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Friday, March 12, 2004
An Artistic Bill of Rights

My three major interests here would probably be best defined as cultural criticism, music criticism, and political theory. And recently I've been thinking about a way in which they somewhat converge, focused around the intrusion of politics into criticism. Some of this is just me throwing things out to see what sticks, but some of it I do deeply believe in. I'm not telling which is which, though. At any rate, let's see where this goes...

In theory, it's good that we're talking about art's political meaning. All art, I mean, not just superficially "political" art--popular culture, ostensible apolitical avant-garde or underground stuff, etc. Because hey, it does have a political meaning. That's important to recognize, and useful to talk about. Right?

The problem is that almost all of the time we're talking about it in the language of identity politics.[1] Blah blah blah sends a negative political message because it offends women, or offends gays, or offends Midwesterners, or offends Japanese people.[2] Even right-wing critiques tend to use this language: Janet Jackson's boob is politically problematic not because no one should ever see a boob, but because children saw the boob. Those children's rights to a boob-free development were violated. It's all rights theory--it's never really justice or morality or anything else. It just comes down to rights most of the time, and the counter-claim is usually one of rights too, i.e. freedom of speech.

The problem with all this is twofold. Firstly, art is diametrically opposed to identity politics.[3] It's individual self-expression, and that essentialism doesn't jive with the need to fit stuff into groups (a not wholly unuseful or invalid political need, mind you) that drives identity politics: we're a minority, but by all banding together and constituting ourselves as a political unit, we can insist on group rights to be extended to the individuals. In contrast, art is very much about differentiating oneself from a perceived or actual group, about how one is different (and, sometimes, how the very concept of granting an individual rights largely on the basis of the assumed needs of their group causes problems). We're not interested in characters or melodies or pictures that are typical; we're interested in seeing what differentiates them from everything else.

This leads to the second problem: artists are as much an identity group as a lot of other demographics we have out there clamoring for a place at the table, but aside from certain politically obvious situations, i.e. outright censorship, their rights are presumed to be subordinate to the rights of all other groups; in the most clear-cut of situations, proper attention is usually given to freedom of speech concerns, but in the more ambiguous (and more common) debates, where the rights of multiple groups are in direct opposition and no resolution is possible without abrogating someone's rights, artists almost always lose, whereas this is not true for women or Christians or homosexuals, to say nothing of journalists[4]. That ain't right. But more importantly, I think it has a negative effect on what artists choose to produce (self-censorship/betrayal), on what art is evaluated as worthy of serious (i.e. benefit-of-the-doubt) consideration, and the set of political meanings we feel comfortable assigning to works of art. This is not about shielding artists from complaint, but an attempt to shape the discourse to make it less stupid, which is one of my major critical projects, honestly.

And so, as long as our debates are conducted on the basis of identity politics, we need to do something about it.

The idea of "artistic license" is kind of a writer's treaty with the dictionary: I'll do my best to contribute some beautiful language if you don't give me shit about malapropisms and grammar and syntax. And it's been a pretty useful one as long as our discourse revolved around the idea of absolute truth. But it doesn't anymore. Of course, I think that's OK, but in an environment of relative justice and shifting power relationships, it might be useful to nail down exactly what rights artists as a group are entitled to. So that's why I'm proposing an artistic bill of rights.

1. THE RIGHT TO IRONY. A common charge against the lefty crusaders of the 90's (I'm going to try to avoid using "PC" here) is that they lacked a sense of humor. This wasn't really true, because they were socialized like anyone else, and so they did, in fact, have senses of humor. They chose, however, to sort of iron over that sense--to stop finding things funny that they may have found funny before, and to encourage other to do the same. Not only this (which included both not laughing at things you don't find funny but might have laughed at politely previously, but also actively not-laughing at things you did find funny until you no longer wanted to laugh at them), but you were supposed to inform the joke-teller of how their joke was offensive and, thus, not-funny. The argument was made at the time was that this would have a negative effect on comedy, but this took only the short view; comedy, of course, depends on norms to upset, and this gave it a whole new set of vigorous norms to transgress. In the long run, this was a profoundly good thing for humor, and indeed, I think the bumper crop of great comedies in the late 90's (South Park foremost among them) is evidence of this fact.

