Thursday, December 18, 2014

Artists and Personal Responsibility, Or Why There's Nothing "Terrifying" Nor Even Surprising About Sony Pulling 'The Interview'

RE: The Interview, here's a comment I posted in reply to Chuck Wendig's blog post Art Held Hostage: Why Sony Not Releasing “The Interview” Is Scary. This is my response to those who say Sony's decision to pull the Seth Rogen / James Franco comedy film The Interview, in which two hapless celebrity interviewers get an interview with Kim Jong Un and are pressed into service by the U.S. government to use their access to assassinate Un, is "terrifying", "horrifying", "scary" and lots of other hyperbolic adjectives:

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Y'know, the go-to solution to this problem has always been not to name specific names. It's one thing to make a film about a group of CIA operatives trying to take down "a Russian official" who's made to look and sound like Putin but is given a totally different name (such that the audience knows exactly who's being portrayed, even if it's not explicitly stated), but it's a horse of a different color when that same film is made and DOES have an actor portraying the REAL Putin. Naming ANY specific, real-life individual, especially the real-world leader of a sovereign nation, in a story that mocks that individual or lays out an assassination plot against that individual (that's backed by the U.S. government) is asking for trouble. This is why the Roman A Clef has a long and celebrated history.

Sure, in a perfect world any artist should be able to make whatever art he or she wants so long as it doesn't break actual laws or harm actual people. But there's 'a perfect world' and the world we actually live in, which is populated by plenty of crazy and heavily-armed people, and when there's a very simple alternative that can accomplish the same artistic ends *without* putting anyone's data or lives at risk, why not just go with the alternative? Would you rather compromise a little and still get your art and message out there, or dig in your heels and see your art wielded as a tool to do gross injury to innocent people?


Whither the artist's personal responsibility and common sense? Does the right to make a statement of some sort trump all other concerns, including the safety and security of innocent people?

A photo-realistic painting of hundreds of actual rape victims' hospital ID bands would make a powerful statement about the numbers of girls and women who are victimized in such a way, but it would also be an irresponsible thing to put on display because it would make the victims' identities public. And the artist should know that. 

A performance art piece in which someone dressed as a police officer pretends to choke a black child to death in the middle of a town square, in plain view of passersby, while others dressed as police stand with their backs turned, would make a powerful statement about the de-facto police state that exists in many parts of this country. But it would also put everyone who's participating at risk from people who don't know it's a performance art piece, and might step in to try and assist the "victim". In this age of cell phones everywhere, it would also likely become an internet sensation of false reporting by well-meaning people who'd post their images and videos online with statements about ongoing police brutality, which in turn would foment more anger and hostility toward police in general. And the artist should know that.  

My point is this: art is not "being held hostage" in this case. This is a case about a breathtaking lack of judgment on the part of Sony execs who greenlit this project without a thought about the entirely predictable fallout. It would've been a simple matter to tell Rogen and Franco their script could only be produced if the "dear leader" character were given a different name and and were put in charge of a fictional regime in a fictional country.

Before anyone cries, "CENSORSHIP!" stop and think it through. Would the substance of the film be altered to any significant degree? Would the jokes still work? Would the central message still be there for any who cared to hear it?

Now ask yourself: if that were the film Sony made, would thousands of innocent Sony employees still have their social security numbers and medical records leaked to the public? Would Sony's servers still be wiped? Would we be hearing threats of terrorist acts against innocent moviegoers? I think not.

This is the juncture at which the Stand On Principle types usually chime in to say that forcing artists to consider the possible threats of hackers and terrorists when art is created effectively stifles the statements those artists want to make. But it doesn't, as centuries of Roman A Clef novels have proven over and again: you can make your point and get your statement across without putting any innocents in harm's way.

If you feel so strongly about whatever it is you want to say as an artist that you're willing to be martyred for it, by all means go right ahead. If your statement puts others in harm's way however, you better think pretty damned long and hard before making it. Who are you to decide for everyone else that your precious artistic integrity is worth the potential harm to others?

If there's a way to make that same statement without bringing harm to other people and you still choose the route that makes sacrificial lambs of others---people you don't even know---, I don't care if you're an artist or not, and I don't care how important your statement may be: in my opinion, you're just being selfish and irresponsible, and any harm that comes to others as a result of reactions to your art is your fault.