Thursday, February 18, 2010

Who is Allowed to Make Art?

Throughout the day, I have been following an ongoing discussion in the comments on Amanda Palmer's blog about the validity of one of her current projects. She's getting a lot of flack for the project because she portrays a person with a disability. I won't go into all of it here, but if you want to check it out, go to her blog (once again, I apologize for not being able to do direct links from within the text of my blog - I'll put the link in a box to the right).

One of the underlying threads of the comments seems to be that Amanda is not allowed or entitled to create nor perform as this character because she is not disabled.

I am an educated, white, middle class, middle-aged woman. By this criteria, I can only create characters who are also educated, white, middle class and middle-aged women and that, any time I step outside of these parameters, I am being disingenuous or disrespectful to other groups of people, or that I am suggesting someone from the other group can not represent themselves.

If artists are restricted to representing only their own group, then most works of fiction would have to be trashed immediately, including my current novel.

I have wrestled with this a lot, especially during my time in grad school. The discussion on Amanda's blog seems to turn on the idea of privilege. The idea being that as a white person, or as an able-bodied person, or as an educated person, I have privilege, and am therefore, not entitled or allowed to create art based on non-white, non-privileged groups. Someone even suggested it would have been okay for her to do this character from the perspective of her own privileged position as a non-disabled person. Hunh? Someone else suggested the problem lay with Amanda performing with a disability she did not have in order to make money. Well, let's strip Daniel Day Lewis of that Oscar for My Left Foot, shall we, since he doesn't have cerebral palsy.

The essential part of being an artist is being able to put yourself in someone else's skin. When someone does it well, it can be stunning. Jeffrey Eugenides is not a hermaphrodite, and yet, Middlesex is an extraordinary novel written from the perspective of a hermaphrodite. In fact, it is so well done, many people insist he is part of the intersexual community, but he isn't. By this same token, Dostoyevsky was not a sociopath, nor George Orwell a talking pig or Virginia Woolf a suicidal WWI veteran suffering from battle fatigue. But they all created these indelible characters because they were amazing artists and writers. They did what artists and writers are supposed to do, make these characters real to us as human beings (even the talking pig) so we care about them, so they matter to us. We cannot dismiss them because we care about them, and we cannot limit writers and artists from creating them just because they are not part of that group.

The flack she's getting reminds me very much of something that happened in my very first creative writing workshop as an undergrad. I wrote a story, first person, teenage male narrator who tries to commit suicide because his girlfriend had an abortion. One of my classmates (he was also one of my best friends throughout college), went off on me about how could I know how this character felt? I wasn't male, I couldn't possibly know what it felt like, etc, etc. He was so venomous in his attack, the professor actually stepped in and stopped his tirade and checked in with me after class to make sure I was okay. I was. I realized what happened was actually a compliment. My friend was uncomfortable because I'd hit too close to home, gotten my character too realistic for him to feel safe. He reacted in the only way he could, to attack my ability to KNOW what it felt like to be in his skin. Basically, I'd done my job as a writer.


hep said...

i have also been following this discussion because i am firmly in the "against amanda palmer" camp. here is why.

privilege definitely exists, i see it everyday in the reactions i get in public compared to other, more darker skin toned, members of my family. when i go out with my little cousins, they are all true stereotypical mexican skin toned, and older men will assume because they are latina they are sluts, and sexually aggress against them. my cousins are 20, 18, and 16 now, but this would often happen when they were 17, 15, and 13. in stores they would be followed because shopclerks assumed they would steal. and these girls are lifelong catholic school girls, all straight a students, basically three female versions of evan.

ablest privilege exists as well. with my brother, often shop clerks would straight up refuse to serve him, and would instead try to deal with me (at ages 6, 7, 8, etc) and my brother was JUST as smart as i am, if not smarter. he was simply trapped in a body that no longer responded to him because of his stroke. imagine being stuck as the person you are now, inside the body of an overgrown child, and to never have people of the world engage with you because they all thought you had downs syndrome or possibly some disease which would spread retardation to them.

now on to cultural appropriation. there is a difference between creating a character that honestly does justice to the culture it is from, either through research and interviews with that culture, or other ways of creating a true representation, and the idea of just blindly taking everything from some other culture that you think is "cool" or "pretty" or "sad" or "dark" whatever your reasons to make a goth album. if you wrote a character, say an african american boy, you wouldn't just rely on every stereotype. a true artist does research and honestly tries to portray things in a way that does truth to the thing you are taking inspiration from. you would not just create a fried chicken and watermelon eating black kid that just says "yo massa!" all the time and is a thief with a teenage mom and 10 illegitimate brothers and sisters, on welfare in a crackhouse. because again, research. cultural appropriation comes when either you just blindly take something for entertainment purposes, fashion, some other transient want, without respect for the culture that created this thing, or using your own "interpretation" of what a cultural stereotype or object is. this is what she is doing, she has just picked "child molested conjoined twins" because it is a cool gothy trendy dark setup. everything about the characters she created, from their babytalk (what, conjoined twins cant speak articulately?), to their "backstory", to everything, is just a privileged stereotype of what either living with a disability is like, or being a child molestation survivor. and even tho i personally don't care what goths do, i see and recognize how it would be offensive to others who have taken those things that happened/are happening to them as their identity.

part 2 next

hep said...

