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.

Why The Arts Are Necessary (Part 2)

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In my last post I talked about the arts and their presence in our society from the earliest dates in human history (which could suggest their importance in our development as a species and society as whole). Of course there are those who might argue that the world today is different, that with the economy in the state that it is the arts are nice enough but no one really needs them. However numerous studies have shown value in arts education and extracurricular activities. Involvement in the arts has been associated with gains in math, reading, cognitive abilities, critical thinking and verbal skills (Smith). A report on visual arts in 2005 by the Rand Corporation argues artistic stimulation “can connect people more deeply to the world and open them to new ways of seeing,” thus laying the foundation for social bonds and community cohesion (Ibid). Music education has been continually shown to provide benefits for brain activity, language development, increased IQ and improved test scores (Brown). Performing arts extracurricular activities and classes require students to make time commitments in regards to performance and practicing (Lawhorn). Relief from stress, self-confidence, companionship, and creativity are other benefits gained from the arts and other extracurriculars (BenefitOf). As a result of this information, there are many across the country who are attempting to take steps to revive arts education in the schools (Smith).
Perhaps there are still those that in spite of hearing these gains still wouldn’t want their children to be in the arts. They feel their children should study practical subjects and go into a practical (and preferably high paying) career such as business or law. However, these jobs require creativity and could benefit from some artistic experience. A lawyer, for instance, might benefit from performance experience. Advertising and marketing utilize art and music in campaigns for a product. A diplomat who knows how to dance will probably have an easier time at inaugural balls and state dinners then one who does not. Any business leader benefits from storytelling abilities to construct a narrative of their company to entice customers and inspire workers and stockholders. In her book “You Majored in What” Katherine Brooks ED.D. shows how many people go on to careers that don’t correspond with their major in college. In a graph comparing the actual careers of graduates with their majors in college an Art Major became a Special Prosecutor for the District Attorney’s office and a Dramatic Arts Major became a member of Public Relations staff for the Republican National Committee (Brooks, 4). In both of these cases studying the arts did not hinder these individuals from pursuing other careers and if anything they may have benefitted from their experiences.
As an Artist I’m inspired by our ancient ancestors who painted on cave walls, carved instruments and told stories. I’m also inspired by those who continue to support the arts in the schools and communities across this nation in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. I’m writing this today because I believe in the arts and what they can do. My music and my writing could take me a long way or they could just be a deeply loved hobby (though I hope that will not necessarily be the case). However no matter what happens, I stand by my love for the arts and my belief in their value. I only hope that others will come to see it too.

Works Cited and Bibliography

“Benefits of Extracurricular Activities.” BenefitOf. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Mar. 2014. .

Brown, Laura L. “The Benefits of Music Education.” PBS Parents. PBS, n.d. Web. 05 Mar. 2014.

Brooks, Katharine. “Chapter 1.” You Majored in What?: Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career. New York, NY: Viking, 2009. 4. Print.

Lawhorn, Bill. “Extracurricular Activities.” N.p., Winter 2008-9. Web. .

Smith, Fran. “Why Arts Education Is Crucial, and Who’s Doing It Best.” Edutopia. N.p., 28 Jan. 2009. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

Why the Arts are Necessary (Part 1)

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     Like many aspiring artists I have a day job.  I work at a Whole Foods.  If you are familiar with Whole Foods you might be aware of Nickels for Nonprofits. It’s a program where people who bring in reusable bags get five cents off their purchase for every bag used. They can either keep it or donate to a charitable cause. Overall, its a great program but there is one thing that makes me cringe. Whenever there is an arts based non-profit paired up with a non-arts non-profit I know from day one the non-profit not based in the arts will (and usually does) get more donations.

      There is a pervasive attitude within our culture that the arts are fluff that many of us are probably familiar with. Maybe some of you that are reading even agree with it. In some ways it is understandable. The lagging economy of the past few years has given many people pause when choosing a major or career. Liberal Arts education has come under fire from critics who claim that the arts and humanities are not as financially solvent as majors in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (Groux). Many of us have heard the joke about liberal arts students with the punch line “Do you want fries with that?” Writer David Wong of Cracked.com got in trouble with some of his readers in the comments section in one of his landmark articles “The Six Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person” for (among other statements) daring to suggest that people “need” entertainment.

