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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Art and Freedom of Expression

The line between artistic expression and artistic offence has never been finer. In fact, I think we've reached a point where it is simply not possible to create anything without offending someone, be they an individual or a group of individuals.

This has been the case, let's not forget, throughout most of history. It's clear that to be an artist throughout the ages - from ancient Greece to 2017 - is fraught with tension between how an artist creates, who they create their art for (the state, religion, patrons, public, private, for its own sake, etc.), when/why it is deemed 'art', and how long it survives before being lost, shredded, erased, bombed to oblivion, criticized, re-thought, or celebrated. Art is not - in any way, shape, or form - easy.

Yet, art endures. It is still here and there are many of us out there trying to create art. Be they painters struggling away in a co-operative community studio in Burlington, Iowa or a composer in Ottawa, Ontario, or a filmmaker in Israel, or a director in Boston, or a choreographer in Toronto -- artists are everywhere. There are millions of us all around the world; some quite privileged (i.e. celebrity artists), but most artists out there still struggle to make ends meet. In my case, I understand that my life is a very rare, wonderful, yet strange life. On the good days (I'd say 75% are good days now), my life is truly a gift. During opera rehearsals, coachings, and performances, my life is typically transcendental, communing with long-dead geniuses through direct contact via music and text.

How exceptional is it to sit in a room and play all day in rehearsal (see my blog "The Operatic Playground's Secret" here: LINK ), or wave my hands in front of an orchestra, or sit and design blocking for some masterpiece by Handel? Truly Exceptional. Absolutely. Pretty easy life, frankly.

However, thinking that all we artists do is sit and play all day removes our expertise, ignores our years of training and practice, and it negates all of our sweat and tears and long hours trying to come up with something quite elusive: An Original Idea.

Ideas are integral to the continuation of the human race. Innovation is something we usually think about now only in the realm of technology. But artistic innovation, artistic ideas and thoughts, are absolutely essential for our human experiment to continue forward. It is as essential as Climate Change research, the International Space Station, theoretical quantum physics, or new Artificial Intelligence inventions. Artistic Innovation - a viable and important "AI" - should be made a priority for any state, local, or federal funding because without it, there is no need to continue the rest of our society's march into new technologies.

But who is to say what is art? Who is to say what art can or can not encompass? How do we innovate art when it is not clear to many what kind of art is allowable?

But more importantly: Who do we trust to make those decisions?

I trust no one. Everyone sees their world through their own lens and this lens creates their realities. My reality is different and, thank you very much, I don't give a fig about what others might think of my reality. My brain, which creates my thoughts, is my own and not up for control. Any type of control of an artist, outside of the realm of public safety or criminal activity, is dangerous for the society that seeks to put such controls, leashes, or muzzles on their artistic communities.

Control is another word for censorship, because censorship is all about control. Censorship is one of the ugliest human efforts that is easily disguised through other means or phrases. My grandma called it "being polite". All our great composers were censored, just read up on Verdi or Shostakovich to understand what a nightmare their lives must have been while trying to create the art that we now consider masterpieces. In the first decades of television, censorship was put into place in order to "protect" the public from offensive words/images/themes, or to protect the public from ideas those in power thought hostile to the American Way. Lately, the notion of protecting others from offence has turned into trying to control on campus speakers from expressing their ideas. Most of the current phrases used in identity politics are more about controlling others' words and speech, i.e. their thoughts, then about progressing the social construct towards a fairer future. To be clear, criticism is not censorship. Criticism is vital and essential to art and society. To critique something means that ideas are being pondered, questioned, ripped apart, agreed with, or at least noticed. To censor is to silence, to not allow ideas to be pondered or questioned or ripped apart or agreed with or to be noticed at all.

Censoring others' artistic expressions simply isn't conducive to a society's health and growth. All cultures, nations, groups need to be in a constant state of evolution and growth. In the natural world, growth happens through destruction. In art, it is the same. One often must remove the status quo in order to see something in a new light or to glimpse something entirely new. Those seeking to curb artistic expression because it might offend someone else or trigger a past trauma can end up pulling the roots out of an artist's intentions to express themselves through their chosen means. The line between curbing and cutting out all artistic expression can be a very blurry line indeed.

This new initiative comes not just from those sometimes described as "politically correct" or from the "progressive left", but also the far right (some would say "alt-right".) Seeking to control people's bodies through the removal of healthcare, the defunding of Planned Parenthood, the intense need to overturn abortion rights, the crazy - almost frenetic - need to regulate straight marriage away from the LGBTQ+ communities, the weird obsession with who can use what toilets, and their new interest in controlling the media by gaslighting it via the new administration, is a deception to control people's abilities to create their own identities, their own lives and cultures and communities. That's the fast track to destroying art, let's be very clear, as art is oftentimes created on the fringes of society, or in brand new cultures and communities that are far removed from the status quo.

Artists are not normal, I'll go further - we are kinda strange. What do I mean by that? How does this manifest itself?

A quick and personal example:
When I look out my train window during my early morning commute onto a bleak mid-winter landscape in the middle of western Quebec, what do I see?
Well - I see music.
I hear poetry, imagine a set design for Samuel Barber's opera Vanessa, I jot down ideas for a new chapter in my novel, I contemplate black and white abstract shapes, discover new examples for subtext in a line of text from a Schumann song, or think about whether I'm observing a new version of the colour grey.
I feel my own emptiness and loneliness and wonder if anyone else on the train is feeling the same emotions.
I feel the motion of the trees flying by because I can become that cold, dead tree filled with hidden life waiting to burst forth in a few months.
I start to experience time differently. The passing of a tree might be a few seconds, but for me it lasts minutes, maybe the whole morning.
Time opens up for me and I see new realities, hear new music, think new words, and create new life from a simple glance out a window.

