Some Brief Thoughts on Art, Censorship, and the Responsibility and the Ethics of Creating

Fri. 30 April 2021 – Bed

Sometimes, more often than not actually, conversations are the best mediums for thought. Tonight, a friend of mine messaged me asking if I had seen the film La montaña sagrada (The Holy Mountain), Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s visually stunning (and arresting) surrealist fantasy which offers a critical look at mankind throughout the heavily symbol-laden epic.

As their phone was malfunctioning, most of their comments were shared via audio recordings, most of which I did not think to save or transcribe. My apologies. However, I would like to share my responses, as half of the discussion, for some thoughts on art, censorship, and the responsibility and ethics of creating.

“If I’m not mistaken, this is the film where they literally distill the essence of Christ, right?That film is a trip. Watched it back in college. It has some interesting elements in it, and the director did their research re: symbols and cultural references, but I think any potential benefit the film could have on the public was lost in its overall inaccessibility. A solid work of art, for sure, but it carried a plethora of good messages, that ultimately wouldn’t make it in front of many eyes (aside from film festival goers and “arthaus” film collectors).
Art, no matter how good, can be judged by its accessibility. It’s a mode of communication, after all. If it is made for the sake of the artist alone, why bother sharing? If shared, obviously it was meant for others. This was a film made almost entirely for a like-minded audience.
Still, I have a lot of respect for it and the work that went into it.”


I hadn’t done a very good job explaining what I meant by accessibility, so at first their response spoke about the nearly global censoring of the film, a very real, structural impediment. So when it came my turn to respond I tried to break down types of accessibility.


“Regarding censorship:  absolutely, censorship plays a big role on that type of artwork. The sheer amount of blasphemous messaging in that film nearly guaranteed it being censored, because most governments standards of ethics are founded upon some type of religious criteria. Consider what people tend to think of as right and wrong. When asked to explain why, most generations* will continue to give answers going deeper and deeper until they come upon a religious reasoning, or one that they learned through some type of religious upbringing. Fewer people will provide answers based on logic, because logic is a philosophical school of thought that is not taught (casually or structurally) as often as religion/religious derived ethics/morals.”


*I used the term generations, suggesting that we are seeing a generational shift, and that today’s younger generations generally seem to form their own opinions about morality or ethics based on logic, or at least without considering religion. This is purely anecdotal, I have no statistics on this. However, consider the adages, “an eye for an eye” or the Golden Rule. These are often attributed to the Bible, but in fact come from other sources (one is found in the Code of Hammurabi, an ancient Babylonian legal text, while the other can certainly be inferred but not specifically cited in the Bible, and in fact seems to appear in close to its known form in the ancient Indian epic The Mahabharata.

One should never do something to others that one would regard as an injury to one’s own self. In brief, this is dharma. Anything else is succumbing to desire.

— Mahābhārata 13.114.8 (Critical edition)

“Regarding accessibility: I didn’t mean the structural or systemic way for people to literally access the film (bypassing censors, limits in technology, or restricted distribution due to licensing, etc…). I meant that the subject matter was made so intentionally offensive to such a broad range of people that they mentally or emotionally would not be able to access it. There is such a divide, a disconnect, that their level of comfort (or knowledge) would make it nearly impossible to bridge that divide. Art which is shared is meant to communicate. As such, it should always make an effort to consider its audience. Indeed this piece does. It is a commentary on society as a whole, and as such, society as a whole would be its broadest possible audience. However, it further targeted a specific audience of people who would already be able to accept, and therefore access its message(s). That being the art world, which loves shock and controversy. Indeed, this was highly controversial even when it debuted at Cannes film festival.

My criticism of it is the same as when I read a poem that relies on such an esoteric knowledge of language that it excludes those that do not or cannot understand it. Written language is something beautiful. It is alive, ever changing, and utilized by the vast majority of people. Poetry is considered to speak towards the condition of living. Again universal. But if the content, or the message, rather, is wrapped up in a form that narrows its potential audience, there has to be (for me) a very good justification for this. Because any element that could be considered an obstacle inherently increases exclusivity.

