The answer is Education

Stefano Vivaldini
14th January 2021

Marco Zagni's article "Musical Censorship" aroused in me an endless series of questions and reflections on the theme of art. I really appreciated the article and I wanted to interpret the desire not to give answers as an invitation to reflect and try to create a discussion around this theme. The issue of censorship has to do with the role we give to art, its classification and the vision of society we would like to build. I will try below to outline all the ideas that have popped into my head, in these days of important events where the limit between what is permissible and what is not is being questioned.

An unnecessary premise

Is not art the freest of human expressions? Is it not that which is granted the licence to go beyond all limits? Whatever the answer to this question, the problem remains. For even if we were to assert forcefully that art must enjoy total freedom, we would still be left with the burden of deciding the boundaries of that freedom. So there is no way out, the debate is thousands of years old and perhaps without a way out, but we can already grasp one thing: the problem of delimiting art is not an artistic problem, but a problem that lies outside art.

At this point someone will say: "Here is the discovery of hot water", but I believe that having in mind that the problem lies outside art puts us in the right perspective to try to give some answers. To simplify this concept even further: the obscenity, vulgarity and immorality present in a work do not make it non-artistic, the problem lies when this work is presented in a given social context.

Art is not allowed...

Zagni's article refers in particular to a specific historical period and how movements were born that sought to stem the spread (in essence) of a certain type of language, and a certain type of words. In this way, however, artists are deprived of the possibility of consciously creating works that desecrate and create indignation and controversy. I don't think so, art is a lot of things, but it certainly takes away a big chunk of it.

Every censorship is justified for the sake of good and almost always the rhetoric is to protect "weaker" groups from messages that could be upsetting or diseductive ("Someone think of the children" cit.), to this I have two answers: the first is about personal experience. If I think back to my childhood and adolescence the most traumatic thing was not the films, the music, nor any kind of television programme, but the reality that was impersonated every evening at dinner through the unfailing television news. So what are we supposed to do? Hide the fact that the worst things happen out there until we are of age? Violence does not always need strong language to be conveyed, but strong language (not present in the polite studio of a television news programme) is more easily stigmatised and censored.

"When I think of my childhood, the most traumatic thing was not the films, the music, or any sort of television programme, but the reality that was impersonated every evening at dinner through the ever-present television news."

The second, rather than an answer, is another question: But can art really shape the minds of the most suggestible so much? As an artist I would almost hope so, but I'm afraid the answer is that it depends on many things. First of all, it depends on what kind of suggestibility we are talking about, it's one thing to follow a fashion and wear only fuchsia, it's another to have xenophobic ideas, and then it obviously depends on the subject, we are all suggestible in different fields and in different ways. But I think I can say that there are other, much stronger elements that determine a person's ethics, ideas and behaviour. So one possible answer is that, yes, art can mould the minds of young children, but if a person develops violent attitudes, perhaps it would be better to look at other aspects than the music they listen to.

A bit of current actuality

A few days ago the word censorship was trending on Twitter because the same platform (followed by others) decided to shut down outgoing US President Donal Trump. Obviously I'm not going to talk about this, but I'll take this pretext to note how the topic of when it is possible to censor, what censorship is and (particularly in this case) who has the power of censorship is current and constantly evolving.

And what about art? Well, apparently you can say anything, use the most violent, vulgar, misogynistic, racist language possible. So well we have succeeded, now we have total freedom and no one will censor us anymore? In short: NO. Although all kinds of language are basically cleared through customs, the artist today has to be extremely careful about his or her personal sphere, being unassailable is fundamental.

A new idea of justice: progress or hypocrisy?

I have a faint memory of an episode of Che tempo che fa many years ago, where Robert Plant, frontman of Led Zeppelin, was interviewed, in which he noted how the celebrity of musicians had changed dramatically: "in his heyday", artists were people shrouded in an aura of mystery that made them somehow more fascinating, now you pick up your mobile phone, look at instagram and you probably know what your favourite singer had for lunch.

All this entering into the lives of artists has made their personal sphere much more relevant, it has in fact made it part of the art itself. So we see super-famous actors being isolated because of allegations about their personal sphere, isn't that a way of censoring someone? And assuming the accusations are well-founded, should the work of an artist with despicable ideas and a shady personal history be thrown in the bin, or can we not separate the product from the man? The answer today seems to lean towards yes, artist and work are the same thing, if the artist is a despicable person so is his art. I do not want to argue with this, it is a vision of the present that is not easy to condemn or support outright, but it is very different when we talk about works of the past.

Some hero of morality must have discovered on Wikipedia that the most beloved artists of the past might not be the most fantastic and good people who ever lived, and so with a stroke of maximum hypocrisy here comes censorship in the name of a bigoted and ignorant respect that does not even bother to understand the cultural context in which that work was born. Without going into individual cases, why is this so hypocritical? Because the people who have given us splendid masterpieces, inventions and discoveries had ideas that were daughters of the time in which they lived. Yes, there was a time not so long ago when considering a black man inferior regardless was not strange nor considered wrong, but it could be anything, think of something you consider horrible and rest assured that going back in time you will find a time when it was normal. This does not mean that today everything should be permissible, but it does mean that we have to understand that the concept of good and evil is not absolute but is constantly evolving and we cannot apply our model of justice to a bygone era (the same applies to places with cultures different from our own).

Let us try to accept without hypocrisy that our well-being is also the result of wars, massacres and horrible things, and not only of a few enlightened minds with pure souls.

The answer is education

Finally, the answer, which should be the same as for an infinity of other problems, the answer in my opinion remains education alone. The young teenager who exposes himself to violence in all its forms should not be distracted from it (having an internet connection and a telephone already makes this impossible), but the doubts that arise within him should be clarified through education. Violence and pain exist and are inevitable, and it is good not to deceive anyone by pretending it is not so, but we can educate, we can show that there is also an alternative, that despite everything it is still worth fighting for a more inclusive and fairer society.

Art is not educational, the art that reaches most people only follows the logic of the market, and to say that a certain type of music is uneducational is to admit to being incapable educators, to not having a vision and not wanting to take on the burden of explaining the complexity of the world to those who cannot yet imagine that complexity.

With education, and here I mean more the notionistic kind, we would also learn to understand better that differences in views and culture exist and have existed throughout history and that our partial judgement based on our views is not always necessary.

And finally, let us educate ourselves about art, about artists, about their ideas and their aims, and once we have done this, let us leave it alone, let it be what it is, let it be an expression of cultural wealth or of a boorish market, whatever, but let us not allow anyone to deprive us of even a single thought or emotion in the name of a moral that tomorrow will be another.

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