I'd venture to say that many others on the train might not go beyond, "gosh it looks bleak out there" or "I hate winter" or "Can't wait to go snowmobiling this weekend." Don't get me wrong, I think those same things too (maybe not the last...) So maybe for some reading this blog, this does not seem strange. For others I've conversed with about their internal monologues, it is a strange thing to be empathetic with a forest of birch trees while sipping a latte on a ViaRail commuter train.

Artistic effort is an endless struggle to imagine and then create new worlds amidst our current world.

I believe that censoring creative effort is then one of the worst sort of crimes in an open society. And no, I've not been outright censored. I've been criticized - in writing, to my face, behind my back - which is totally part of an artist's life. But, like most artists, there have been subtle moments of censorship here and there along the way. Sometimes it's financial - not enough money to fulfill an artistic vision, sometimes it's from committees looking at programming - Mozart is good but Stravinsky won't sell tickets, or in the rehearsal room - meeting another collaborator and it becomes clear that all of your ideas about their character will have to be tabled in order to just get the singer to walk and talk at the same time, or at a design meeting where firm ideas worked out for months are shot down by others, or perhaps when a general director decides to not pursue a show because it might cause controversy in the community. The dismissal of ideas without dialogue is, for any artist, hard. A part of you kind of dies inside. What you've spent thousands of hours working on to create, all of a sudden gets erased. Like a magic towel appearing from nowhere to say "nope, this idea isn't what is wanted, sorry!" and then it gets wiped away in a few seconds or a short meeting or, nowadays, via email.

Many others are feeling this dismissal, this silencing of ideas, in a much more profound manner around the world. In their workplaces, in their churches, in their artistic communities, on their stages, among their colleagues, on campuses, or from friends and family members, it's becoming more and more the norm for people to silence others by calling them out for holding ideas that make others uncomfortable or expressing ideas that others think are just downright wrong. Dialogue seems to have been replaced with Monologue. Innovation can't happen in an environment seeking to snuff out ideas others don't like, don't understand, or find uncomfortable. In the realm of social media, where complex ideas get reduced down to hashtags, a photo, and 140 characters, it can get downright scary: #SomeIsm / look at this photo / here's how we shut them down and call them out!

Our world won't actually progress if we condense difficult, complex, and subtle ideas down to a Tweet or a Hashtag. Good for mob mentalities and mobilizing via Facebook, but not necessarily good for any real dialogue (that old notion where two parties speak and listen to each other) or good for real answers to questions posed by works of art. Why did that artist submerge a crucifix upside down in a container of urine? What were Mozart and DaPonte saying about the sexual liberation of women in the music and text of their opera Così fan tutte? Is added violence onstage during the Scottish play simply gratuitous, or is it integral to the storytelling for a contemporary audience? Are the added female characters in Peter Jackson's adaptations of Tolkien's two works important for gender equality issues or are they simple marketing ploys? What was Picasso really saying about war in his "Guernica"? Why are the themes in the film "Breaker Morant" still pertinent in the 21st century? Are the anti-Semitic elements in one of Bach's masterpieces enough to make it a piece of art that should be banned? And then there's Wagner's output... What about jazz - an art form created by African Americans and taken up by white musicians; is there cultural appropriation involved when white musicians play jazz in public? (Google that last question, if you're interested in why I included it.) These are all great questions, and they should be allowed discussion.

My answer to those who want to try to muzzle my artistic endeavours is to continue to create, albeit more carefully, until such time that it becomes clear to more people that artistic expression and innovation is integral to the health of society. Offending others is seldom the point in art. The point is usually to try to nudge people to see another side of a story, get them to think beyond their everyday assumptions. Art creates a more humane human because it opens the mind a wee bit, maybe only for a minute, or an evening, or a week, but still an opening happens and that can allow the mind to unfreeze itself and loosen up a bit and ponder a few new ideas.

It's time to once again push people to have to strive to think and understand something beyond the superficial trappings and images of what they're seeing onstage and on a much more personal level, pushing back a bit where my physical image is concerned. Expect a few more Imeneo type of productions in the near future, a return to the image I adopted during that production, and expect my adeptness with growing interesting facial hair to reflect the feeling that my artistic voice is a bit muzzled in today's climate.

The right to create and to experience art, publicly and privately, is a foundational pillar of all evolved societies. Let's strive to construct artistic societies all around this globe that can help mend humanity's frayed tapestry. Art heals and the world is in dire need of as many artists as possible. So give to a symphony, buy a painting from a local artist, volunteer at a school with no art classes, write some poetry and share it online instead of ranting about the latest craziness in DC, encourage your children to take photos or make up stories, invest in piano lessons for yourself or your kids, but a ticket to a play showing at the local community theatre. There are a thousand things you can do to support the arts.

One thing I would ask is to try to stop judging the art and the artists so harshly. At least for the next bit. Art needs to be celebrated again and, for the moment, it might help to step back and just fucking celebrate that Art Is Still Among Us.