Good question. As in, it’s a good question for anyone to ask anyone.
Here’s where I am now.
The wariness around it is, as you surmise, due to complicated feelings around the situation, and often not popular feelings at the current stage in the discourse. I’m very careful about what I want to say, as I’m aware that they’ll likely be lines that could be taken out of context and used for means contrary to my beliefs and (for those acting in bad faith) as a stick to beat me.
In other words, I’d appreciate taking the whole flow of an argument. It goes to some areas I suspect people will be surprised with, considering the work I do. Or, as will become clear, I choose to do.
My fundamental position is based on a deep suspicion of the word “should.” “Should” is where people show their critical blinkers. Any position where anyone forwards that art “should” do something… well, I can immediately pick up examples of powerful works which operate in a way contrary to that. A “should” says that anything outside those boundaries shouldn’t exist. It drags those ideas and artworks to the guillotine.
To choose a less loaded debate, let’s go for formalist choices in videogames. “Videogames should never use cutscenes” or “Videogames should be told primarily visually” are things I’ve heard forwarded, but there’s a number of powerful works which are exceptions to that. For the former, I roll my eye at Final Fantasy VII, but I’d fight for its right to exist. For the latter, I’d take Planescape Torment over hundreds of more aesthetically pure games.
Let’s inch towards something more controversial. I’ve actually seen people argue all work should pass the Bechdel test. This is unfair to the test (it’s not really what it’s useful for), but clearly a position that is untenable. This puts whole sections of human life out of the bounds of creators, many of which are actually contrary to the aims of the test. A woman standing in a room, reciting her favourite feminist texts fails the Bechdel text. Hell, if you’re being anal, a story set in a Nunnery where people have taken a vow of silence fails the Bechdel test.
That’s legalese though. That’s easy. It’s not quite a straw man, but may as well be.
So let’s go further. Racist work. Sexist work. Work which the word “problematic” isn’t nearly strong enough. What about that? Do I think an artist has a responsibility to avoid that?
No. There is no responsibility in art… except what the artist chooses.
I’m going to bold the next bit.
That does not let them escape the response or critique from the fallout of the action. Being an artist can mean choosing a position that most people hate and upsets people. That’s fine. That does not mean anyone else has to support it either. That’s also fine. They can also boycott it and hate them forever. That’s also fine. That I have said “the artist has no responsibility” does not mean I personally do not view the worldview they are presenting with utter horror.
Art is about many things, but being able to put your feet on ground you think solid and say “This is how I see it, everyone.” is key. You cannot remove that from being an artist. That speaks of privilege… but if you remove that, the position is no longer an artist. It is a consumer product provider.
Some people would be fine with that, but that is not something I think we can give up.
An artist weighs the importance of the work they are doing versus the offence (or even just disappointment) they cause. If an artist thinks this is worth saying, they say it. This is an internal applied thing, not an externally applied thing.
Part of being an artist is choosing whether you want to stay around the campfire or head off into the woods. Some of the people who go off into the woods are going to get burned as witches, whether they end up being right or wrong.
That latter bit is key: it’s worth remembering that work that would be considered progressive now would be considered beyond the pale to previous progressive cultures. We can assume the same is true of work to be done today. It would be arrogant given the lessons of history to assume that we’ve got it all right now. By limiting ourselves to what is most acceptable now, the most forward looking works never get written.
So, we come to the whole “no responsibility, only opportunity” thing.
I would encourage artists to be consciously aware of the power and options they have. That’s the main problem, especially with creators with privilege on more axis.
“Why is this lead character a straight white male?” is a question that progressive readers will ask. For my own personal aesthetics, someone whose answer is - though they will probably never admit this - “I’m writing an autobiographical story about my troubled relationship with my father and alienation from that and how it’s impacted on my own life and I will scream forever if I don’t” is something I respect. Someone who says “Oh, just went to it naturally.” is someone I have less time for.
Opportunity means being aware of what stories can be, and all your choices inside that.
Because if art is about what choices you make, examining which choices you are making - especially unconscious ones - is key. You’re going to make all those choices anyway, so you will make better art if you are aware of what you’re actually doing and so saying.
Being an artist is whatever you want it to be, in short. And then living with it.
Ending up with me, I do what I do in comics because I believe it is my moral imperative. This is my own creed. At least on certain ethical axis as a creator, I have a very low level of acceptable offence in the work given the largeness of the themes. This speaks to the people I am trying to talk to, and the aims of my work and my own ethics. I would urge others to follow their own moral imperatives, examine what they believe and what they choose to do, and the costs of that and so on and so forth.
But the second I make that decision for another artist, they’re no longer an artist. They’re a proxy and a puppet. I do not want disciples. I want people examining the thinking and making it their own. We fight the battles we choose. If you do not choose to do it, it’s not your battle.
So yes, I’m always twitchy over talking about this. The “We do the minimum” is very much a hatred of getting cookies for what we do. We don’t do it for the cookies. We do it because we think it’s right. I hope other people would do it too, but I’d never tell them they should. They’ve got their own shit going on.
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