How much are we, as individuals, self-defined, and how much defined by everything outside of ourselves? Art has many functions, but one of them is for the individual to present his or her own interpretation, to manifest something of his or her individual experience and perspective. For me, if I’m not making something I haven’t quite seen before, that doesn’t have some kernel of difference or originality, I don’t see the point in doing it. There’s a striving in art for discovery (ex., to see something new, and allow others to see it), and you aren’t going to discover something new or special or quirky if you don’t separate from the pack and start looking for yourself. In this sense, art is an individual and individuating process.
Last night I was binge-watching Mindhunter, which is a series about FBI agents who try to study the minds of serial killers in order to, among other things, be better able to capture them. The topic tends not to interest me, as opposed to apparently most people, as the whole serial killer thing has put me off since “Silence of the Lambs”. I find these people repugnant in the extreme, for obvious reasons, and would not have been at all inclined to watch the series if someone I trust hadn’t recommended it. There are some intriguing ideas explored in the show, such as that criminality may be a response to what is wrong with a given society. Watching it, something clicked about how people are defined within versus without.
One thing we can say about serial killers is that they are not conformists (unless they are copy-cat killers). So far — I’m about 8 hours in — all the killers had horrible childhoods, and were extremely alienated, though that does not justify any of their actions (tens of millions of other people suffered similar early years without becoming vicious and sadistic predators). That said, given the level of childhood trauma, it would be a miracle if these individuals were not seriously damaged.
Yes, I’m drawing some sort of parallel between criminals and (some) artists, which is that both may make their own rules, though to completely different ends. The artist may do it within the frame of a canvas (think Giger), and it may only bring pleasure to people (think Monet). Aaaaand, artists are not psychopaths who lack empathy and seek to inflict pain on others. Artists aren’t insane, with rare exceptions (despite popular myths). While the serial killer does things that defile and disgust, and are deliberately the worst possible actions an individual can perform in and to society, artists may try to elevate or embellish their shared community (don’t think Paul McCarthy).
Everyone has something to say. Everyone has a unique window on the universe, and knows things nobody else does, even if it’s just what it’s like to be that particular person. This is a metaphor, but I find it rings true on some meaningful level. Imagine each person as an eye of God. I suppose that’s a sacrilegious thought, or deeply religious, IF taken literally. There’s even some scientific conjecture to support it, such as that consciousness (which science admittedly can’t find) is a non-physical thing which may exist as a unified field, or dimension. But let’s just treat it as a metaphor and a thought experiment. If each of us was an eye of God — and let’s say God were uber-consciousness — we’d be like tentacles reaching out and exploring every nuance of every possible experience. No two tentacles would amass the same sensations, orientations, histories, and so on. Everyone has a unique story.
I had some weird insight the other day, which I’ll try to resurrect. There’s the danger of my thoughts being inappropriate (which directly relates to the theme of this post), but that’s the nature of exploration, and turning over various rocks. It occurred to me that undesirable experiences are nevertheless unique opportunities. And THAT is the difficulty of language, clunking along in words like bricks stacked in a wall, one at a time, to delineate a seemless reality. In other words, the myriad ways of misconstruing my meaning are more likely than getting it right. Surely, some fates are too horrendous to see any plausible good in, or justification for. Agreed.
But within limits. I once read a short non-fiction piece about a guy who got a job collecting worms. Even worse, it was with his hands, and the worms were in water. As I can recall, he wore rubber boots, and had to thrust his hands in mud and capture the worms (and other savory things, like leaches) in his hands. Aside from how disgusting that job seems (unless or until you value worms), it’s also back-breaking, leaning over and digging below your feet. But the author extracted meaningful experience from it, and at very least translated it into an engaging story.
What if the phenomenon that is consciousness was amorally interested in exploring every possible experience, sensation, perception, vision, and idea (OK, I left off the “God” idea here as not necessary, and too linked to the moral good), and thus had a vested interest in thrusting individuals in bizarre and extreme circumstances, as well as cozy ones? What if this was the inevitability of nature, like the way evolution happens because of random mutation of genes. Shared consciousness would evolve out of random experience.
But what I was getting at with “everyone has something to say” is that one doesn’t need to be a misfit, an outsider, angry, rebelling, or anything on the surface of it negative (or negatively impacting the individual) to contribute their story, or their vision, or a unique artifact. I rather think a perfectly healthy, well-adjusted, happy, organized and disciplined person would have an advantage.
If we see the artist as a tentacle or eye for a shared mind, he or she must provide something uniquely his or her own (which is inevitable if the artist is honest enough to lived experience), this would be different from a singular, monolithic model (which brings us back to morality).
The artist need not be immoral or amoral at all. She or he may have a more elevated, better argued, more advanced, less prejudiced, or however better model of morality. Or the artist might seek to just jettison the whole bundle of conceptions and conclusions about how he or she is supposed to live and think and believe.