What it did have an ultimately negative effect on, however, was the discourse, to which it was very poison and stuff. For a while there, it was a discursive hydrogen bomb, the thing you dropped when you wanted to win. In other words, it was a genuine sentiment, but it evolved into a weapon, and while in some contexts that was a good thing, in a lot of others it was a very bad thing, something used to shut down speech rather than improve it. And when the discourse is poisoned, this changed not only the thing itself, but the things people choose to offer up into it, and so I think the awareness of the possible ferocious reaction an even mildly offensive work could encounter under certain circumstances inevitably colored what art was made. Again, in some cases this is undeniably good, as it served to at least mask a number of racist/sexist/homophobic tendencies, but at the same time it was this way of thinking's unique focus on humor that made it poisonous, because it was attacking not only ideas, but techniques. In many ways, this stance has mellowed in the last 5 years or so (see my Wolff post), but I think the pendulum is still very much in that direction.

But the problem is not that this view is misguided, but that it is, indeed, partially right. This not-laughing stratagem is based on the idea that a joke is not just a joke, but a conveyor of information, and an argument. And that is very much true. But this was never stated outright; when justification was given for the "that's not funny" argument, it was usually that the offensive joke revealed negative attitudes in the teller. Otherwise, it was that the joke itself was racist/sexist/homophobic. (From now on I'm just going to say "offensive.") But not usually that the information or argument in the joke was offensive. What's the difference? Well, a thing, a whole thing--a person or a joke--is either racist or it isn't. You can't be partially racist. But any given thing can contain a number of pieces of information, any of which can be racist or not-racist.

The fact is, a joke is not just one statement; by its very nature, it is both the thing and its reverse. It is saying what it isn't saying. It is saying what it seems to be saying, and the negative of that. This is exactly where the humor comes from. This is why you have to believe the teller is racist to not-laugh at a joke: if they weren't, then the conflict is there, and it's funny again.

But the problem is that one side of this equation was always ignored in the effort to stamp out prejudice, and the side ignored was always the side that spoke well of the teller. Was it fully evident that the teller was telling an offensive joke to make fun of those who genuinely hold such attitudes? Doesn't matter: the joke is offensive. Unless, of course, the joke-teller is clearly a member of the group being offended, in which case it was usually OK, because there's that conflict between surface and sub-text. Again, the effect is a poisoning of the discourse, because unless you are a member of the subject group, you cannot tell a joke about, say, racism, even if it is anti-racist, because either way there's an offensive side to the joke. This is why it has become not just opposition to a point of view, but opposition to an entire rhetorical technique.

That technique, of course, is irony. Lately it's been stupidly reduced to a form of kitsch or retro, but it goes back a long way; the most obvious example being "A Modest Proposal" by Jonathan Swift, but there's also big heaping portions of irony in the Platonic dialogues. And it incorporates humor, even if an ironic statement is not always humorous. I don't want to see this long-standing, highly effective technique dropped simply because we've gotten so lost in our maze of sub-text and sub-sub-text and unconscious intentionality and latent racism that we revert to disingenuous surface readings and place severe restrictions on the ability to say the opposite of what you mean for rhetorical gain.

What this is a long way of saying is that "it's just a joke" isn't a valid defense, since it denies the discursive properties of a joke, but "it's a joke" is a valid defense, or at least part of a valid defense: it's another way of saying "but I also meant the opposite of that." The bargain is that if I grant that I did say something offensive, you have to grant that I was aware that it was offensive and was consciously saying it in order to imply its opposite. I would hate to see something that's arguably the core of Socratic argumentation severely restricted simply because of a vague feeling that simply hearing offensive things causes people to grant more credence to those ideas, even if they are presented in a negative context. The best joke disrupts even as it (sometimes) reifies.

2. THE RIGHT TO FULL CONSIDERATION. Along those lines, one of the biggest problems with talking about the political implications of art is that usually the only implications discussed are the negative ones. Non-ideological art is assumed to be purely entertainment, but we must constantly be vigilant for any non-entertaining political messages it is sending that might warp the minds of the tabula rosa audience member not expecting such content. This is neither fair nor productive, nor honest nor true. If we're going to argue that some art has unintended / subtextual political content, we have to accept that all art has political content, and not just the political content we want it to have.

