Sunday, February 19, 2006

Courage, speaking truth to power, etc.

From Kesher Talk contributor "Ben."

As the cartoon story fades away, I find myself thinking of the consequences. More than a few veils have been stripped away, and not all of them have to do with the West vs Islam civilization clash.

For instance, the concept of bravery as it pertains to the arts is now redefined.

Courage, when considered of an artist, can mean one of several things, but it is the sense of risk that defines it.

It can mean a willingness to try what has not been done before. A chef may display courage, and risks the possibility that diners may gag on some brave new creation.

It can mean a willingness to risk the sacrifice of one's own career, like a pop musician being drawn to some other genre of music.

But it can no longer mean merely being offensive, engaging in political or social mockery, save in the case of a few certain targets, because now we all know where the risk is.

There is no risk in mocking politicians, now matter how intensively the abuse is served. There is no risk in mocking any establishements of American or Western culture- no harm will ensue. Performing the "Vagina Monologues" isn't an act of bravery, unless one does it in Saudi Arabia, perhaps. Every artist alive today now knows the limits: you can do this, which is as brave as taunting a stuffed teddy bear, or you can do that, which amounts to taunting a very hungry very uncaged bear.

Bravery, to an artist, is now an all or nothing thing. Leave the repressive regimes alone, and all your efforts, no matter how avante garde, provocative, or just plain offensive your work is, and you are just pretending at courage. Cross the line and say something about Islam, and your life is one the line.

All the gray areas have vanished in a week. It's as if mountaineers were to suddenly be faced with only two choices: Everest, or the plastic rock climbing wall. Long after this dies in the news, its going to echo in the heads of every writer, poet, standup comedian and performance artist- go after any target but the big one, and you're only faking it, playing it safe. It doesn't matter whether they admit it or not, whether they rewrite their material or not, it will be there, in their minds, and it will affect things. Even Margaret Cho knows she can curse Bush all she wants, but she'd better keep her mouth shut about you-know-who if whe doesn't want to bleed to death in the street. Speaking Truth to Power is only a heroic act if Power chooses to make an issue of it.


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