cupidsbow (cupidsbow) wrote,

What do I mean by the "get out of ethics free card"?

In response to yesterday's post, angriest asked me: What do you mean by "get out of ethics free card"?

This is shorthand for a mindset I had as a young writer. It may be unique to me, but I developed it in response to what I was hearing in the academy back in the day (much of which has since been superseded by audience and cultural studies). It's linked to the way I conceptualised the role of the artist back then, and what that meant for me as a writer. I've since changed my mind about that, and have a new conception of art, which I explain below the cut.

As a teenager with a dream of being a writer (in the sense of a Great Writer or Artist), I was trying to find models to tell me how to go about being a writer. I ended up constructing an ideal writer, based on literary criticism, literary theory, and the novels/stories/poems/plays chosen for unit reading lists.

That ideal writer looked like an iceberg. What I mean is that they created at least one text, like Animal Farm or Frankenstein, that was acknowledged as a work of original genius. This work spoke in a meaningful way about issues of the day, and the story was skilfully wrought in a lonely act of creation. After we'd considered that text in class, we would jump to the next textual iceberg about the same theme or school of writing and look at it in the same way. We might consider what the texts had in common. We might even discuss how one text alluded to the other. But the second text would, like the first, be a work of original genius.

This conception of the artist as an iceberg was further supported by the philosophical bunfight which led to the highbrow/lowbrow distinction. Highbrow: art for art's sake; it doesn't matter if it finds an audience, as long as the artist has integrity and is true to the art. The artist doesn't need to think about the audience or the art's reception. In fact, art should be hard to understand! That's what makes art art. Lowbrow: it's popular, therefore intrinsically of lesser value; it's easy to access and superficial, and written for commercial reasons. The artist is more concerned with the audience than with creating art.

And finally there was the academy's answer to the question, "What is art?" which was, "Anything an artist says is art."

As a gormless, self-involved teenager, this appealed to me. I could be a lonely genius iceberg too! And I could say anything in my stories, because they were art, and I was writing them with integrity and without caring about the audience! As long as I was making art, I didn't have to worry about the ethics of what I wrote, because it was intrinsically valuable. Art for art's sake.

Of course, now that I'm slightly less gormless, I can see that this is wrong-headed on many fronts. I would go so far as to say that it's a completely useless and ridiculous conception of art and the role of the artist.

For a start, once you start to read up on the lives of the great writers, you find out that they were not lonely geniuses (not even the ones who were lonely and/or geniuses). They were members of The Inklings, or The Algonquin Round Table, or wrote long and involved correspondence with their contemporaries, or were famously known for being well read.

Further, the Great Writers did not just comment on or allude to contemporary issues, or the stories that had gone before. The Great Writers were influenced by earlier writers and the stories they told, and the Great Texts were built on older foundations. Plus, the Great Writers often quite directly spoke back to earlier texts. Sometimes those earlier texts were their own (see Pride and Prejudice and then Persuasion), sometimes they were like the shepherd and his love.

It does not end there, because those writers became acknowledged as Great in part because of the influence their stories had on the writers who followed. And in part because they influence the culture around them. And so the cycle of influence goes -- those authorial icebergs cannot exist without the deep ocean of culture they are floating and melting into. They could only be Great because their work was read, and there was a consensus of some kind that what they had to say was worthwhile and added something to the culture. So it was not enough for them to have written it, or for them to have been geniuses, or even for them to have been influenced by what had gone before. They had to become part of the long, slow-motion conversation that is art, and they had to add something which was useful (not necessarily positive stories, mind you -- cautionary tales can also be useful, so can tragedies, but so can comedies and romances).

And here's the thing about art as a cyclical conversation: the rules of ethics are different in a conversation than they are when you're (an iceberg) sitting in your own room, privately doodling around with words. In a conversation, you cannot say something offensive or contextually meaningless out of the blue, for seemingly no reason, and then say, "ART!!!!!" without coming across as an idiot. In other words, that "If you say it's art, then it's art" get-out-of-ethics-free card was a figment of my imagination, albeit a figment informed by a long and well-respected discourse.

I'm sure quite a few of my contemporaries grokked the cycle of influence and what it means for ethics and art at an earlier stage of their journey than I did, especially if they had the benefit of audience and cultural studies built into their units. For the record, Laura Mulvey was still new and hot back when I was starting on my journey, and I read her work out of interest and not because it was assigned.


To bring this back to my musings about Torchwood, RTD is playing the "art" card in interviews about Children of Earth. Which means he's claiming that the series has something to add to the conversational cycle of influence that art entails.

Now, putting aside notions of artistic value related to highbrow versus lowbrow (which has mostly been exploded by cultural studies in any case), this is my take on what Torchwood has been adding to the cultural conversation.

Series one and two are kind of spotty in terms of writing and acting, but they do something which is rare in both genre and mainstream television: they show a polyamorous character who is also coded as a hero, and a working gay relationship, also starring the hero. For me, the rarity of that element makes it genuinely interesting, and a useful addition to the conversation, no matter how clumsy that addition might sometimes be. These elements exist within a strand of the artistic conversation which has shown a lot of death, suffering and damnation for characters who do not conform to heterosexual norms. So many gay people die in art, so many have tragic endings, and so many 'adulterers' or other polyamorous people die under trains. This is not news to any of you, right? The condemnation of non-hetero sexuality makes up practically the entirety of that strand of the conversation. So Torchwood was giving us a different voice, and I found that valuable.

Series three, on the other hand, seems to be saying three main things: first, that gay and poly people are damned and that all those other strands of the artistic heteronormative conversation were right after all. Second, that killing children is hard and bad. Third, that humans suck, and there are no happy endings (except, occasionally, if you're straight), and our heroes deserve what they get for saving us.

And this is where I'm having problems with RTD's stance on art. Here's my thinking:

If this was just series three of an 'entertainment' with no pretensions to adding something to the artistic conversation, then I'd dislike it because of the way it inverted the gay themes of seasons one and two, but so what? That's nothing new. There's lots of shows that jump the shark, and I just stop watching. That's why I left SGA, in fact. I was sad about it, but it's not like I expected anything better.

If Children of Earth was a stand-alone story (rather than a third season which inverted the themes of what had been said in series one and two), I'd probably have liked it quite a lot. I still wouldn't have liked the death and tragedy for gay people, but there's enough other stuff in there (like strong female characters, and interesting politics), that overall, I think it would have got a pass from me. Science fiction tends to be so sexist that those elements would have said something useful to me, despite the cliched anti-gay themes.

If Children of Earth had said something new or useful about any of the three themes I identified above, I would also have passed it, and probably liked it, even if the same characters died and the same events happened (and the same enormous plotholes still existed). This is where the mileage of different readers is likely to vary. Gay tragedy, death of children, and nihilism and its relationship to heroism are actually three topics I have thought about quite a lot. They are pretty common themes in the larger conversation of art, and I've read and seen a hell of a lot of stories that deal with them. I have also experienced them (to wildly differing degrees) in real life. I will just say here, that watching a child die in the worst possible circumstances is not a mere fictional device for me. And all that said, coming out of Children of Earth, I had no more knowledge or understanding of these three themes than when I went in. Plus, I had been told, once again, that gay people deserve tragic endings.

So, in light of my reading of and reaction to Children of Earth, I am left with the uncomfortable suspicion that RTD is trying to pull the get-out-of-ethics-free card when he says, "ART!!!!!"

I dislike this very much. It is a cheat, it is disrespectful, and it has left me the poorer for taking part in his attempt at artistic conversation.
Tags: acafandom, discussion, torchwood
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