Duty-Free Art

Jesse Helms thinks artists must be socially responsible. So do many of the shocking artists he reviles. They're all wrong.


Sallie Tisdale
February 24, 1996 11:26PM (UTC)


here are those who say the artist is responsible for how her art influences society. To some that means questioning history, questioning authority, raising questions about the status quo, being the voice and the hand of the voiceless and handless. Some of these supposed duties are more palatable than others, of course, and a few are downright seductive. Like almost anyone else, I wouldn't mind being labeled the voice of a generation, nor would I reject an award given for a principled act of conscience disguised as artwork.

A number of people believe that the artist has a responsibility to uphold a particular value system, to be kind, positive or hopeful, to be gentle. I didn't pay too much attention to this until I heard a poet I know saying it -- an older, foreign-born, lesbian poet, a woman one would expect to have a finely-tuned sense of the shades of meaning and the misuses of words. This woman believes that in a brutal world, writers have a duty to be "nourishing and nurturing." All over the world women like my friend are beaten, raped, and imprisoned because their sexuality threatens the definition of "nourishing and nurturing" behavior held by people in power. But like a lot of people, she thinks the solution lies in her definition. She has a lot in common with people like Jesse Helms -- the problem isn't in promulgating virtues, but in who gets to define the virtues being promulgated

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ome would say there is a duty to make art that says what is rarely said, opens conversations and dialogues that society doesn't want to have. That art needs to move outward into new territory. This is particularly seductive. It's related to that voice-of-a-generation thing -- the pioneer artist. Yet I can't imagine saying it is irresponsible to make art that is totally obscure, or apparently meaningless, or art firmly rooted in the status quo.

Ann Powers, in a recent essay in the Village Voice, defends what she terms "violator art" -- expression that is purposely disgusting or disturbing. At its best, Powers argues, such work is "truly transgressive," leading her to "the compelling realization that, past the edge of whatever I don't want to think about, there's more." Powers takes the opposite tack from my poet friend, who believes kind art will lead us to a kind world. Powers argues that we should not be surprised when a brutal and nasty culture gives rise to brutal and nasty expression. If we want polite, kind art we need to make polite, kind social institutions first. There is no guarantee, of course -- the most brutal conditions give birth to astounding acts of hope, and the most nourishing of childhoods can create monsters. I would add to Powers' point that the United States today is the most heterogeneous culture in history, consisting of so many subcultures that conflicts on a daily basis seem inevitable.

To really muddy the waters a little, I would also add that there are irresponsible acts associated with the making of art but which aren't art themselves. Large-scale sculptures which cause long-lasting damage to a landscape are a good example of this. I wonder if it's possible to tease the strands of this problem completely out. Something of this attempt at separation goes on when we argue about flag-burning, or graffitti taggers, and it can be one of the knottier problems faced by people defending the First Amendment. But it's not that knotty. The landscape -- including "view" -- and natural resources are commonly held things, and should not be subject to massive change by individuals or private corporations. My real point here is that art may be brutal and cruel and it may be kind and nurturing, but that either of these results are best seen as irrelevant or coincidental effects.

What is often meant when people say an artist has a responsibility to do or not do a certain thing is the belief that artists have a responsibility to be and not be certain kinds of people. This is cogently described in Terry Zwigoff's "Crumb," a documentary about underground comics artist Robert Crumb.

Zwigoff offers us Crumb's history, Crumb's work, and Crumb himself, a little bewildered and bemused. Crumb is genuinely confused by criticisms of his art as misogynistic and racist, but he is just as confused by the art itself. He tells the filmmaker that he doesn't analyze the work, he merely records it -- that he has no idea where it comes from or what it means. His art appears in his life, half blessing and half curse, and he is bewildered by the notion many people have that he somehow should know what it means. The people who complain about his comics are really complaining about him. But he is, and his comics are, what he is and what they are, and the reader can make of it (in fact, must make of it) what the reader will make. And that will depend on the reader.

"Responsibility" and "response" are very closely linked words. Response to art is the responsibility of the audience. The artist is responsible for integrity in the making of art. Integrity in the artist is the willingness to face down one's own demons, and this must include the demons of social censure and poverty and rejection. Integrity has nothing to do with form or subject but with doing one's best regardless of what anyone else thinks.

