“Artistic Freedom”: The Lie We Use To Defend The Indefensible

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“Leap into the Void,” Yves Klein (photographed by Harry Shunk), 1960

When I write about diversity in representational media (theatre, film, TV, video games), often the white anger (and there is always white anger) uses “artistic freedom” as its battle cry. “Artists should create whatever they want, without restrictions,” or “Total artistic freedom is sacred. Telling artists they must include diversity is wrong.”

The secret is: Every professional knows there’s no such thing as “total artistic freedom.” We always must work within certain parameters. At least half of the artistic process is finding artistic solutions to technical problems. 

The space you’re working in has physical constraints. The budget has limits. The contracts you’ve signed with the company, the playwright, the actors, the techs, all limit what you can add (or subtract) from the text, how long you can rehearse, even what can and cannot be done on stage. Props don’t work the way you imagined. An actor can’t perform the blocking you’ve set in the costume you approved. You discover three weeks before opening that the set you approved is over budget and needs trimming. The incredibly important piece of specially-designed tech hardware is stuck on a truck with a broken axle four states away and the earliest it will be in house is now Sunday afternoon. Maybe. When it shows up Monday at 10pm, it doesn’t work. Your lead actor’s visa wasn’t approved and she’s still in London. The suits show up to a late rehearsal or a shoot and demand a change. The studio has paid for product placement, and now you must work SmartWater into three scenes.

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Subtle. 

This? This is the tip of the iceberg. It’s a magical day when everything goes according to plan and no changes need to be made.

The idea behind “artistic freedom” is one of the best ideas ever: Artists should be able to engage with the world around them without constraints such as censorship. Artists with artistic freedom create better, usually more impactful and important, art under those conditions. But those conditions always exist within a given framework. Some constraints are practical (time, space, and budget), some are legal (the law, your contracts), some are ethical (best practices), some are artistic (imposed on the artists by the director or producer, or just by the basic parameters of the project), and some are social (updating outdated topical humor, avoiding lines, characters, or narrative tropes that would be considered racist, etc). Although not every artist recognizes or follows every constraint every time– sexual harassment is a huge problem in all these industries– artists as a whole work within these constraints without questioning them.

The social constraints we work within are never questioned, and usually framed in terms of audience response– a joke your audience won’t find funny, public controversy that could impact sales, or a scene that evokes a hostile audience response, which is entirely dependent on your social context. I’ve staged plays in Berkeley without an iota of controversy that later were picketed elsewhere in the country. Conversely, I’ve been sent plays whose entire plots centered around the Horrible! Revelation! that Someone! Had a Same Sex Affair! In College! My Berkeley audience would laugh out loud at the idea that anyone cared about your same sex college fling; such a play is unstageable here no matter how well-written because the premise is nonsense within our particular social context.

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Land that I love. (Source: berkeley.edu)

So when we talk about the need for increased diversity (or the need to examine how various types of people are portrayed) in the theatre, film, and games we make, why is that seen as a massive, impossible imposition on an artist?  We’re already working within a number of constraints and considerations, and, frankly, removing race as a primary consideration, instead using just type, talent, and skill set, doesn’t seem much of a constraint at all to me. All it takes is stating in calls (or instructing your casting people) that you’re open to actors of all races and ethnicities, and suddenly your hiring pool is expanded, not constrained.

That said, if you believe your work demands an all-white cast, no one is restricting– or can restrict– your right to use an all-white cast. No one can stop you from casting every lead with a white actor for the entirety of your career. So what, exactly, upsets people so much about calls for more diversity? Why is there so much angry backlash to discussing diversity in art? What people are upset about is that now consumers and critics are complaining about it. They don’t just want the freedom to use all-white casts, crew, and/or writing staff–they already have that. They want the freedom to do so without criticism.

This, by the way, is what they mean by “taking America back”– back to the days when shutting out people of color was completely uncontroversial.

Due to this desire to create all-white art without criticism, there has been an immense backlash, especially from the alt-right, about the very concept of using social criteria like diversity or the portrayal of women to evaluate art. They claim that this is a new development brought on by “political correctness” run amok, and that in the golden past, before feminism or Black people with twitter accounts, art was solely evaluated as art, and critical discussions of its social messaging were nowhere to be found.

This is, of course, bunk.

For centuries, art has been evaluated, formally and informally, using social messaging as part of the critique. In 472 BCE, Aeschylus was publicly criticized by Aristotle, who claimed Aeschylus’ play The Persians, about the Persian defeat at the hands of the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE, was too sympathetic to the Persians. Playwrights in Renaissance England went to great lengths to hide their critiques of the  church or the government in metaphors that would get past the censors. When Paul Robeson played Othello in 1930, reviewers criticized the choice to cast a Black man instead of a white actor in blackface. One wrote: “There is no more reason to choose a negro to play Othello than to requisition a fat man for Falstaff.” There are literally thousands of similar examples from the past.

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Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona and Paul Robeson as Othello in the 1930 Savoy Theatre production. 

