Wolfgang Buttress | The Hive | Kew Gardens | London

The following chart was created from a quote by Neil Postman*

Fears Orwell Huxley
Books feared those who would ban books feared there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read
Information feared those who would deprive us of information feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism
Truth feared that the truth would be concealed from us feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance
Culture feared we would become a captive culture feared we would become a trivial culture

Fear is defined as “an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger.” The fears of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley demonstrate the way two thinkers could look at the same issue so differently.  On the one hand, Orwell was fearful of the dangerous impact of centralized control and damaging propaganda that would lead to groupthink. Huxley was fearful of the decline of intelligence and independent thinking that would lead to banality.

Today, fear is creating a new controversy. This fear is embedded in observers of art that was created by artists (for now overwhelming male), who have been accused of sexual assault. The veracity of some of the accusers is beyond reproach. I use the term fear deliberately—and not the word anger—even though the accusers are rightfully angry at a system that supported and enabled the disgusting behavior of these artists. Fear connotes an anxiousness. It suggests a deep concern without the calmness of knowing the truth. Many of the artists have had their planned exhibitions placed on indefinite hold (see this article on Chuck Close). Some artists have apologized; others hightailed it to treatment centers in the Southwest. Many people, out of their personal integrity, have decided to expunge the work of these artists from their visual and audible artistic vocabulary. Some will no longer watch a Woody Allen film no matter when it was made nor how good it is. (see  in the New York Times.)

This whirlwind of accusations began as gentle wind that pushed Harvey Weinstein into a canyon known as #metoo. The women pumping the bellows are gathering more helpers everyday. This strong wind is now escalating to hurricane force—polishing a new societal magnifying glass inspecting every corner of abuse. The latest was the sentencing of Larry Nassar to spend the rest of his life in jail over the abuse of gymnasts (see Frank Bruni’s editorial.) As fear turns to courage, I hope that we are able to gain perspective and make sure truth is discovered before lives are upended. This gathering force of the abused should, most certainly, have the right to see justice served.

My own fear is more complicated. As a student of art, an emerging artist myself, I am sitting uncomfortably in the middle of a conundrum. While I respect a person’s right to not see a movie, view a work art or listen to a tune, I am not convinced we should use only accusations as the litmus test of expunging work from theaters, art museums or concert halls.  Wherein lies the truth? Retrospective “unlearning” and subsequent shunning of the films, art or music created by the accused because of contemporary revelations is, at its core, disingenuous.

Each of us process these contemporary revelations of past abuse in different ways and make a determination what we will shun. What we choose to shun is also influenced by the factors of distance, time, cultural milieu and race. I am confident each person can find their own peace with their choices and I applaud anyone’s honesty and demonstrated integrity. I personally have yet to decide the correlation between accusations and factually confirmed despicable acts and my appreciation of art produced in the past. Do I “un-see” Michelangelo’s Pieta or Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa because they both solicited pre-teen boys to sodomize in Florence along the banks of the Arno?

Will this lead to an Orwellian fear of the dangerous impact of centralized control and damaging propaganda that would lead to groupthink about what is right or wrong; good or bad? Or will it lead to a Huxleyesque fear of the decline of intelligence and independent thinking that would lead to banality? I am hopeful the howling winds of #metoo will rip off the facades of artists hiding their deviant behavior behind their creations and cause them to find redemption—and that we have the courage to forgive those who seek to learn how to behave ethically and morally. It might lead to an integration and melding of decency and the creation of great art—and dismantle the centuries old myth of the artist as one who was granted an elevated status that was detached from moral behavior in the service of his or her genius.I leave you with this quote:

The daily routine of most adults is so heavy and artificial that we are closed off to much of the world. We have to do this in order to get our work done. I think one purpose of art is to get us out of those routines. When we hear music or poetry or stories, the world opens up again. We’re drawn in — or out — and the windows of our perception are cleansed, as William Blake said. The same thing can happen when we’re around young children or adults who have unlearned those habits of shutting the world out.—Ursula Le Guin

*Neil Postman was an American author, educator, media theorist and cultural critic, who is best known for his seventeen books, including Amusing Ourselves to Death, Conscientious Objections, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, The Disappearance of Childhood and The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School. 

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