The Honesty Of Art
"Rid yourself of the feeling that Art has nothing to do with reality and is not sturdy enough to face it on it's own" Erwin Piscator
One of the things that has always made the arts so dangerous to people who would control the way populations think is it's inherent capability of promoting independent thought. The good piece of art, be it novel, music, painting, theatre, or any of the other varied means of expression at the disposal of human beings, will promote a highly individual reaction from each of its observers.
Not everybody is going to be touched in the same manner upon listening to a piece of music as powerful as Beethoven's Ninth symphony, or by looking at Andy Warhol's "Campbell Soup Cans". The mirror that art holds up to society will offer a reflection unique as the vision that our personal mirrors offer us when we look into them.
Our perceptions and personal experiences are the filter through which we see everything, including our interpretations and reactions to a piece of art. Those seeking to control artistic expression do so with the hopes of controlling the way in which the world is seen. For what other reason would the Vatican have a list of proscribed books? Or would religious and political zealots throughout history have for their tendency to burn books?
The last thing that people of a very narrow perspective want is those under their sway to be given the means to form thoughts that are in opposition to their orthodoxy. This autocratic curtailing of thought can occur under many guises, but the most insidious form is the utilization of moral outrage. Under this blanket objection, proponents of censorship are able to cloak themselves in the costume of protectors of the innocent, guardians of virtue, and upholders of societal values.
It used to be that these folk were satisfied with working at a local level by attacking the choices made by school boards of what to include in their curriculum. They reserved their attacks for what was being taught in t the English and Health departments.
Their objections have always mystified me; for example I've never been able to understand what's so insidious about a Health teacher instructing his or her students in the names and functions of bodily parts. Its stuff most kids see on themselves every day isn't it? It's not like their giving them instructions on how to use sex toys, or telling them to go forth and procreate.
In fact the way sex education is usually taught in schools, half the time I bet the students have no idea that what the teacher is talking about has anything to do with having sex. Most of the time it's such a clinical thing that chances are it's more liable to turn them off having sex than anything else.
Then there are some of the books they want banned, the old favourite of course is J.D. Salinger's Catcher In The Rye. Holden is a foul-mouthed cynic and failure who is the epitome of the angst filled teenager. Lost and confused he lashes out at everybody and blames everybone else for his failures. It's still considered to this day one of the finest books written that has dealt with the difficulties some people have in adolescence.
But all some people can see is the language, and they refuse to get past it. They say they don't want their children exposed to it. Which pretty much means they are going to have to lock them in the house, seal all the windows so that sound doesn't come in from the streets, and throw out any televisions, radios, or other means of broadcasting the outside world into their house.
Perhaps back in the days when Catcher In The Rye was written people would have more of an excuse for being shocked at the language, it wasn't as prevalent in society then as it's now. But I have to wonder what world people live in where they think that banning one book will prevent their children from hearing that type of language.
Maybe they think that by teaching it in school the language is being legitimatised, but I would think it's prevalence in everyday life would take care of that. If language is such a concern for parents, than they need to make it clear what they consider acceptable behaviour in their house, and offer their children explanations for their reasoning.
Unfortunately it's not only the legions of decency that are a threat to literature, there's also the misguided politically correct. These are the folk who try to pull works such as Mark Twain's Huckelberry Finn and William Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice from curriculum.
Their grounds for wanting these books removed are just as spurious as those who would have other "offensive" material removed. They want to re-write history and pretend that certain attitudes and beliefs never existed. In point of fact probably the best place for young people to read these books is in a school setting where the subject matter can be placed in its proper historical context and the behaviour of the characters can be seen in that light.
In their own ways each of these books are historically accurate in their depiction of the times they represent, and in the attitudes of the characters and society. We can't change what has happened in our past no matter how much it embarrasses us, but people will not learn from it if we pretend it never existed.
Now of course the reach of these groups has grown longer. Pop music has always been a target for the forces of decency, and they got their fifteen minutes of fame in the 1980's with hearings somehow made official even though a non-politician headed them. Who can forget that paragon of taste, Tipper Gore, justifying the suspension of the amendment to the United States Constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech in the name of moral decency?
All those hearings did was provide labels to tell kids which discs they should buy if they really wanted to piss off their parents. Putting a label on an album saying this contains mention of drug use and offensive language is like waving a red flag in front of a bull when it comes to adolescent males. No wonder the record companies had no objections to the hearings; they knew the notoriety could only increase sales.
Instead of viewing this as a set back the forces of moral decency have been on the upswing in recent years. The whole incident with Janet Jackson's nipple (can I even say that word) appearing for a micro second during the Supper Bowl halftime show a couple of years ago has resulted in the television networks in the United States being cowed into surrendering autonomy at the threat of depletion of their cash cow advertising contracts.
Arts Councils and federal funding agencies are being told what they can and can't fund based on moral standards that have nothing to do with artistic merit or talent. This type of control on creativity strikes to the very heart of artistic expression. Someone other than the individual artist making decisions on what is considered art.
Art is not supposed to be safe and docile at the command of one portion of the population. People misuse the term artistic temperament and believe it to be a mode of behaviour that can be turned on and off. In reality it means certain people are born with both sensitivity to the inner workings of the human psyche and the abilities to depict it.
Despite what the paragons of virtue would like us to believe there is a lot of darkness in this world and that will show up in any mirror that is pointing in the right direction. The prevalence and acceptance of violence in the mainstream, the continual objectification of humans, the xenophobia of mainstream society, and the very hypocrisy that drives the forces of decency are sufficient fodder for most artists to depict our world in less than glowing terms.
Art has everything to do with what is going on around us. If we lived in a world where tolerance and tranquility abounded you would see that looking back at you from the pages of a book, or the canvas on the wall. You would hear it in the music being composed and the songs being sung.
I don't know if the people who seek to control artistic expression are doing so because they understand that or not. It is more likely that they are doing it because they don't see the world they want to exist depicted. With their efforts to control expression they are trying to form a false picture of the world for their own peace of mind.
Unfortunately neither the world nor the artists are co-operating, and they never will. Perhaps there will come a time when people realize they can't enforce their vision of existence on either the world or the artist. Instead of trying to control art, they need to accept the fact that it tells them with, far more honesty than any newspaper, what is going on in the world.