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We Need An Artist’s Message

As artists, what we say matters. So we’d better have a message that’s meaningful enough to speak up for.

This past weekend I went to a play in a reputable urban theater. The local paper had called it “provocative”—supposedly a story about technology and ethics and our humanity. Generally, I don’t like technology-themed plays: they are hard to stage, and worse yet, often fall prey to Orwellian “1984” clichés of individuals ruled by mechanistic and all-controlling governances hidden somewhere in the ethers of circuit-land. (And this play had a mouthful of that sinister theme for sure.)

But I wanted to see more theater this year, so based on the review, I went anyway. Big mistake.

The play was a mess. It was well-acted, well-produced, and well-directed, but the theme was so low and base that I literally left the theater praying that the playwright would grow a soul.

First, I have to admit that I am worn out by authors and writers of all kinds who use abuse, assault, terror and the degradation of children as a device for getting their readers’ and viewers’ attention. There is a great and mighty gulf between the likes of a film like Spotlight—which outs the preying of priests on young children, and has a message of incredulousness that those who knew were complicit and let it keep happening—and writers who use abuse as an attention-grabber. There are worthy forays into darkness for us as artists. But vague and wishy-washy messages with no particular value offered except the titillation of degradation and awfulness—like this playwright’s work—don’t deserve, in my opinion, to be patronized. It’s sensationalism at the expense of our hearts.

The playwright’s only nod to a message was a weak-willed toss of the ball to her barely-there theme of “catharsis”—with the scrambling-for-it-in-the-dirt idea that maybe virtual terror and humiliation is somehow less harmful because it’s “pretend.” But don’t we already know enough as a society to call out addiction as addictive? Feed an addictive habit of demeaning, debasing and abusing others and we’ve got trouble. We already know that. So this writer wasn’t doing anything “provocative:” she was just using sensationalism to get attention for her play. And it was base and low, and in the end, meaningless.

It takes a long time for us as artists to get the kind of attention-getting megaphone that a large stage in a major city represents. And, beyond that, it has taken women years and years to be recognized at all at the table of playwriting. To witness such a waste of the megaphone from which she could have spoken from just turned my stomach.

Sometimes life is dark, yes, and to out the overlooked awfulness, it must be pointed out and rectified. It’s called social justice, and it’s important in art. But it matters what we say as artists and how we say it. It matters that what we say has meaning, and value—that it teaches and shows and reveals something worth revealing. It has to be more than just “provoking” people to watch what’s awful. That kind of provocation is not meaningful. It’s just hype.

I’m reminded of a great theme from the Big Book of A.A. Somewhere around pages 68-70 the author says that we have to be more than just technically honest. We also have to give up being selfish, too. That’s the barometer: Am I being honest? And then, Am I being selfish? If we can’t answer both of those question with a resounding “No!” then we have no business playing with the Pandora’s box of human suffering and horror just for the sake of it.

If all we do as artists is ask people to stare at life’s terrors, we have entirely missed the point. We cannot—repeat, cannot—do that as artists and hope to thrive. We will poison everyone around us and our work will burn out in a rapid-fire flame of vaporousness, leaving us alone with only our singed soul.

As human beings we suffer, and we heal. We grow, and hopefully, we learn to forgive and live again. We learn to lift ourselves up and go where the love is. And there’s no other way to be part of the soul-lifting power of art than to be a part of that lifting.

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