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Art Deserves the Freedom to be Messy
September 15, 2017
I think reading is an important part of becoming a better writer, but it takes a little more effort than putting on a TV show so you’ve gotta work for it. I used to read a lot more, got out of the habit and over the past few years, I’ve started making it a priority. I like to read all sorts of different genres and expose myself to as many authors and voices as possible. One author I’d never actually read anything by until recently is Stephen King. Many of his works interest me, some of the things I’ve seen that have been adapted feel like they’d probably be better as books and so I finally read my first Stephen King book (and I plan to read more as time allows...but again, I like to keep mixing things up).
Leading up to the release of the new movie, I read IT which really is a monster of a book (a little long-winded at times, if we’re being honest) and King’s skill as a brilliant writer is undeniable. But there is that one scene. Towards the end of the very long book, there’s an infamous scene that most of you are probably familiar with but I’ll spare you the details if not, but the point is, I thought the scene was disgusting. I understood the intent, I’ve read King’s brief explanations in recent years which confirm my understanding of the scene but that doesn’t change the fact that I think it was a really messed up thing to portray, particularly in the detailed, triumphant manner that it was.
But I’m glad King kept writing. If I could go back in time and read IT at the time of its release, I wouldn’t feel compelled to try and end his career. He’s a talented writer, he made a big, provocative swing and even if I think it’s terrible, I think it’s important to allow authors some breathing room to be messy. In fact, this goes for artists of all types.
About a month ago, I wrote a post about why representation was so important, why it’s vital to give platforms to diverse voices and why it’s just as vital and extremely beneficial for readers to seek out content from people who look and believe differently than them. Exposing ourselves to different backgrounds makes us better people, I firmly believe that.
A lot has happened since then. That post was written before the tragic events in Charlottesville even. That incident and so many responses that followed certainly reveal a pervasive ideology in American culture, sometimes blatantly displayed in the actions of white supremacists and neo-nazis, but often more subtly embedded in our speech, beliefs and politics in ways that many of us are not even aware of. It takes effort, exposing ourselves to different viewpoints and cultures with an open mind to really develop an empathy that brings awareness and understanding.
I certainly understand the impulse to silence hate speech and it’s clear how damaging and dangerous some speech and ideas can be, but I think as we approach art, balance is essential. Now, I recognize that I say this as a white dude with privilege and I understand that racism and biases have not impacted my life in the same way it has that of a minority, nor have I had to experience growing up in a culture that inaccurately depicts those who look like me and my family across pretty much every platform of media, so I get that to a certain extent this is easy for me to say. My response is certainly not, “Suck it up and get over it.”
But I have been thinking about the importance of allowing for messy art. Authors, film writers, songwriters, whoever’s creating something needs to have the freedom to express themselves in the moment. To try to grapple with an idea, even if their understanding is incomplete. This goes far beyond issues of race or gender, and really applies to everything across the board. Any idea expressed deserves to be examined, scrutinized and even criticized but I think we should be slow to silence. I started thinking about all of this after an article from Vulture that examined the mob mentality that went after certain YA authors for decidedly minor offenses, but the vitriolic response would have you believe that they had published neo-nazi manifestos.
Now, some have disputed some details of that article but that doesn’t change the reality of the situation that we’ve all witnessed across social media. There is sometimes a rush to demonize anything and everything, interacting with art for no other reason than to uncover what about it is wrong about it. As soon as people start to like something, we want to swoop in and be the first to declare “Your fave is problematic and here’s why…”
I grew up an Evangelical in America. I’ve seen legalism firsthand and let me tell you, it doesn’t work. And whether it’s religious fundamentalism or merciless word policing, the outcome is the same. People are consumed with either shame or resentment and those feelings never lead to anything productive. It’s so much better to engage with art, not try to shut it down or ruin the life of one who creates it, but to have thoughtful conversations about what you found enlightening about a certain work and which elements you thought were less successful or maybe even offensive. But if the response is that an author should be exiled for being imperfect, no one is ever going to be daring, provocative or all that interesting ever again for fear of being shut down.
Now, here’s what this is not. This is not me railing against being “politically correct.” Like with anything, there are those that take that concept too far, but I think for the most part, being politically correct means being sensitive to others and choosing words that convey respect. That’s really it. And most people I know that pretend to be free speech warriors and proudly label themselves as politically incorrect just want the freedom to be jerks without the social fallout. So that’s not me.
But art is about taking a snapshot of a moment, capturing a certain emotion. That’s not always gonna be pretty. I feel like every time Paramore puts out a new album, Hayley Williams has to talk about and apologize for referring to another girl as a “slut” in a song she wrote as a teenager (because a real feminist wouldn’t do that) as if somehow a moment of petty rage when she was 17 entirely defines her as a person. Shouldn’t she and any writer have the freedom to be messy in moment of authenticity?
It’s important to remember context. To remember why a thing was said, remember when it was said and grapple with how it translates to our modern world. When I hear about schools and movie theaters banning Gone With The Wind and Huckleberry Finn, I think it’s entirely different from those who want to tear down monuments of men who fought for the right to own people. These are not monuments intended to honor offensive and outdated thinking, they are pieces of art that hold value as glimpses into the past. There are fair criticisms to be directed towards both of those works and we shouldn’t read/watch them to celebrate everything they depict, but it’s important to stay in touch with our history.
It’s important to stay in touch with our emotions and our very human brokenness. So while I don’t think it’s helpful to be “politically incorrect” in our daily life, we still need politically incorrect characters. Because they exist. And we need messy emotions, imperfect words, and the beautiful flaws that come naturally when anyone is trying their best to express something about anything that matters in the world.
Intent is important too. Why was this art made? What is the enduring theme of this work? What was this artist trying to communicate? In that story from Vulture, it kind of talked about how if a writer wanted to write about a certain topic, they had to have all the right opinions and write about all of it perfectly for fear of being saddled with some sort of terrible label. I think there’s a clear distinction between an author that is promoting hate or perpetuating stereotypes and someone who is, you know, just imperfect.
And sometimes we just have to roll with ideas we don’t like because art is about is engaging with the human experience and someone may arrive at different conclusions than you. Or maybe somebody likes to package their ideas in shocking and provocative ways--sometimes this has no real value other than be scandalous, other times it’s just the jolt a work needs to effectively convey its message. It may make you uncomfortable, it might even make you mad, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist.
Much like my last post on representation, this is long and rambling without a full and definitive point because there’s no easy bow to put on this. I think we can all admit that some “art” is garbage and, frankly, deserves to be shunned (and we’re all gonna have a different line, and that’s fine) but I think our default setting should be not to shut down the conversation or silence artists who don’t think like us, but to continue to engage with it, analyze, discuss and criticize it. This is what has made art a great unifier since the beginning of time. Not that it was all good, but that it was a means by which we could collectively tussle with the bigger questions of the universe. For it to work though, it has to be honest. Art cannot be concerned with being so perfect and polished that it passes every possible litmus test imaginable because it would lose its power (any book/movie/tv show that has been a sermon instead of a book/movie/tv show is a testament to this). No, art has to be honest. And it’s gonna be honest, we have to allow it the freedom to be messy. It’s not that we don't confront or acknowledge its sins, it’s that we allow it to exist in its imperfection and we ponder what that means. As a writer, certainly I want the freedom to be imperfect because I already am. But as a reader, I want it even more.