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Every contemporary creative person is embedded in a complex society where she lives, learns her life lessons, and tries to sell her wares. She learns what is acceptable and what is not acceptable; she comes to understand what most people around her find entertaining; she learns her society’s conventions and idiosyncrasies.
She knows exactly what “white picket fence” connotes and what buttons will be pushed by words like “welfare” and “abortion.” Whether she knows it or not, she measures every conversation she has and every action she takes against the consequences she expects from violating the rules of her society.
How artists are affected by their society and react to their society are enormous subjects. Let’s focus on one corner of this vast territory: on the matter of self-censorship. Most of us would be quick to say that we are free to think just about anything and to express ourselves in any way we see fit. In reality, artists do a lot of measuring, somewhere just out of conscious awareness, about what is safe or seemly to reveal and what is unsafe or unseemly.
They decide to set their novel in a foreign country because they do not feel safe talking about the evildoers in their own hometown. They paint lively abstractions or cheerful landscapes because they fear what Goya-esque horrors might escape from their brush in a narrative painting. When a nonfiction idea begins to percolate in their brain, an idea that if published might cause the government to retaliate, they find reasons to dismiss the project. We all do these sorts of things.
We are talking about the most primitive and important of motives here, our personal safety and survival; and why, because of the power of these motives, so many artists and would-be artists practice ongoing self-censorship. One aspect of this self-censorship is the way we bite our tongue at our day job and, in a corollary safety measure, skip making art that reveals what our corporation, institution, or agency is up to.
We don’t tell tales out of school about the school where we work; we don’t reveal the dirt about the police department that employs us; we don’t portray our madcap board of directors in our novel or paint a Kafka-esque likeness of our governmental agencies. Well, 2024 is coming. Time to take a risk with your art?