Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Art, morality, and censorship

This article, pointed out by my "Art and Morality" professor, gets at something (at least me) that has had me puzzled for awhile now. It was also brought to my attention on the first day of this class, when we listened to Eminem songs and discussed the intersection of art and morality (and what it means, and whether such an intersection exists at all): House Panel Debates Hip-Hop Lyrics

What caught my attention in this article was this defense:
But rapper and record producer Levell Crump, known as David Banner, was defiant as lawmakers pressed him on his use of offensive language. "I'm like Stephen King: horror music is what I do," he said in testimony laced with swear words. "Change the situation in my neighborhood and maybe I'll get better," he told one member of Congress.
Now, I think he''s making two different points there, but the first one made me pause. I had never thought of "horror music" as something that existed, much less as a description of a certain variety of hip-hop/rap. And it made me think, I read a lot of horror fiction. I'm getting into horror movies. I enjoy hyper-violence in graphic novels and film. And yet I get really uncomfortable if I have to listen to music like the kind of being discussed in that hearing, like the Eminem songs we listened to in class, like the radio shows my brother listened to, and therefore forced me to listen to on the drive to high school for two years.

There is something about violent/vulgar imagery and language in music that affects me different than the same sorts of things in prose, or even in cinema, and I'm curious why that is.

My first thought it that maybe it has something to do with catchiness; a good lyrical song will have you singing along with it or even singing it when a recording isn't on. You don't find people repeating the dialog--much less the actions--of a book or movie in quite the same way. So perhaps its the infectious quality of music, the way that it is so easy to take the narrative and make it yours. Perhaps there is a power in poetry and music that gets inside of us in a way that is more difficult for text or cinema to do.

It's also possible that I'm overthinking this, and that I just dislike this style of music. Depictions of rape in literature and film affect me just as viscerally as the songs...but for some reason, I think the songs feel more personally directed.

I started this post yesterday, and at the time I titled it "Art, morality, and censorship." I'm assuming that "censorship" was referring to the question of, are there things that we shouldn't allow anyone to read/see/hear? This is, of course, an enormous question that can be taken from any number of angles and have any number of answers. Our legal system, I believe, favors a negative answer, and I think that if you ask almost anyone, at least in this part of the world, the first reaction will be to say that no, we shouldn't censor (with a few exceptions like in the case of children, but that's one of those angles I mentioned).

It's interesting to think about why this should be, and it kind of came up (at least for me) in class yesterday, discussing Plato. One view, which is definitively NOT Plato's view (though my professor says came out of The Republic anyway), of the relationship between art and morality is that, as my prof put it, art exists in a protected realm, free from the limitations of moral judgment. I take it that this isn't to say that art doesn't have moral value, but that we can't hold that up as a reason to remove something from view.

But perhaps I am being too generous to the enemies of censorship. When I studied these passages of The Republic (367e-403c and 595a-608b) two years ago with this same professor, and we all cried out against the extreme censorship, he wanted to know why. If art can truly have as much of an impact on a person's virtue as Plato believes it can, then why shouldn't it be treated as a force to be reckoned with? Perhaps we are defensive of the freedom of art only because we see it as "just art." And to call it just art, to deny it its power, is rather...not condescending exactly, but it seems as if Plato respects art more, precisely because he recognizes its danger.

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