Charlie Hebdo and Freedom of Expression in Art

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It has been only two weeks since twelve people were killed at the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo by two gunmen. In the aftermath of the tragic events, there has been an outpouring of emotion throughout the world. Among these have been many peaceful protests in support of the magazine and the victims of the attacks. However other reactions have not been so sedate with anger being directed toward the magazine and its depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. With such strongly held views on both sides many questions about free speech have been raised. Most notably, when it comes to satire–whether in writing, art, or any other form–how far is too far? Does an artist’s right to freedom of expression trump the rights of those that might take offense?

In the United States the answer would seem to be a resounding and clear yes. After all Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press are featured in the First Amendment. In our history, revolution, protests and challenging the status quo have played a large role in shaping the country’s character. In turn the arts have been utilized to inspire and bring about change. In writing we have numerous authors including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Upton Sinclair, Jack Kerouac, Maya Angelou and many others whose voices and experiences changed the way we looked at the world and each other. In theatre we have Marc Blitzstein’s “The Cradle Will Rock” (which was famously temporarily shut down by the WPA to avoid government and union restrictions), Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” which features one of the most poignant commentaries and critiques of racism “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” and of course boundary pushing works such as “Hair” and “Rent.” American protest music has a long history from early colonial protest songs like “Revolutionary Tea” (which celebrates the Boston Tea Party) to the anthems of Pro-Union workers, to the music of the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements. Thus attempts at censorship can and have often been met with resistance from the courts and the general population.

However, as some have pointed out, things get a bit more complicated when we consider practices that we seem to hold in contrast with our ideals. In an article from The Huffington Post, writer Pia de Jong noted the muted response to the shooting in the United States. She believed the reason for this lies in the country’s multi-cultural roots stating, “Self-censorship and hypocrisy are the main instruments that keep the many groups away from each other’s throats.” She also noted that unlike the free for all of European Press, the media in the US is very much in line with political correctness (de Jong). This view was echoed by columnist David Brooks who wrote in an op-ed piece in The New York Times, “If [Charlie Hebdo] had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds. Student and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down.” The media’s coverage of the tragedy seems to confirm these points as many newspapers and all American news networks have chosen to censor or simply refuse to show the offending artwork (Bankoff).

Obviously what happened at Charlie Hebdo is a tragedy. No one deserves to die over a picture, or any other piece of art for that matter. Moreover, I appreciate the ability of satire to expose hypocrisy and injustice within society. However, as an artist I couldn’t see myself going out of the way to offend a group (or groups) of people the way Charlie Hebdo does. In the end there is probably no clear answer to that question “how far is too far?” Instead it is dependent on all of us to (as David Brooks so eloquently wrote) “…maintain that delicate balance between the standards of civility and respect while at the same time allowing room for those creative and challenging folks who are uninhibited by good manners and taste.”

Works Cited and Bibliography

Bankoff, Caroline. “Some Newspapers and All Major American News Networks Decide Against Showing Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad Cartoons.” Daily Intelligencer. NYMag, 07 Jan. 2015. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.
Brooks, David. “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 08 Jan. 2015. Web. 15 Jan. 2015.
“The Cradle Will Rock.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 31 Dec. 2014. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.
Jong, Pia De. “When Charlie Met Charlie.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 21 Jan. 2015. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.
Levs, Josh. “10 Killed, Churches Torched in Protests over Charlie Hebdo – CNN.com.” CNN. Cable News Network, 21 Jan. 2015. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.
Schofield, Hugh. “Massacre at French Magazine Office.” BBC News. BBC, 07 Jan. 2015. Web. 21 Jan. 2015.

The Ten Commandments of Audience Etiquette

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In my last post I talked about how to deal with uncooperative audiences as a performer. However since there are two sides to the equation (and turnabout is fair play) I wanted to discuss audience etiquette as well. I have seen some pretty bad behavior from certain audiences and audience members over the years. What makes it really frustrating is audience etiquette is not difficult. It is simply a matter of respecting the performance onstage as well as your fellow audience members. With that in mind (as well as help from emilypost.com) I have put together a list of Ten Commandments for Audience Members.

