First off, Happy 4th of July to all USA Duckers!
Recently I listened to Lindsey Ellis' excellently made video essay on so-called ‘woke Disney’: the company's attempt to remake or edit or outright hide past works because they are now judged to be problematic in some way or other, by the rule of thumb of current sensibilities/approaches/ideology.
This is not a singular event. School children are deprived of being exposed to such seminal works as To Kill a Mocking Bird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to mention just a couple; or if they are exposed, it's to altered versions that distort what is the original experience.
There are several justifications given to this: anything from ‘it’s sexist/racist/ableist/anti-LGBT/violent' to ‘it’s dangerous'.
At the same time in current creations, some books, or some events, or some truths about the past are attacked and forced to be glossed over or ‘cleaned up’ through art, portraying historical situations (not fantasy, mind you) as basically modern society with weird fashion sense: mixed race socializing without a hint of racial discrimination (unless it's done by the bad guy(s)), revolutionaries who had all the correct visions (not one of them was ever sexist or anti-gay while still being correctly anti-slavery or anti-dictatorship, or correctly anti-sexist and anti-royalist/ pro-democracy while still owning slaves) rather than just a few, women that are ‘strong female types’ and are celebrated/allowed to break from their gender role with impunity (or token grumbling), and so on.
In my opinion, doing this to history and to art of the past is just as offensive and just as harmful as whitewashing or blackface or (real) cultural appropriation.
There are many reasons for this:
First off, besides its frequent intent as a form of entertainment, art is always a product of its time. We would have no Guernica if Picasso wasn't exposed to the Nazis' bombing practice on a Basque town by the same name during the Spanish Civil War, nor its visceral screaming pain at the atrocities of war. At the same time, if Belle Epoque was not saturated with optimism due to prosperity from colonialism and the Industrial Revolution, we wouldn't have those amazingly beautiful Art Nouveau pieces that still capture the perfection of complex simplicity. Nor would we have powerful expressionist works like Munch's The Scream if the turn of the century wasn't fraught with intense contrasts of prosperity and poverty, of progressivism and regressivism, of socialism and totalitarianism, of science and superstition, of sanity and insanity.
By looking at the art of past eras we understand a lot about the people that came before us and their societies. Especially when those are the societies that gave birth to the one we're living in.
Second off, by understanding where we come from, we also can start to fathom the how we got here: Rights we enjoy today, States and Countries we enjoy today and culture we enjoy today didn't just pop into the world. They were and are the fruit and toil of generations upon generations of people consistently struggling towards a specific common goal. Erase that or blunt its impact, and these amazing people are also erased or their struggle's importance and power blunted.
By learning and experiencing these stakes that they faced through art, through the works documenting that journey in some form, we have a chance to actually value what we have and celebrate and remember the people that fought for it.
Even the works that choose to be blind to some aspects of that reality are important: there's no real, abject, Oliver Twist style poverty in sight in Austen's Pride and Prejudice and that is perfect- because it gives you the experience of how it was to be a noble at that time. You were blind to all the turmoil happening at the dark corners of your city, and didn't care to try and look. And that didn't make you a bad person- just a rich one belonging to a different caste.
And this teaches us now, that supposedly we know better, why castes are so toxic to social progress of any kind, and why violence is what they lead to, and why the lower castes can absolutely believe that in the upper tiers someone said “let them eat cake”. You know now, just as you know why the nobles were so taken aback when the pitchforks came for them.
And whatever we choose to keep or discard from the past, armed with these experiences, we won't be doing it with the frivolity of the heir that inherits what he/she has not worked for, and therefore doesn't value until it's all gone.
Third off, knowing where we came from, and where we stand right now, we can determine where we want to go. History has shown society unfortunately frequently oscillates between two extremes that however remain roughly the same over centuries and centuries- only rarely do we manage to break the cycle and move to another level, where we stay and repeat it again until the next time we communaly decide to move.
Depriving ourselves, and especially our children, from the past and the experiencing of this past through art is denying them part of their identity.
Knowing how sham trials were happening in the South, and what it costs to false-report a rape, is important. It shouldn't be banned. Knowing that there was a time people said the N word without it being considered a problem, and why it wasn't at the time, is important. It shouldn't be banned.
What should be done is to expose children in school to these pieces of art at the appropriate age, and with appropriate discussions, so they can understand, compare and contrast, and form opinions. It's warning them, shocking them, and providing them with the antibodies to fascism of all forms, to sexism of all forms, to intolerance that leads to fanatism of all sorts.
Banned art, especially banned old art, is shooting ourselves in the foot. Thankfully, there's Banned Books Week.
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Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, July 4, 2020
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