In the world we live in today one of the greatest dangers facing artistic expression and creative freedom is often declared to be the oversensitivity of the audience, especially on the internet. Controversial material, whether through humour or graphic or television or writing, is constantly under threat of scrutiny often not for the actual quality of the art, but for whether it should be allowed to exist. In other words, whether it’s acceptable. This is a problem that all artists must face, and it’s especially important in a time where censorship is an always looming danger yet the volume of material is at an all time high and barriers to entry at a lovable low.
Allow me to offer some brief context for this topic before I proceed with a discussion. A friend asked me what I’d think if my book, The Black Glass Killer, was turned into a movie. My response was I’m not quite sure it would make people comfortable, given the horrific nature of the material. Then again I’ve always been of the belief that if someone stopped reading my book or walked out of the theatre because the content was too disturbing, then job well done! Further context can be established by a recent ugly episode on Twitter that sparked after a variant cover for Batgirl #41 was revealed to be her in tears as the Joker loomed menacingly behind her.
The art was a homage to a famous graphic novel The Killing Joke, in which Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) was shot and subsequently paralysed by The Joker, which transformed her character completely as she went on to become Oracle, a master of intelligence and helper of Batman. Past that it actually empowered her further into a leadership role, and many even in the disabled community held the character in high esteem. Yet the above cover, which I consider beautiful personally, was heavily scrutinised on Twitter with arguments surrounding female representation and disempowerment. Eventually the variant cover was cancelled, much to the sadness of many fans and artists like myself. It goes beyond just artistic freedom.
I can put it rather crudely and without empathy by stating that in the grand scheme of things your feelings aren’t the most important thing in the world. Art aims to inspire emotion, thought and feeling, but it is not governed by whatever those responses are. The day art is forced to change because of feelings is the day the entirety of art as a platform for expression becomes endangered. If you are sensitive to harsh material and choose to distance yourself from it, that is perfectly fine and no one can question your right to do that. But if you take a stand against art and demand it be changed because you’re offended by its material, then I believe you’re overstepping your boundaries and overestimating the importance of your feelings.
I want to briefly address a kind of hypocrisy that exists in representation. The above variant cover was deeply opposed, yet there are countless comic covers of male heroes appearing vulnerable, distraught or in horrific states. Comics have depicted even heroes like Batman in tears and tatters. For some reason however this particular cover gained a reaction, and I sometimes find that it happens more with female characters while people quietly ignore the horrors dealt to male characters. Representation is an important issue, I’ll never step on that, but you can’t be selective in how and when you care about it. Batgirl, particularly Barbara Gordon, is a strong female character who didn’t let her disability reduce her to a weakling, but rose above it and her darkest fears. But is it not human to be traumatised by her struggle?
This makes me recollect a similar debate over a trailer for the video game Rise of the Tomb Raider, where Lara Croft was shown seeing a therapist after her horrible experience marooned on an island with killers in the first game. This led to criticism of her being shown as weak and vulnerable when in reality Lara Croft is and has always been a symbol of strength for female characters, and this was an attempt to humanise her further. The fact that therapy was viewed as a sign of weakness rather than a human struggle to overcome your demons is questionable as well, but let’s not go there. The point I’m making is people can be very selective over when and how they care about representation, and in doing so limit what can be done artistically.
The real world is beautiful, but it’s also deeply ugly. This is no revolutionary idea, it’s reality. Art can exist to express both these sides of the world, as well as everything in the middle. I’m sure you can see that I’m of the belief that artistic freedom must be preserved at all costs, because censoring or restricting of material is a slippery slope which can only go downhill. And as I’ve established I’m someone who would take it as a bloody compliment if anyone was so offended or disturbed or uncomfortable by a book I wrote that they actually stopped reading it. That would actually make me happy.
However I can’t oversimplify the issue. Certainly discussion is warranted towards an art that, for example, glorifies rape with a bunch of disgusting characters. This may be an unpopular opinion but even then I’m of the belief that the art should be allowed to exist, because as an artist I can’t and furthermore refuse to be selective about when I choose to value artistic expression and creative freedom either. I want it to always be valued, and I feel that the quality of the art should be at the forefront of discussion, rather than whether it should be allowed to exist in the first place, or whether it’s in poor taste. I stand against that which seeks to impose restrictions on creativity and the freedom to express that in whatever shape or form is desired by the artist. The alternative is selective and counterproductive.
How then do you deal with the oversensitivity of the audience? Unfortunately my answer may not be satisfying to some, but it is that you should create the art you feel passionately about and believe in. If your intentions are pure, by extension your art should be too. You can’t control the responses to your art, and I don’t believe you should be taken to the execution stand for it. I wonder about my own writing because after my first book I have become emotionally detached from my stories and far more confident, and thus have no qualms about the lengths I’ll go to if the story demands it. I don’t particularly have boundaries for myself of where I will or won’t go, and that can be dangerous when faced with a sensitive audience. Therefore I’d be happy if you avoided my work if you’re sensitive to extreme violence and horrific themes.
I won’t, however, under any circumstances change or denounce my work because of other people’s feelings or taking offense. I sincerely don’t see that as arrogant of any artist, but as preserving integrity and the right to creative freedom and to telling stories I passionately believe in. Past that, by all means criticise art in any way that you please – it’s open for that after all – and tell all who will listen that you can’t tolerate certain art because it offends you. Just don’t go trying to dictate what the art should be and how it should cater to your feelings, and the world will keep right on spinning.