1) Thou Shalt Know Your Venue: Those of you that read the previous post will note that this is also the first piece of advice I gave to performers. However knowing the type of venue that you will be in and what type of performance you are attending is just as important for audience members since different venues permit or discourage different types of behavior. Obviously a theatre or classical concert will have very different expectations of behavior then a rock concert.

2) Thou Shalt Arrive Early: Everybody knows when you go to the movies you have to sit through several commercials and previews before you get see the film. Generally, this is not the case with concerts and other performance events. Arriving early will allow you to find your seats and do whatever else you need to do to get settled before the show begins. If you do arrive late, try to wait for a break in the performance to enter (a scene change or applause) and go to your seat as quickly and quietly as possible.

3) Thou Shalt Not Make Excessive Noise: As stated previously the type of venue you’re at might play a role in this. However the audience has come to hear a performance and not you. With that in mind it’s generally a good idea to keep talking to a minimum. You should also silence your cellphone and other noise making devices or at least put them on vibrate. Be mindful of other sounds too-slurping drinks, unwrapping candy/gum/cough drops, excessive coughing, rattling programs, humming/singing along, or rummaging through belongings can be annoying to other audience members and (if they are conscious of it) the performers (emilypost.com).

4) Thou Shalt Be Mindful of Seating and Posture: If you are in an auditorium seating is often arranged in such a way that a person in the seats behind can see between the two seats in front (emilypost.com). This can make it hard to see if someone is slumping, leaning forward, or resting their head on their partners shoulder (Ibid). If you are at an outdoor venue or a standing room only club try and make sure you are not blocking anyone’s view of the stage.

5) Thou Shalt Be Respectful of Photography and Videography Policies: In the age of selfies and social media we might be used to photographing and documenting every event we go to. However using flash photography or taking videos can be distracting (and even dangerous) for performers and can disturb other audience members. For this reason it is generally preferred one not photograph or videotape a performance. If photography/videotaping is allowed don’t use flash photography and make sure you are not blocking or disturbing other audience members. However, even if cameras are allowed I think it should be noted that you will probably have a far richer experience if you are a full participant in the moment rather then an observer behind a device.

6) Thou Shalt Be Mindful of Your Children or Pets (if allowed): First of all make sure any show you are taking your child to is age appropriate for them. If possible talk to them about audience etiquette ahead of time. When you are at the venue keep an eye on your children at all times. If your child is crying or creating a disturbance take them to the lobby or another area where they will not disturb other audience members (my blood still boils at the memory of one concert I went to where an audience member allowed her baby to wail through a majority of the show instead of taking the child to the lobby). If you are at a venue where pets are allowed keep them on a leash, take them somewhere else if they’re creating a disturbance and pick up any droppings.

7) Thou Shalt Talk to Venue Staff About Unsavory Characters: If there is another member of the audience that is making noise a quick shush might be fine. However, if the person continues throughout the performance your shushing will only add to the disturbance. In that case try to find an usher, security officer or other official who will be able to deal with the offender. On a more serious note, if you feel that you or any other audience member is being threatened, harassed or is any in danger let venue security know as soon as possible and try to get to a safe place.

8) Thou Shalt Not Leave Before the Fat Lady Sings (or if you must Thou Shalt Do So Unobtrusively): Leaving a performance early is incredibly rude to the performers. Of course emergencies happen so if you absolutely must leave (hint: trying to beat the crowd to the parking lot is not an acceptable excuse) try to wait for a break (set change, applause, etc.) and exit as quickly and quietly as you can.

9) Thou Shalt Clean Up After Thyself: Dispose of any trash in a trash can and try to wipe up any spills or pick up any dropped food (emilypost.com). If there was a spill try to let someone from the venue know-this is not only a courtesy to them but to the next person who has your seat (Ibid). Don’t be one of those people that leaves your trash behind because “the janitors will get that.” The cleaning staff has enough to do and they don’t need inconsiderate people making their jobs more difficult.

10) Thou Shalt Have Fun: There is nothing worse for a performer then having an unappreciative audience. Conversely, there is nothing better then a performance in front of an attentive and engaged audience- where they laugh at all the jokes, sway to the music, and give you a standing ovation at the end of the night. Ultimately whether it’s a concert, ballet, or a comedy show people go to enjoy a pleasurable experience. The relationship between a performer and their audience is a symbiotic one; if you respect and appreciate the artist(s) they will put on a show you won’t forget.