There are, of course, nearly as many examples from the present as well. While the right (alt and otherwise) bitterly condemns using diversity and other social justice-based criteria in evaluations of art, they themselves do this all the time. The right’s response to Beyoncé’s 2016 Super Bowl performance is an excellent example. Her performance came under fire solely for its pro-Black social messaging, which many on the right took to be “anti-white” and, somehow, “anti-police.” Ads for Old Navy and Cheerios featuring interracial families came under fire from right-wing racists for their social messaging alone. Evidently “interracial families eat breakfast and enjoy Old Navy 30% off sales” was a bridge too far for them. In 2012, the wildly popular, highly rated video game Mass Effect 3 included same sex relationship options (as they had throughout the series), but really came under fire for including a bedroom scene that many homophobic players complained bitterly about. (Of course, those of us who played through the game knew you had to click through many conversations with that gay character, continually taking the obviously marked “romance” option, to trigger that scene, or go out of your way to seek it out on youtube. But that’s none of my business.)

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Steve Cortez from Mass Effect 3, who lost his husband to a Collector attack.

While some people do not wish to be told that people would like to see more diversity, they clearly have no problem telling us that diversity is, in essence, wrong.

There’s only one conclusion to draw here, and it’s not about “artistic freedom.”

For those of us who work in representational media, and must work within constraints both out of our control, like physics and budget, and well within our control, like personal artistic goals and vision, “artistic freedom” can be a touchy subject. We want as much artistic freedom as we can get, in part because we know that in reality, our freedom is constrained in multiple ways. Those of us calling for increased diversity (and equity) in film, theatre, TV, and games are simply asking our fellow content creators to consider diversity an important artistic criteria that exists alongside  all the other self-imposed artistic criteria we all have.

Making a commitment to diversity is actually reducing your constraints, because it widens your hiring pool. Once you make the decision that a role can be cast with an actor of any race, or a show can be directed by a person of any race or gender, suddenly your hiring pool becomes much wider. Making a personal commitment to diversity increases your artistic freedom because it gives you far more to work with.

There is no true “artistic freedom,” including the many constraints artists put on themselves as they strive to meet (or exceed) their artistic goals. Encouraging others to make personal commitments to diversity– and holding them accountable when they do not– increases the artistic freedom both of the individual artists who would be widening their hiring pool considerably, and the artistic freedom of the industries as a whole, that would have a wider variety of artists working within it, which we all know is a massive strength.

So don’t believe anyone who tells you that calls for increased diversity or using diversity as a criteria for evaluation is limiting “artistic freedom.” We know better.

 

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4 thoughts on ““Artistic Freedom”: The Lie We Use To Defend The Indefensible

  1. LouiseP says:

    “So what, exactly, upsets people so much about calls for more diversity? Why is there so much angry backlash to discussing diversity in art? What people are upset about is that now consumers and critics are complaining about it. They don’t just want the freedom to use all-white casts, crew, and/or writing staff–they already have that. They want the freedom to do so without criticism.”

    Yes. This. A thousand times this.

  2. Yes! This was such an excellent and concise explanation that both called out the inherent racism as well as highlighting all the benefits of calling for diversity and representation. I needed this today, thank you.

  3. Tj says:

    I do love how much thought you put in these pieces, and I think you are a terrific writer,

    I once a few years back, had a case where a black man auditioned for a part I had written in a short goofy comedy. The part was for that of crazed IRA freedom fighter. Obviously I was thinking Irish. When the actor saw the built in ethnicity of the character, he very gracefully bowed out.

    However, his simply having come to the audition opened up all kinds of crazy ideas for me regarding the character. Suddenly I was seeing a multitude of new ways that the play could be funnier and poignant. I was seeing how I could make statements about movements I supported such as Black Lives matter and finally how I could give a talented actor a part he deserved. In short, I really wanted to cast the guy.

    Sadly, the play was going up in a few weeks and was at a point where rewrites were out of the question. As I said the actor gracefully bowed out but I think about him all the time and the new direction my play could have gone if time permitted or if i had thought about diversity in that role prior to the audition.

    My point is I think you are absolutely right that adding diversity adds to the pool of talent and ideas you can draw upon. Certainly that was my experience.

    Having said that I do have a slight disagreement with your piece, which is regarding the motives of those who aren’t actively thinking about diversity in their casting. While some might want to return to the days of Amos and Andy outside of Trump supporters, I think those elements are rare in theater and film. I think motives tend to be a little more banal. Such as a person reads Hamlet sees Prince of Denmark in the script and instantly casts a tall blonde guy in their mind’s eye. I also think sometimes when those people feel shamed they can get defensive, because they resent being cast as bigots for casting choices.

    No doubt we can do better, The country is more diverse than ever and film and movies only marginally represent that. I just think reminders to live up to our ideals work best.

  4. gwangung says:

    Hell yeah. You DO have the artistic freedom to do what you want…and we, the audience (or fellow artists), has the freedom to tell you what they/we think. Wassamatta…afraid of critics?

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