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Defenders of the most disturbing and violent art like to make the point that in some convoluted way it's uplifting. Gangsta rap, shock performance and the like are said to be outlets for repressed rage; slasher films can be deconstructed into suppressed feminist manifestoes, and so on. They may be, but here we are again in that hypnotic territory of "good" and "bad." If I make a claim that the most apparently reprehensible and upsetting piece of art must be protected because it is, in however obscure a way, "good for us," I am still arguing that it is "good." When Ann Powers talks about people learning "how to use the experience of being bothered," she is essentially arguing that violator art is good for us. This argument is a way of making our comfort zone bigger, of talking ourselves into not being all that disturbed, after all. We should never forget that any argument claiming that any kind of art is "good for us" -- or bad for us -- relies on my version of what I think is good or bad for you. To believe this, I have to believe that art makes a difference.

I belong to the National Coalition Against Censorship, and just received the recent newsletter, with yet another defense of Huckleberry Finn. The fact that we live in a society where one group of white adults must defend the right of black children to read a novel like "Huck Finn" against the good-hearted censure of another group of white adults should be ironic enough. But the writer pointed out that the censors think "books are dangerous, and they're not." Well, excuse me, but of course they are. Writing, stories, literacy and books are a set of the most dangerous weapons known to history. A broadsheet can help change a religion or overturn a government. A book can permanently alter a person's world view. Books can be damned dangerous and thank God they are; they would be pointless otherwise. All the arguments about the reponsibility of the artist to society are based on this tacit understanding: art counts.

Personally, I think Norman Rockwell is bad for us. He inserts into the collective mind images both seductive and pernicious, images subtly denying my religion, my sexuality, and my moral beliefs. I could make a case for why I should not have to open a magazine and see any Norman Rockwell paintings, why I should be protected from television shows and advertisements and films that promote things I find damaging -- things like the nuclear family and the market economy. If we accept the basis for arguments against violator art as they are made by the Religious Right -- that is, the government must uphold privately held moral values in the public realm -- then we can make the same argument from the left.

In the end it doesn't matter to me if we're discussing Norman Rockwell or an entire genre of alienated, nihilistic metalhead rock. If I find Norman Rockwell offensive, that's my business and not his. If he didn't mean to offend me, if my offense surprises him, I would hope that interests him. But it doesn't have to interest him. Norman Rockwell has no responsibility for my comfort level. My comfort level is not only my own business, no one else could possibly be responsible for it. Distaste is one of the most intimate of sensations. The urge to project our distaste on the world around us and demand it be fixed is one of the most damaging of human urges.

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I mentioned Ann Powers' defense of transgressive art. But what is transgressive? Transgression requires the crossing of a border, and it occurs only in response to the art, not in the art. A piece of art I find discomfiting in the extreme may simply bore another person, and vice versa. Transgression, like kindness and politeness, is more an experience of the viewer or reader than it is of the artist. That the artist meant for either to occur is irrelevant. (And artists have frequently been wrong about how their work would be received.) This act of response is the reason we look at art in the first place.

So, no. I don't think there is such a thing as irresponsible art. And I dearly hope there is no such thing as responsible art. I believe that what we mean by responsibility and what we mean by art occupy two different spheres. As a writer I would say my only responsibility is to write -- to cherish the power and limits of language and resist efforts to simplify the meaning of my own words. I have a duty to be a steward of language as much as my own ideas, but not a duty to the reactions of those who read.

Art exists not so much outside social responsibility, but within it -- woven through it, through the social fabric, the political reality and the political vision, intermingled in and embroidered upon the daily life of culture in such a way that it can't be held separate, imprisoned in a cage of changing values.

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In Oscar Wilde's words, "Art never expresses anything but itself." Art must exist and cannot be contained, because art is that which humans must do. Art simply is.

(Excerpted from a speech given at the Law and Literature Symposium, University of California-Berkeley, October 1, 1995)



Sallie Tisdale

Sallie Tisdale's most recent book is "Women of the Way: Discovering 2500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom" (Harper San Francisco, 2006). She contributes to magazines such as Harper's, Tricycle, and Antioch Review.

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