As I say above, most arguments about a given work of art's unsuitableness are made in the language of rights theory, and this is not a moral argument, but a practical argument; since violating someone's rights is an act, not a state (something can be good or evil but not rights-violating), and since I think we mostly agree that all speech acts exist only within the context of their own utterances, then we are only concerned with offensiveness within the context of it actually offending someone. (Otherwise me saying racist things to myself alone in my room is violating someone's rights, which doesn't seem very true, to say nothing of the fact that halting such activity via legal act would be, um, a bit contrary to the values of republicanism.)

So (wshew) since it's a practical argument, we have to look at the practical effects of something that is offensive, and the thing about that is that very few offensive pieces of art come outside a particular context, which context almost always contains non-offensive things. (The exceptions obviously are things like graffiti, which I'm pretty comfortable not giving the benefit of the doubt to, all things considered.) That means that if you're going to address the offensive content of a thing, in addition to being attentive for irony (as stated above), you have to look at the whole thing, and all its practical effects. Are parts of Huckleberry Finn racist? Sure. But what else is going on in the book? We regard flawed things all the time--is the smallest taint of offensiveness reason enough to condemn something?

Thus, if you're regarding anything other than offensive things with "no redeeming value," as the courts so charmingly put it, you owe it to the creator and the effort they have put into making the work to fully consider the thing. This is not to say that no one should consider the negative political effects of a work; far from it! But I think that doing so should be more rigorous.

And this is not just an issue of fairness to the creators. The fact is, we simply do not pay attention very often to the possible political effects a work of art can have, unless those effects confirm our underlying assumptions. I think it would be highly useful to start taking a hard, substantive look at what political messages are sent by a work of art other than what seems obvious. Partially this is because social critics (literary, musical, etc.) are so caught up in the idea of art as a vehicle for or representation of progressive social change that I think they miss all the smaller ways art can work as a political thing. Politics, after all, is not primarily the grand things, the Presidential elections and the fall of the Berlin wall and wars and Supreme Court cases and marches on Washington. It is the small things, the day-to-day discourse, the placement of stories on the news, and almost none of this is as unambiguous as we like to pretend.

Now, why is all this so crucial? Why am I putting these restrictions on critics making an argument about something being offensive? Well, first, as I say it's because that charge has such great rhetorical power right now that I think it's an issue of great responsibility, if you know what I mean. But more than anything else, I remain unconvinced that there's a legitimate practical effect that offensive utterances have. Do they demonstrably change a person's behavior? Who knows? It just seems like it should. But if we're going to be responsible thinkers, we have to grant that the burden of proof just hasn't been met, and start looking instead at the other ways in which art works.

3. THE RIGHT TO RECOGNITION OF ARTISTIC INTENT. The problem with this right is probably more pressing than the benefit, so let's start with the problem.

"But I didn't mean for that to happen!" is in no way a valid defense, in and of itself. Nietzsche undeniably did not mean for his rhetoric to endorse anything like Nazi ideology, but the fact is that you can see how it could, and for that reason the crazy old goat gets at least some of the blame for what resulted. True, you could argue that it might have come about anyway, but that doesn't change the fact that what did come about did so at least in part because of what Nietzsche wrote.

Creators are bound to take some responsibility for the actual effects their creations have, even if they themselves would not support such effect, and since we cannot know for sure what effects our work will have, we are duty-bound to take that into consideration when we are creating them. If, indeed, it leads to a negative effect, we have failed in some way, even if it happens because of a wholly inaccurate interpretation. Again, there are exceptions for insanity--if someone reads The Cat in the Hat and decides to blow up a building, Dr. Seuss don't owe nobody an apology--but I think, by and large, that this is a responsibility we take upon ourselves when we choose to put something into the public discourse.

That said, we have to be aware of the fact that I'm talking about the Nazis and blowing up buildings in the disclaimer above; these are demonstrable, horrible end-products. But in the vast majorities of criticisms launched against art, it is not for an actual effect, but either a perceived future effect, or simply none at all, and this holds way less water. If you can make a convincing argument that what someone's saying will have a negative consequence, then they are, again, duty-bound to correct it. But simply insisting that this will be the case with little or no justification (especially when such justification largely comes from the proudly impractical realm of theory) should not hold as much water as it currently does.

I think that, post-New Criticism, the idea of ignoring intentionality has changed from a principled moral stance to a self-serving one. In some cases this can be good--sure, the whole Death of the Author stuff is mostly wrong, but it's mostly wrong in a really useful way, since it allows us to do a lot more with the artifact than we would be able to otherwise, and this essential falseness often leads to fundamental truths, as is so often the case with criticism. But when the criticism is being explicitly turned back upon the personality of the author, as it almost always is in the case of charges of inappropriateness, then we owe it to the creator to actually consider what they were trying to do.

