Activism Art and Design Society The Internet

Nuance and ambiguity

Bookmarked Art Should Be a Doorway, Not a Mirror by Lincoln Michel (Counter Craft)

There is a difference between attacking bigotry and in demanding that art be unambiguous is its moral messaging.

The ostensible ideologies of these art police run the gamut from conservatives like Jerry Falwell to centrists like Tipper Gore to self-professed progressives and leftists. But what unites these people is aesthetic puritanism. They view art as a series of moral lessons that must be entirely unambiguous. Reading the tweets during these scandals, you see the same claims over and over again. Stories must be uplifting, characters “likable,” messages clear, and all bad or messy or immoral lines/characters/events must be explicitly rebutted in the text.

This is a perspective from which satire cannot exist, or must be so blatantly obvious no reasonable person could possibly think it was valid (Poe’s law). This is tied to the challenge of interpreting intention from text or images without the benefit of tags like emojis and /s. These markers arose in our online communication for the same reason: fear of being misinterpreted through the worst lens. Art does not carry those same markers, but we’ve become used to being assured of when a thought is mocking or sarcastic. We’re afraid of identifying “wrong,” of being grouped with those who do harm, and leap to signal our “good” identity by defending any possible attack. It’s a defensive mechanic via aggression.

Although this particular flavor of art puritanism claims to be progressive, their insistence on purity tends to harm exactly the people they claim to be protecting. It is queer authors like Isabel Fall who must out themselves, or victims of sexual assault like Kate Elizabeth Russell who are pressured to publicly state their trauma in order for their fiction—remember what that word means?—to be permitted.

Only once we’re assured the artist isn’t intending harm, is nuance or darkness or satire acceptable.

I ran a satirical project for a time, but we reached a point politically where I was too scared of the satire being misinterpreted and pulled back on it.

This attack response has such a strong chilling effect on artists it becomes a form of censorship — just as showing up with lethal weapons at a protest is chilling to free speech. When some nutjob with an AK gets to decide whether you deserve to live or die, that deters valid protest of any form. Not to validate it, but vandalism or property damage is not punishable by the death sentence under the law, except that right wing vigilantes have decided that it should be. And being on the right side of the law doesn’t matter after you’ve been murdered — so why risk letting someone who hates you getting to decide whether you’ve committed a killing offense in their eyes? Online attack mobs probably won’t kill you (unless they SWAT you), but they can slander you, make you lose your job, force you to disclose private experiences, harass you to the point of a mental breakdown, threaten you with rape and murder… Art and activism are strongly bound, but our culture of vigilante justice makes it a brave act to pursue either in an age of paranoid reading.

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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