Post from May, 2018

A Question of Actor Ethics

Sunday, 20. May 2018 22:40

In my “Development of Cinema” course we discuss some questions of actor ethics. Such discussions usually revolve around the question of whether African-Americans who worked in the Blaxploitation movies of the 1970s did an ethical thing since most of those moves dealt in racial stereotypes; whether Stepin Fetchit’s choice to portray a stereotype in the 1930s and 40s was an ethical choice; whether actors, because they are role models for many young people, are obligated to consider how they might influence youth with a role choice. It’s all academic, all classroom discussion, which, as usual, has very little to do with real life.

A real-life situation occurred a few weeks ago in New Orleans. A Louisiana utility company held hearings to gauge support construction of a gas-based power plant. Professional actors were hired to wear shirts that advocated this position, and sometimes to speak with a prepared script and to vocally opposed “any conversation about renewable energy alternatives.” This was not a stage, not a sound stage, but a political “town hall” meeting. The actors were hired to influence public opinion both during the meeting and in video clips which would inevitably appear on television. That actors were hired was confirmed by the energy company, but the blame was put onto the PR firm.

While news outlets are questioning the ethics of hiring actors to falsify public opinion, a practice called “astroturfing,” I am more concerned with the ethics of the actors who took those jobs. Some of my students argue that portraying a character, however bad a role model that character might be, is an actor’s job and that most audience members can distinguish between reality and movie fiction.

In this situation there was no movie fiction; there was only the pretense of real life.

This is not the same question as should an artist take commissions that are contrary to that artist’s personal belief or do work that supports this or that viewpoint. We have no way to know what the opinions of the hired actors it this instance were. The questions is rather: should actors use their skills to “actively mislead the public and corrupt the democratic process?”

The actor’s job certainly is to portray characters not him/herself. Mightn’t the performances given at the public meeting in New Orleans constitute performance art? Does dramatic art really require a fictional framework? Does appearing in a public hearing as a grassroots activist constitute legitimate acting work?

Starving artists might do anything for a dollar. Is it more legitimate to portray a “citizen” at a hearing than to sell plasma at a blood bank? If the question is survival, is there an ethical line that one might not cross, or is survival all, and one does whatever one can to continue?

You are observing that this post has devolved into questions. It has—because the ethics of acting, the ethics of any art are, to my knowledge, not taught in any school of any art, at least in the US. (I have no knowledge of arts education in other countries.) And there is a larger question: is the question of ethics in art even a valid question?  Artist are supposed to explore, to challenge, to question. Should an artist’s ethics even be a topic of discussion?

Your thoughts?

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The Significance of Juxtaposition

Monday, 7. May 2018 0:39

A piece of mine that was just in a juried show was displayed in the center of a panel with two works on either side. To the left of my piece was a smaller piece, a watercolor, that was sold. Now, this particular show did not use the discrete quarter- or eighth-inch dots indicating that a piece was sold; rather they used red dots one inch in diameter. There was no question about whether the piece sold or not. What was apparent, however, was that that red dot influenced not only the piece to which it was “attached,” but the rest of the panel as well. It said, “Someone has paid hard cash for this piece, but not for the rest of these pieces.” It also said, “This piece is sold. Won’t someone buy one of these others?” It made viewers look at the other pieces on the panel differently.

Viewers were almost compelled to compare the pieces on the panel in ways that they normally would not. There was no question that the sold piece was good, but its status caused the viewers to examine each of the other pieces on the panel to determine whether they were actually of lesser quality, or whether the purchase was strictly a matter of individual taste. The red dot seemed particularly to invite comparison to the piece beside it. The pieces were not only different thematically, they were different media. No one would have ever thought to compare the two, except for that “sold” sticker.

In another part of the show, there were two pieces on an endcap. One was a framed oil painting approximately 24”x30,” and on a pedestal probably a foot away from the endcap wall was a sculpture about a foot high which was exceptional. I paused to look at the sculpture several times before I ever realized that the painting was there. Not only was it there, but it was excellent, and, incidentally, by the same artist who had done the sculpture. What was interesting was that the juxtaposition of the two pieces gave almost all of the focus to the sculpture. Had the painting been located anywhere else in the room, it would have been a stand-out. As it was, it was consistently upstaged by the piece of sculpture.

As usual, after I got home, I went through the catalogue of the show, and, as usual, found pieces that I don’t remember seeing in the exhibition hall. Now I wonder if I saw them, but they were located beside other pieces that took focus, either because of placement or quality or perhaps because of a red dot placed on an adjacent piece.

In a juried show, the artist has very little, if any, say over where or how his/her pieces are displayed. Likewise, the artist has no control over which pieces sell and which ones don’t; indeed, a piece may attract no buyers in one show, but sell immediately in another. The takeaway can only be that how work is displayed and what the adjacent pieces are is in no way a reflection on the artist. Similarly, whether a piece sells may also be a function of placement and juxtaposition and not a reflection on the artist.

Several years ago, I wrote a post called “Context Matters.” Now I find that that idea may now need to be expanded and refined to say “not only does context matter, so does juxtaposition.”

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