I learned this the hard way. In college I made a lot of art, largely abstract, that was meant to address and challenge peoples understanding of photography, mass production, consumerism, how the medium affects the psyche, etc… all my peers continuously told me that I was overestimating my audience, and criticized me for creating exclusive art. In my defense, I was exploring how to make art that operated to appeal to people unconsciously, sometimes quite simply, but could still carry plenty of the above mentioned topics when spoken about. It operated as both purely decorative and philosophical. That is to say, it was pretty, but also had a lot to say. In that way, it was also criticized as being too simple (like hotel wall art) and not “artsy” enough. So I did a lot of thinking about art as communication, and presentation or form as a means of inclusion or exclusion.

My philosophy places an extremely high degree of responsibility on the artist as author, as creator. Because in making a piece of art, every step of the way you choose what to include, what to exclude, how to convey your message. Make art to improve the world, to increase compassion, to heighten understanding and provide the tools to broaden a person’s appreciation for their own existence and that of others. Art that shocks people, and causes them to turn away turns them away from receiving the message, and I’m not so sure what good that does.  Of course, artists make art to bring into reality that which was born into their imagination. But if it is to be shared, it may need to be translated (so to speak) in order to be understood by many.”


My friend’s response summarized their own experience, and struggle with that responsibility, and tapped into the idea of creating for the sake of creating, adding content to this universe seemingly governed by chaos, so that those who may be looking for work that speaks to them may come across yours. This is the once recorded audio I was able to save and transcribe in time.

“Personally, I had a lot of trouble with that. Like when I would write, I would try and write to the masses. I would want to have my messages to be deciphered by the people who would come across it. I wanted to reach everybody. But then I came to a point where i was like, it’s not my responsibility to create for everyone. It’s my responsibility to create in a way that makes sense to me and to hopefully elicit some type of emotion from other people that might relate to what I am saying.”


“Absolutely an arguable perspective.* Probably the most popular one actually. And there isn’t a solid argument against it. To just continue to produce no matter what. And as art piles up in the archives of mankind’s existence, if and when people are ready they can or will find it.”


*Yes, I see and feel conflicted about how I instinctively used the word “arguable,” framing this as an argument. Please consider the 14c. usage, not as it has come (post-15c.) to connote negative debate.


“It has just never really sat right with me. It gives me free license to create anything, literally anything, without thought towards my audience or whether it is a net positive or negative contribution.

And there’s always the fallacy lurking behind my philosophy that considers art a part of a system attempting to improve existence or provide solutions to problems.

It’s like Occam’s Razor, often described as the simplest explanation (or solution) is usually the right one. If there is a problem, an efficient solution is best. A problem shared by all needs solutions that can be understood by all in order to be most broadly accepted and implemented. [Then again, perhaps it is easiest just to create in total freedom. Let the chaos sort itself out–or not.]

Re: your last message,* creating can absolutely be perverted to do harm, like interpretation or translation can do the same, after all, the latter are just additional forms of creation.”


*while not included here, it spoke towards the notion of people on social media creating content so focused-in, so targeted to a type of people, or rather a way of life, of thinking, with the sole purpose of attaining notoriety, gaining likes, and enhancing engagement.


So then it’s a question of ethics. Is it “good” or “right” creation, and how can we tell? And that’s very difficult.

I like to consider the following: The Quakers (while not homogeneous or dogmatic in their religious practice) worship in silence waiting to speak through divine inspiration. Many I know claim to ask themselves, almost continuously before speaking (during worship or otherwise): “Is what I am about to say an improvement upon the silence?”


Afterthought:

If knowledge is presented in a way where only those seeking more of it must expend considerable effort to find it, can it really be called accessible? Is it really democratic?


Notes: Original messages edited (probably not enough) for grammar. (Those pesky “it’s” –> “its” conversions)

During the writing of this, I briefly checked my Instagram for messages, and at the top of my feed was this (suspiciously relevant) post.


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