part 2:

and now we come to the art part of the discussion. "but its arrrrt!!!" has long been the cry of the white cultural appropriationist. there is the idea (and conversely, the opposite cry "but its just a halloweeeeeeen costuuume!!!" (or some other trivial use) that because its either in some sort of nobel pursuit (or some trivial one night usage) that it somehow makes it ok to be culturally appropriative, or that it is somehow less offensive. it's not. there is no white trump card which makes a usage legit (just like "but my best friend is black!!!" doesn't make usage of ethnic slurs or other types of things legit. just because you have a friend who doesn't find it offensive, doesn't mean that other people will also not find it offensive. there isn't some sort of national black meeting wherein everyone agrees that it is fine for that person to behave in that manner, or that everyone will not be offended by something. one person in a culture does not speak for either the culture as a whole, or for any other individuals of that culture) and the corrollary to this is that it is not in the eye of the offender to decide what is offensive, it is in the eye of the offendee. often you will hear people, when called out on some racist action, word, etc, exclaim "but i am not racist! that isnt racist!". it is not up to the person who made the racist remark, or culturally appropriated from a group, or what have you, to decide whether their actions were offensive or not. and intentions count for nothing unfortunately.

and back to art, once you begin creating art with an aim at commercialization you are already compromising yourself artistically so any argument that you are somehow hostage to the artistic process goes right out the window. she isn't creating van gogh's starry night, she is producing a commercial album already orchestrated towards the maximum audience value. it would be one thing if she was creating a standalone work of pure art, some sort of story she felt inside her had to get out, and it was just created without ever being considered as a commercial product, it's quite another to realize that you should have some kind of "hook" to get your album better exposure and press. what she is doing is not art, it is commercialization to reach a wider target audience. and to try and pretend it is pure art does a disservice to all other artists who do things purely for expressive purposes and who often have to endure ridicule or oppression because of that, the chapman brothers are brought to mind, they have often received flak for creating such brutal scenes of war (which is funny because most of their war works are 3d recreations of goya classics) but they aren't doing it to sell albums, or sell posters, or even to sell the artwork itself (since it is house-sized and insane) but because they honestly believe in creating an expression of the atrocity of war.

part 3 next

hep said...

part 3

a good example of both poor cultural appropriation and positive cultural value is the case of the ice dancers using aboriginal dances for the olympics this year. ( ) the russian ice dancing team, after seeing a couple youtube videos of native aboriginal dances, created an "aboriginal routine" complete with psuedo blackface (wearing dark skin toned leotards), cliched "aboriginal markings" and a wild hooting dance to "traditional music". unsurprisingly people flipped the fuck out. the opposite to this, is that the australian ice dancing team a couple years ago also did an aboriginal dance, after almost a year of interviews and checking with ALL of the aboriginal communities throughout the australias to ensure that their dance actually did homage and was not an offensive stereotype. because other cultures (whether they be ethnic cultures, disabled cultures, victim cultures like rape survivors) are not there for white ablest entertainment or decorations, they are individuals like we are and should be treated with respect accorded to actual persons, not objects of entertainment.

in the end she can do whatever she likes, but it doesn't mean that she isn't being offensive while doing it, and other people are of course allowed to call her on her privilege. which is that she is able to put these characters on as costumes, and doesn't ever have to even think about the hardships the disabled go thru daily, or the trauma that rape survivors endure. to her they are just props to sell her album, she isn't even donating any portion of the proceeds to disabled or child molestation charities. it's straight up "i am stealing your lives for my entertainment and income, so sry, bye" instead of in any way being like, "i realize that this could have been offensive to people, so i am donating 10% of sales to special olympics" or something of the sort.

this has gotten super long so i will end with this, it's not that hard to say "i am sorry for offending you, i will try to change that thing" and to make an attempt to not be so offensive. but white people like amanda, when called out on their privilege and offensive behavior, instead seem to think that if they just keep arguing somehow it will justify their offensiveness, and it doesn't. there is no magic bullet you can wear to not have been offensive, and any arguing and attempted side-stepping just makes the person look more privileged and prejudicial, it never ever helps the case. if from the get-go she had just said "i see how this portrayal would be offensive, i will donate 10% proceeds to ___ to make up for having culturally appropriated this disability scenario" instead of somehow trying to justify it in the name of art (remember, during the dark ages they justified the torture of many people in the name of art because the live dissections lead to better learning of muscle culture for painters and sculpters). i don't know how the discussion has gone now, since i tuned out a couple days ago when i started to lose serious respect for her.

Diane said...

I'll agree with everything you're saying because my post wasn't in defense of her project, it was questioning the idea that because she was or wasn't of a certain group she shouldn't be making the art. Many of the comments explicitly said, she should not be doing this piece because she is not disabled. Not because it was a flawed work of art, because she hadn't talked to members of the disabled community, or because it's just plain boring and uninteresting, but because she wasn't disabled herself.

I don't think any artist's demographic should limit the art they make. As you point out, the difference between the ice dancing pairs was the difference between really doing the research and gaining an understanding of the culture and throwing something together because it was cool. Which is essentially what I'm saying about the job of an artist or writer.

I constantly question my own use of characters who do not represent my own demographic - am I presenting a stereotype or an authentic representation? But to say I shouldn't create characters who come from different classes, ethnicities, cultures, is to say all I should be creating are white, middle class, middle aged women. And that would not be doing my job as an artist at all because it does not reflect the world I live in.