art & social practice

archpaladin  asked:

I asked @evilelitist2 this question, and we both wondered what your thoughts were: How does one deal with the "practice what you preach" dilemma I seem to run into regarding socially responsible media consumption, the idea that if you want to talk about sexism or racism or any other -ism on the internet, consuming media that contains those elements is hypocritical and undermines your own personal integrity and the argument you're attempting to make?

Oh no no no no no no.

Much disagree.

That’s actually one of those ideas that deeply offends me on multiple levels: as a fan, as an activist, as a critic, and as an artist.

I have a LOT of problems with this idea, so I will attempt to organize them in a hopefully coherent manner.

From a fan perspective:

If you attempt this you will fail, and also you will be sad.

There is no such thing as a perfectly inoffensive piece of media (okay, maybe Undertale, but you can’t spend your life playing Undertale and doing nothing else). These ideas are too prevalent in our society for it to be possible to ignore anything that even passively contains them. You will not be “allowed” to consume any art at all, and you will end up a very bored human.

You will miss out on otherwise good pieces of art.

I love 1940s Hollywood and Eminem. Both contain ideas that I am more than a little ideologically opposed to, yet I firmly believe my life would be less happy and less rich if I had failed to experience either. Just because something, say, supports antiquated gender roles doesn’t mean that it is without any value. Anything involving Katharine Hepburn has inherent value.

From an activist perspective:

You will not understand the thing you are fighting.

If I purposefully avoid sexist media, how will I be able to speak with any authority on the subject? How will I know what specific tropes or stereotypes are the biggest problem? How will I even know what I’m asking creators to change? You can’t beat something you don’t understand.

How can you know for sure that something is problematic until you experience it?

This reduces the “socially responsible media consumer” to making all their decisions based on rumor, second-hand information, and the general consensus of people who have watched it (also, those people had to watch it to tell you that information, so are they hypocrites now?).

Let’s talk about The Social Network.

I knew someone in college who refused to watch this film because she had determined, on the basis of the trailer, that it was sexist. She cited the fact that there were scantily-clad women doing drugs in some shots and not much else. However, I suspect the fact that the main character is sexist was a contributing factor. (I think the bit where he spews sexist shit about his ex and then makes a program based on rating the women on campus for their attractiveness was in the trailer.) Except, I’ve seen The Social Network, and the entire film is about critiquing that guy’s worldview. Those scenes of scantily-clad women doing drugs etc. exist to demonstrate that this is the only way these men know how to interact with women. The movie opens and closes with a very smart women telling Mark that he needs to learn how to interact with humans in general and women in specific. The film goes out of its way to make sure we understand how messed up this is. Overall, I would call it a feminist film.

The one scene I did find sexist (as well as unnecessary) was this one:

Still, I highly recommend that everyone see this film. It’s a great primer on the MRA and Nice Guy mindset. And also it’s just a really good movie.

To sum up: first impressions can be wrong, and things are always more complicated than simply being  sexist or not sexist. I personally refuse to give over control of what I watch and what I think about it to people who aren’t me.

This mindset will lead people to reject social justice criticism, and do it aggressively.

Think about it. If I’m either a sexist or a hypocrite for liking (or even watching) something with any sexist ideas, than I am now emotionally invested in loudly denying that there are any problems with a piece of media (or a media genre) at all. And then you get what is basically media nationalism.

Sound familiar? It should. This is the mindset that Gamergaters and the Anita Sarkeesian haters have. If we’re saying video games have some sexist ideas, then we are saying that they, personally, are sexist, and that they are not allowed to play video games anymore. This is one of the ideas I’ve been trying to fight.

How can we possibly convince anyone to think critically about media if doing so means they have to give up the things they love or feel guilty for loving them?

That’s not what we were “preaching” to begin with.

The purpose of social justice criticism is not to tell people not to consume art; it’s to ask people to think about art and about the ideas it contains. We’re asking the audience to think critically about what they’re watching (reading, playing) and the creators to think critically about what they’re producing. That’s it. So, as long as we’re all doing the first thing, and those of us who are artists are doing the second thing, we are in fact practicing what we preach.

For the record: I’m not opposed to things like boycotting the Ghost in the Shell movie, but that’s not actually about the content of the art so much as the casting practices of Hollywood. It’s a tactic that attempts to give Hollywood a monetary incentive to actually cast some fucking Asian actors in movies what the hell? 

Also, it’s important to remember that choosing to see the movie is not a moral transgression or a sin against anybody.

From a critical perspective:

You are not required to be pure to criticize a piece of media, that’s just weird.

I know most of the world has internalized the whole “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” thing, but criticizing media isn’t really equivalent to stoning someone to death, and also I’m not a Christian so bite me. To be a critic you are not required to be a saint. To be a critic you are required to be good at analyzing media. That’s it.

How can you criticize something you haven’t experienced?

The very first thing anyone arguing with you is going to say is “what the hell do you know?” and they will be right.

Reading, watching, or playing something does not mean you agree with it.

