay to kill millions of people. If anything, the discomfort you feel when you laugh reminds you that the Holocaust was, in fact, completely horrifying and should never be repeated.
1: Right. And what do dead baby jokes achieve?
2: For me personally? They tell people to mind their own fucking business when I tell them I don’t want to have kids.”
What does any of this prove? In my opinion, if you advocate a blanket ban on certain topics being joked about, you’re essentially telling artists to shut up because you don’t want to laugh at that. This is problematic because sometimes people do want to laugh at that, and that causes discomfort because perhaps people don’t want to be the kind of people that laugh at that. And thus art reveals an inner conflict: where people find something funny that they don’t want to find funny. And there are many solutions to resolve this sort of conflict, many steps that can and should be taken both at a personal level and at a social level.
But silencing artists shouldn’t be one of them.
Consider some simpler alternatives to censorship and outrage: if you don’t like something (something that is not legally actionable), what if you just don’t engage with it? Vote with your feet. Don’t give them your money. Artists tend to be sensitive to that sort of feedback.
Question four. What if a work is made with noble intent, but doesn’t spell it out with a disclaimer like the one above?
Or what if the actors in a live play forget their lines in a crucial disclaimer-like scene and as a result, the audience doesn’t get what they playwright wanted them to know? What if an artist has the best intentions, but due to lack of skill or bad timing they simply don’t manage to pull it off successfully? Or what if they do get everything right, but it just doesn’t resonate with the audience?
An artist’s journey is already rife with struggle. To make politically incorrect, outrage-inviting works is a risk that can cost an artist their audience, even their career: a harsh penalty for someone who might have noble intent, and might just be trying to get things right. Maybe there’s a place for stepping back and giving artists a break.
Question five. What if an artist creates a work in which their intent isn’t so noble, they’re just willing to risk audience happiness for their portrayal of the world as they see it (as it is, could be, should be, shouldn’t be, whatever)?
Or what if they’re just jerks?
How do you tell the difference?
And if you can’t (you often can’t), what do you do about it?
Anton Chekhov said that an artist’s responsibility is to ask questions, not to answer them. And so I leave you with these questions, and trust that whatever your conclusions are, at least the process of reflection will have enriched your journey.
Aridhi Anderson is an art-maker, performer and director with the Day Dream theatre group (New Delhi & Melbourne).