Trusting Artists To Tell The Truth

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Last night I spent $100 on a theatre ticket in New York. I saw “Sleep No More” off-Broadway, a site-specific, avant-garde show. Just for the record, I didn’t love it. But its use of sexuality and nudity did make me think about the artist’s responsibility to the audience, which is primarily to tell the truth.

Well, some truth. For in every story, there are many truths. When Macbeth kills King Duncan, is he being selfish, a weakling caving in to an ambitious wife, or simply playing out the destiny that a witch has foretold? When Oedipus kills his father and sleeps with his mother, is he being impulsive, irresponsible, honor-bound, or just playing out his foretold destiny? Cleopatra: shrewd or lovesick? Hamlet: shrewd or heartsick?

Every story has many truths.

One of the truths in stories since the beginning of time is sexuality. People who want to exclude sex from stories—or demand that artists justify their use of it—demand that artists lie. That’s terrible for art and artists. It’s dangerous for society as well, because knowingly or not, we’re all counting on artists to tell us about ourselves in ways we can’t—or won’t—see. In a sense, artists are society’s nervous system.
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So I go to this show, which is sort of a mashup of Shakespeare and Alfred Hitchcock. I wish it were better executed, but give the production “A” for creativity, risk-taking, and sheer theatricality. Oh, did I mention the pretty girls and pretty boys? The nudity, semi-nudity, and kissing in various configurations? It was hot, all the hotter because it was set in a vaguely late-1930s, androgynous design: slick-haired men in fitted tuxedos, slender women in backless dresses. And hotter still because it was sinister: who was passionate, who manipulative, who a sucker doomed to a glamorous death?

Much of the sexuality was integral to the show, and I appreciated the show’s commitment to it: various penises, vulvas, and nipples appeared unapologetically. Because they lingered on stage, we didn’t have to rush our gaze, so we really got to see them. We even had the time to consider our own voyeurism. Frankly, that was even more interesting than checking out Lord or Lady Macbeth’s tush.

As I enjoyed the nuts and nipples, as the sexy women languorously kissed, I felt grateful to see a production portray sexuality on its own terms. In the New York of just a few decades ago—and much of the U.S. right now—such a production would be raided, threatened, cancelled. Just for a little truth.
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Sure enough, some of the show’s sexual material seemed unnecessary—sometimes substituting for smart writing, other times used to grab our interest. Nothing says “pay attention!” like a bare scrotum a couple of feet away.

So what of artists who use sex gratuitously—that is, serving something besides truth? Perhaps they lack vision or skill. That isn’t limited to sex—artists constantly reveal their laziness or poor craft by over reliance on violence, stereotypes, or cheap humor.

That said, perhaps it’s OK for artists to use sex gratuitously. After all, they use other devices to get our attention, like comic relief and sentimentality. We don’t condemn Shakespeare or Gray’s Anatomy for using humor to ease the audience’s tension. So why condemn an artist for using sex to work us? Various audiences have simply learned to avoid the Three Stooges or Cosmopolitan or Andy Warhol. The same personal strategy could work just fine with Hair or Catcher In The Rye or Butt Busters III.

What’s important is not that an artist never use sex gratuitously. It’s that he or she gives us enough truth enough of the time to earn our gaze.

Whether artists are using sexuality to serve truth, manipulate an audience, or for commercial ends, the desire to prevent them from doing so says everything about the censor’s relationship to sexuality, and nothing about the artist’s relationship to it. And that’s the problem with censorship—it isn’t about artists or audiences. It’s about the feelings and thoughts that some government, and some complicit citizens, want the rest of us to not feel or think.

If the artist has a political agenda—like Brecht or Shaw—let them express it. If the art is honest enough and skillful enough, audiences will go along and consume the message. But in the marketplace of ideas, art whose primary goal is to be “safe,” “socially productive,” or “clean” almost always loses. Because it isn’t honest.

There’s a contract between artist and audience, a sacred contract that should be loyal to nothing but the artist’s vision. Government cannot possibly tread lightly on that contract. It treads not at all or it treads heavily.

It’s always stunning how people who want the government out of their business demand that the government interfere with the business of others—such as artists and audiences. A play about ambition, greed, power, and loyalty that doesn’t address sexuality? Why, that’s like a day without sunshine. And sexuality without bodies? That’s simply not the truth. Not the whole truth, anyway.

And adults who can’t tolerate the truth—for themselves or their fellow citizens—oh dear, are they in trouble. And thus are we all.

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