I’ve read Ender’s Game. @evilelitest2 has attempted to read Atlas Shrugged. Basically every film student in the universe has seen Birth of a Nation. Professional film critics watch as many movies as possible. You’re supposed to have perspective and understand the entire industry.

You are not a hypocrite for engaging with something you disagree with.

How else do you develop critical thinking skills? If you’re never exposed to ideas you disagree with, your ideas will be simplistic and you won’t be used to defending them.

From an artistic perspective:

We would be ignoring the entire history of art.

For most of human history people have been racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, etc. If we study art we will see these things. We can and should address them, but we can’t discount an entire piece of art based on the fact that it expresses these ideas. As artists, we need to learn from these things, and as art historians we need to learn about these things.

For example, I’ve heard people say that Birth of a Nation should not be taught in film classes. 

Now, aside from the fact that ignoring horrible aspects of history doesn’t make them go away, removing DW Griffith from a film curriculum would be like removing Shakespeare from an English curriculum. He invented a huge part of the language film uses to convey ideas. He was also a shitbag, and we should talk about that, but we also have to talk about the form and content of his art, because it’s part of understanding how film works.

Experiencing problematic media helps teach artists what NOT to do.

I often read badly written things on purpose, because it helps me clarify in my head what I don’t want to be. This can be quite easily applied to morally questionable things as well. We can tell young artists not to make sexist art, but how do they know what that means? They may just say, “well, I’M not sexist, so it’s not a problem.” But if we show them an example of how unthinkingly reproducing tropes or not thinking through situations can lead to unfortunate implications, they have a better chance of understanding us.

You will disincentivize artists from creating sexist/racist/homophobic characters.

If I decide to write a sexist POV character, even if the purpose of my book is to critique their worldview, I will risk people deciding my book is sexist and should be boycotted. This could be based on something as small as an out of context quote. Here, I’ll do it right now. This is a quote from The Social Network:

“Erica Albright’s a bitch. Do you think that’s because her family changed their name from Albrecht or do you think it’s because all B.U. Girls are bitches? For the record, she may look like a 34C but she’s getting all kinds of help from our friends at Victoria’s Secret. She’s a 34B, as in barely anything there. False advertising.”

See? This movie is totally sexist. Also it’s anti-German and hates Boston University. No one should watch this movie ever.

Now, people can and will do this no matter what, because not everyone realizes that the writer does not necessarily agree with their characters (argh), but if we start telling people that their moral fiber depends on preemptively writing off anything with the potential to be offensive, then this will happen more frequently and with the sort of people who might otherwise read my theoretical book and understand it, or even come out of it with a better understanding of why sexism is bad.

Art is not something you “consume” in the way you consume food.

Watching Birth of a Nation does not raise my moral cholesterol. Thinking of it like that reduces the piece of art to a one idea delivery service and you to an unthinking maw that accepts all ideas it’s fed. Art is complex and full of possible interpretations, and you have a brain.


How do you deal with problematic media? You watch/read/play it, and then you talk about it.

Note: if we’re purely talking from a capitalistic, “vote with your money” perspective, then avoiding (recent) media whose existence you find morally abhorrent is a valid tactic to try to change what art a corporation produces, but always remember that it’s just that: a tactic. It is not a moral imperative.

PS Sorry it took me so long to get to this one. It was such an interesting question and I had so much to say and my asks kept piling up with stupid MRA stuff that I thought I’d get that out of the way first. Also it took forever to articulate and organize my ideas.


Pia Camil
A Pot for Latch, 2016
Participatory installation at the New Museum

For A Pot for a Latch, Camil presents a participatory sculptural installation produced specifically commissioned for the Lobby Gallery of the New Museum. Inspired by the modular display systems typically used by vendors, Camil has constructed a succession of gridwall panels of her own design, complete with built-in hooks, shelves, and other fixtures for displaying items. Composed of grids, lines, and geometric shapes, the structures form a volumetric drawing within the space of the gallery, referencing cheap commercial constructions as well as the serial patterning of paintings and sculptures made by Minimalist artists such as Sol LeWitt and Agnes Martin.

The title of the exhibition refers to the potlatch, a ceremonial gift-giving festival practiced by the Native-American peoples of the Pacific Northwest coast, for whom it continues to be a system of wealth redistribution. Camil invites the public to participate in the ongoing creation of her piece on designated days, during which visitors are encouraged to exchange their own unique items for others in the installation. The composition on the gridwall panels is thereby in flux and is repeatedly altered throughout the course of the exhibition. With A Pot for a Latch, Camil transforms the gallery space into a shop of sorts, in which the monetary value of an object is supplanted by its personal history and significance.

Visitors are invited to exchange items for those in the installation during a series of six public events.


#Blackmendream (2014) is a social practice art film directed by Shikeith that utilizes social media to provide contemporary black men an outlet for open emotional expression often denied through racial, and black masculinity taboos. To participate viewers are encouraged to respond to the set of questions asked in the film that investigate the individual black male experience with emotionality using the hashtag #blackmendream.