Can you be an individual if you allow yourself to be completely defined and controlled by whatever are the norms of your society and culture? Here, I tend to think you need to be an individual who thinks for yourself to be a real artist. But morality tells you what to think, and in today’s art world, it’s rather precise about it. Any deviation from accepted current conclusions about what is morally right is persecuted, even and especially within the art world, which seeks moral justice outside of the law. Consider, for example, attempts to shut down artist’s shows, or take down works by artists, or end people’s careers (ex., Roseanne Barr), or publicly humiliate them and destroy their lives, for real or perceived transgressions against what is becoming a very detailed and hegemonic moral code (ex., use the wrong pronoun when addressing someone, and potentially face criminal charges).
We can now be guilty of micro-aggressions or thought crimes, whereas in the past you would generally (McCarthy era persecution of suspected Communists aside) need to take your unacceptable thoughts and do something significantly wrong with them before facing serious punishment. The moral code of today is very strict and unforgiving. Any transgression will be persecuted to the full extent of the law, or mob “justice”. And this is considered not only compatible with art, but synonymous with it. Artists of today are considered most important and necessary when their art illustrates and advocates the accepted, and enforced, moral code.
When any deviation from the moral code is punished as a crime against humanity, is there any room for individual moral quandary, or individual vision or expression at all? Contemporary artists need to consider the moral implications of anything they create, and whether or not they will offend those who maintain the moral standard. There is probably no more important artistic consideration today than the moral implications of what is created, and whether or not they are in strict compliance with what we are supposed to believe.
But if an individual cedes his or her own sense of morality to whatever is dictated from outside, than is there any individuality left to express, or does the artist become a mere illustrator, or other kind of maker, for the group mind?
I’m sure a lot of people would say I have it all backwards. Artists have rebelled against the immorality of the machine, and helped re-define what is or isn’t moral. And that’s true, in the past. But at present, artists themselves are demanding the censorship and destruction of the work of other artists who they deem immoral. Instead of rebelling against strict morality, artists are themselves tightening the reigns.
In the past artists would say that as long as you aren’t hurting anyone else, you are consenting adults, and so on, you can do or be whatever you want. Not so today. You are punishable for something your father said before you were born. Race car driver, Conor Daly, lost his sponsorship, because of a racial slur his father made in the 80’s (Conor was born in 1991). THAT is patently immoral. Nobody is born guilty, folks. And here we can see when morality becomes so extreme, that it becomes immoral: when social justice transforms into social injustice.
Is it immoral to compel artists to conform to a strict moral code? What does it do to the imagination when it needs to self-censor its every step?
[I’m just thinking out loud here. This is a kind of writing I do, where once I write a sentence, I don’t change it — except for egregious grammar mistakes — but leave it and continue, so my thoughts unravel in sequence. I am perhaps allowed, or not, to make mistakes.]
You can’t be self-defined if you allow yourself to be entirely defined from the outside. You can’t create culture if you dare not be other than defined by it. Morality, for a functioning artist who hopes to contribute anything beyond decoration, or propaganda, needs to be a bit more plastic and malleable. It can’t be a minefield where any wrong step and your career and your livelihood are threatened. You can’t find new answers if we already have them all, and they are strictly enforced. You can’t even ask new questions.
Art and morality are not synonymous, but much more the opposite. You can’t be an explorer if you are corralled, and in the same way the church opposed the science of Galileo on moral grounds, so the upholders of morality (including the firebrand moralists within the art world itself) constrict the spirit and creativity of artistic exploration. Decades ago it was the religious right who sought to contain art, and now it is the social justice movement.
Whichever side of the political spectrum the moral arbiters belong to, imposing a strict moral code and litmus test on art is probably itself immoral in the grand scheme of human development. One of the sure signs that a moral force has slipped into flagrant immorality is if it seeks to punish, and to punish severely, for minor (and debatable) transgressions. When the punishment is more severe than the crime merits, the punisher is revealed as sadistic, and sadism is not really in the name of the good. If you find yourself taking pleasure in cruelty, or punishment, or possibly misplaced revenge, it’s time to take a long hard look in the mirror.
The artist, if she or he hopes to contribute anything unique, or of an individual nature, cannot mindlessly accept and be defined by the dominant beliefs and conclusions of the society he or she lives in, and that includes the moral code. Even the most moral artist is going to clash with the accepted morality, if history means anything.
My coffee mug is empty. These were my unfurling thoughts. I hold as a general principle that I disavow anything I’ve thought before as necessarily defining what I think or believe in the present. We are not only allowed to change our minds, but it’s the goal. If we are constantly exploring and evolving, some of our prior thoughts are inevitably rejected as insufficient. We are all born ignorant, and thus must all express ignorant thoughts at some point, and from a universal, enlightened mind — say the mind of (a metaphoric) God — anything and everything we say is going to be comparatively lacking scope, and ignorant. Everything I say is a partial view reflecting what I can see out of my individual porthole on reality (but at least I know that).