Illustration by Chima Castaños
Good art is provocative. Even Sesame Street is provocative, to a toddler. That’s why it works. I remember when it first aired when I was a kid and my next door neighbor, Missy Zuber, told me to watch it. I remember how provocative I thought it was. I didn’t know that word yet, but I knew what was interesting, and that grouch in the trash can was creepy and interesting. Provocative. Conservatives are so provoked by Big Bird that they want to kill him, and PBS. Maybe that’s because we Americans come from the loins of puritans and so we’re not very sophisticated about provocative art or even about what the intent or function of art really is or should be. The Europeans get it. They were creating provocative art before the U.S. was even a glint in a pilgrim’s eye. But for we Americans, it doesn’t take more than a little Shakespeare in the Park to get us all confused.
Americans should have learned from the NEA wars in the ‘80s that art plays a vital role in civilized countries. And sometimes that means art is the pearl in the oyster and provokes the people or the government. Nobody has ever argued that Italy would have been a smarter country if the Medici’s had not sponsored so much art. All historians know there was a correlation between Rome’s power and its artistic development. Same with France and Spain and other countries that took over the world, they all had a sophisticated relationship with art. But today’s superpower didn’t take that lesson away from the Mapplethorpe or NEA Four controversies. No, we took the short view as a country and let the religious groups dictate what could and couldn’t be created with public funding. The NEA cowered and we still haven’t recovered, nor have we had an intelligent conversation with conservatives about the function of art through the ages. We let them dictate the culture of our country because of the powerful politics of religion. Dali is certainly rolling over in his grave as someone who thought much about breaking the confines of artistic norms.
The latest example of a national controversy about art and free speech is the Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar, featuring a Trump-like Caesar. After Trump’s son ranted about it last week and FOX and Brietbart amplified that ranting, at least two major sponsors of the Public (Delta Airlines and Bank of America) reactively bowed to pressure from the right and pulled their sponsorships saying that the choice to have a Trump-like Caesar was offensive and against their values. Uh, since when do American corporations, especially banks and airlines, have values? As a guy who spent most of May on an airplane, I can tell you I don’t share the values of airlines. I don’t think Delta should be following the lead of United by dragging Julius Caesar down the aisle with his tunic pulled up to reveal his underwear. These corporations choose to stand firm with their values of overbooking to maximize their profits over customer service. Do you know anyone who feels that modern-day airlines reflect their personal values? Certainly nobody who has flown since 9/11.
Still people have taken sides about the play with their respective tribes, as we do with everything today. The left has sided with the theater mostly, and the right has mostly sided with the corporations. But without really acknowledging the purpose of art. I’m sure even the most conservative folks would agree that the Public has the 1st Amendment right to do this play as it did. The real question is, in this very narcissistic YELP world where everyone’s review is as important as everyone else’s, “Can it still be art, even if you don’t like it? Even if it offends you.” Conventional wisdom nowadays seems to be if you give it only 1 star, then it’s not art, and we should boycott the sponsors and crush it, because it is art only when you like it. If it offends you, then attack it and do your best to crush it. Even if it’s just a play.
Can and should art offend in 2017? On this we disagree. Surprise, the country is divided. Some say that there is no excuse for offensive art. The more sophisticated argument gets into the subjective nature of all art and what it means to offend. Offense is in the eye of the beholder, and thus has less to do with the intent of the artist than the worldview of the offended. If we could agree on the concept that art which offends is still art, then the next question is… should the Public have politicized this play given the divisiveness in our country at present? I’ve heard several smart liberal folks on TV say that the Public shouldn’t have portrayed Caesar as Trump, in order to keep the peace. But is that the role of art, merely to be so tepid so as not to offend? Should art quiet us down or rev us up? If the role of serious art is to provoke then one could also argue that the Public is doing its civic duty by encouraging public debate. Even if you don’t like the play, or the imagery, or the mockery, to get us thinking is the point, it’s why we see any work of art. Right? We don’t see a play so as NOT to think about the themes of the play.
Art has a much more important role to play in our current constitutional crisis than to be a tool to help us get along. We’ve got the food channel and video games and mass shootings for that. Yes, the Public’s choice is indeed inflammatory, as art can and sometimes should be. But it is only a show. It is not reality when in the Public’s show Caesar stands at a podium in front of a crowd and is the victim of violence. But it was indeed reality when Trump stood at a podium in front of a crowd and offered to pay the legal bills of folks who’d commit violence on his behalf. And some did. It was not stage combat when people were punched at his rallies. Yet the outrage is reserved for a play where art imitates life? On FOX, the crawl at the bottom of the screen read something like “The Public Theater of NYC should stop its play assassinating Trump, but it won’t!” How unfair and imbalanced of them. How unobjective and unjournalistic of them. How un-European of them. How un-American.