A Question of Actor Ethics

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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Date: Sunday, 20. May 2018 22:40
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Audience, Presentation

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