Again, I want to be clear: I am by no means saying that this should be the deciding factor. They could, of course, simply lie about their intentions, and regardless, if something is interpreted a certain way, that is unfortunately all the proof one needs to say that something can be interpreted said way. But the creator's justification should always be sought before judgment is passed. That can then be taken into account, or ignored, but the offer must be there. To go forward otherwise is simple grandstanding, and poisonous to the discourse.

4. THE RIGHT TO STATE SUPPORT. This doesn't have anything to do with the issue at hand, I'd just like to see the US subsidize art a bit more.

5. THE RIGHT TO A PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE. Context matters, but the issue is the scope of the context. Sometimes it is wholly valid for a creator's whole biography to be considered: if someone is or once was a member of the KKK, their protestations of innocence when it comes to charges of racism hold a lot less water. But short of clear-cut cases like this (and again, I'd love to see common sense[5] prevail), you have no right to assume that anything else in a creator's portfolio or life is proof positive, of anything--and again, this is only when critical discourse intrudes on the character of the creator.

Should this cut both ways? I thought about this and decided, that, at first it should not. Again, this is in the initial stages of the discourse, when people haven't had an opportunity to make up their minds yet. I think that regardless of past evidence, the work needs to be at least at first considered as a whole, on its own. We need to at least consider what, in the best-case scenario, would be the ideal interpretation, and then move on to other evidence that might speak to the contrary. But we owe this to the work, even if we don't owe it to the creator; a work can be positive and useful even divorced from its source.

Why? Because, again, art is not representative of a group; it is individualist and expressive. Moreover, unlike many things, art is ambiguous, and this means that you can't treat it as a source of authority. Very little art is presuming to authority, and for that reason it should be considered not as something attempting to dictate norms but as something trying to simply portray one or more other viewpoints, to throw these into the mix rather than take over the mix as a whole. Art is the expression of an individual (or group thereof), and for this reason it has value even if negative.

6. THE RIGHT TO INDEPENDENCE. Artists can choose to respect the wishes of their audience, but they don't have to. Technically, they don't owe their fans anything besides what is given. And this isn't even a purely philosophical concern--just as many bad albums have been recorded by artists following their muse as by artists shamefully and lazily pandering to the expectations of their audience.[6] I do think artists have a responsibility to submit works for critique by an honest outside party, but if they choose to make a major stylistic, methodological, or philosophical change, this in no way puts a complainer about same on the side of moral right.


Now, the problem with this is that it's incomplete; it needs a companion document. It needs, in other words, the other side of the bargain: an artistic bill of responsibilities. It needs an acknowledgement of the disclaimer in #3 that artists owe responsibilities for the future effects of their creations. It needs an acknowledgement of criticism as a legitimate artistic pursuit alongside the creation at hand, and that this can be repressed just as easily as more traditional forms of expression. It needs to acknowledge that creators, if not their works, do have a form of authority, a platform, even if it is not raised very high, and that this position does require a certain set of guidelines.

But, well, I can't do that right now. Maybe some other time...

NOTE: This is subject to revision, but I'll try and keep it strictly grammatical, or else make it a whole new post.

[1] Except for Marxist critiques, but I don't think these carry any particular moral weight with the artist 99% of the time, and the way political critiques effect how art is made is what I'm concerned with here.
[2] To say nothing of the issue of people getting offended on behalf of groups which they themselves are not members of, and often have no particular proof if it is, in fact, offensive to most members of said group. (Thus the funniest thing about the whole Lost in Translation debate: since it's difficult for us to communicate with Japanese people, we have no idea how they actually feel about the movie! Lost in...well, the movie was offensive, y'see...)
[3] Which is why art that tries to wedge itself into the identity-politics dialogue tends to suck monkeys, but that's a whole other rant which, let's be honest, you've probably heard before.
[4] Journalists should certainly be under greater protection than artists, as they are engaged in direct rather than indirect political speech, but the differential is unconscionably large.
[5] Which Richard Rorty calls "the opposite of irony," but I get the sense he's roughly abusing the term.
[6] A Tori Amos / Ani DiFranco / Fugazi comparison would be useful here, but that's for another time.