The recent events in Libya, including the death of the US Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, have left me contemplating the power of the arts.
Make no mistake . . . from what I have read about the anti-Islamic film that prompted the attack on the embassy, it has one main purpose: to incite anger and unrest. (For the record, I have not watched the film, and have no desire to do so.) But I also have a strong suspicion that the filmmaker will eventually defend his actions by citing his First Amendment rights, and cry “Foul! Censorship!” and whatever else he can think of. The First Amendment guarantees our right to freedom of expression. It does not address the wisdom of how we exercise that right.
But this also prompts a larger question in my own mind. What is the responsibility of an artist? It is said that art holds a mirror up to the world, and the artist should be unafraid to show the world as it is. Often, art (in any form) is the most effective way to shine a light on injustices or social issues that would otherwise be overlooked or worse, suppressed. In many countries, artists were and are imprisoned or even killed for their artistic dissent. Yet they still persevere.
There is another responsibility that comes with one’s art, however, and that is some level of personal responsibility for the effect it has. One can easily declare that it is “my art,” and people can take it or leave it as they wish. It is very true that you cannot always anticipate how an individual or group may react to what you have created. But what happens when you create a work of art with full knowledge and understanding that it is inflammatory?
Any work that attacks a specific religion is, pretty much by definition, inflammatory. Some of the longest and bloodiest wars are waged in the name of religion. So to knowingly attack a religion – any religion – opens the possibility of a reaction, and a potentially violent one. (If you poke a bear with a stick, don’t be surprised when it knocks you to the ground and starts gnawing on your head.)
I am not suggesting that art should be censored. If it moves you, if it has intent, then bring your fullest ability to your art. Along with your intent, however, you must also bring an understanding of your personal responsibility for that art.
The film that prompted the attack on the US Embassy in Libya was, by all accounts, knowingly inflammatory. The filmmaker poked the bear, and the bear struck back with a vengeance. Problem is, the bear didn’t attack the filmmaker, it attacked the closest thing that resembled him.
And the filmmaker? He’s in hiding, giving out a pseudonym, hoping the bear doesn’t find him. In other words, utterly avoiding responsibility for what he has created.
As a citizen of the United States, I have the freedom and the right to create my art as I see fit. That right is guaranteed by the constitution. As a thoughtful and caring person, I need to understand the ramifications of my actions. Am I willing to accept responsibility for the consequences (good or bad) I might encounter? And am I willing to accept the responsibility for the consequences (good or bad) others may encounter as a result of my actions? If the answer to both questions is “yes,” then I should create what I want to create. But if the answer to either is “no,” then I need to think carefully about my creation. I cannot, in good conscience, “poke the bear” and then simply run away.
How about you? Are you willing to take full responsibility for your art?