Sunday, 14. June 2015 23:46
Tennessee Williams, in an interview with James Grissom, said “Of course art should be about something big. Something terribly big must be at stake. I don’t see this anymore. Our art is becoming terribly polite and apologetic, much like us. It slinks away like a sagging breast, empty of milk or promise or comfort.”
If you have read or seen the plays of Williams, you know that “something big” does not necessarily mean big in the sense of news or nations. He really means big in terms of the human condition, or big to the playwright himself or his audience. We might substitute the word important and be closer to what Williams really meant. Something really important must be at stake. Art should be about something important. Absolutely.
If something is important, it generally means that the artist feels strongly about it. And if the artist feels strongly he/she may create art that has sufficiently strength to offend someone. Sadly, society has, at least in the US, come to believe that not being offended is a right. Williams did the interview in 1982; if anything, it’s worse today—at least in some parts of the country.
If you haven’t run across this issue, you only have to look as far as your local collegiate theatre department. Those of us in educational theatre deal with this every day; for example, we worry about how the plays we select will be received, not in terms of message or in terms of artistry, but in terms of offense to certain segments of the audience. You may find that silly, but when funding relies on public monies and when administration is sensitive to community complaints, it becomes a real concern.
This also happens in the commercial sector. I recall several discussions with independent producers who are constantly self-censoring their selection of material because of concern with offending sponsors and potential donors.
And it happens in arts other than theatre, both in educational and commercial sectors. A friend who is a photographer recently had two pieces rejected by two different galleries (which had previously shown his work) as “too controversial.” There are many artists, visual and otherwise, who would love to hear that their work was too controversial; it would be validation that they were doing the right thing with their art, that their art said something, that their art was important. The downside, of course, is that the work doesn’t get shown, at least in those venues who eschew controversial work, which is the majority of venues.
So we self-censor; a multimedia artist told me recently that she modifies her content based on whether she is making the work to sell or for herself. Williams would not have approved; he railed against self-censorship in the same interview: “When did we become so small and so apologetic? Why do we apologize for our humanity? Love what you love, and make no apologies. This is your identity. The most horrendous suspensions of freedom are self-imposed. We imprison ourselves daily, hourly.”
Admittedly, it’s much safer to make trivial, non-controversial art, but perhaps safe is not the best choice, at least if we think even a little like Williams. We need to quit making polite, apologetic art and instead have the courage make our art about something important.