     In spite of the fact that I may be a walking stereotype (the music business student that works in retail while trying to sing, write and get herself off the ground) I still believe deeply in the power of the arts. Moreover I fully believe that our ability to create and appreciate art is one of the main things that makes us human.

     Let us go back to the idea that got David Wong in trouble with his readers, that people need entertainment. It’s true that entertainment isn’t featured on the original version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In fact cognitive needs (knowledge, meaning, etc.), aesthetic needs (appreciation and search for beauty, balance and form), and transcendence (helping others achieve self-actualization) were not added until the 1970s (McLeod). Under that logic (as well as the logic of those who criticize liberal arts programs) our ancient ancestors in the Paleolithic era would have had no time or need for arts what with the daily business of trying to survive. However, archeological findings tell a very different story.  The earliest example of prehistoric art is the Bhimbetka Petroglyphs found in the auditorium cave of central India that date to 290,000 BCE (www.visual-arts-cork.com). This is at least 260,000 years older than the famous cave paintings of Chauvet and Lascaux in France.  Moreover, while art historians and paleoarcheologists believed that Homo Erectus and Neanderthals did not create art, this view is changing due in part to microanalysis of the second oldest example of prehistoric art the Venus of Behekrat Ram and conclusive dating of the Cupules (a form of rock art) at Bhimbetkta (Ibid). However the artistic endeavors of early humans do not end with rocks and paintings. The oldest possible remains of a musical instrument—a recorder like object created from the thigh bone of bear—may have been made around 50,000 BCE by Neanderthals living in what is now modern day Slovenia (Bonds, 3-4). The earliest indisputable instrument—a flute made from the bones of a vulture–dates to 34,000 BCE (Bonds, 3).  The human voice of course is as old as our species (Ibid). 

     One can imagine that with music and song came dance. Sadly we have very little ways of knowing the dances of prehistoric humans though we can possibly draw ideas from Native American and African tribal dances that have been passed down from generation to generation. However we do have evidence from the paintings and sculptures of the ancient Egyptians that dance played a large role in the lives of the people (Ancient Egyptian Dance). The Greeks also enjoyed dance and considered it, along with music, to be a civilizing activity (Ancient Greek Dance). In fact the Greeks distinguished between different types of dance and skilled dancers were highly prized (Ibid). We also have the Greeks to thank for theatrical tradition. Ancient Greek Theatre grew out of religious rituals dating back to 1200 BCE (Tripod). The first recorded work we know of dates from about 625 BCE when Arion of Corinth produced the Dithyrambic Choruses (reed.edu). From 600 BCE onward theatre continued to develop and reached its height during the golden age of Athens from 500-400 BCE with the plays of Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes (Bonds, 5). Theatre of course is an outgrowth of the ancient art of storytelling. While it is impossible to say when the first story was told, the first written story “The Epic of Gilgamesh” dates back to at least 2000 BCE and predates The Iliad and The Bible (Sparknotes) (Mitchell, 1).  

     All of this evidence alone seems to show that the arts were an important part of the lives of ancient humans. Perhaps contrary to what the naysayers of liberal arts programs believe, the arts and the desire to create are a key part of our survival of a species. Whether we are consuming or creating art, the ubiquity of the arts throughout our history from the earliest times seems to suggest that we do need art in our lives to express our emotions, socialize with our fellow man, and understand the world around us.

Bibliography and Works Cited

“Ancient Art (2,500,000 BCE – 400 CE).” Ancient Art: History, Characteristics. Visual-Arts-Cork, n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

“Ancient Egyptian Dance.” Ancient-Egypt-Online. Attic Designs, 2008. Web. 4 Mar. 2014.

“Ancient Greek Dance.” Ancient Greek Dance. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

“THE ANCIENT GREEK THEATRE PAGE.” THE ANCIENT GREEK DRAMA & THEATRE HISTORY PAGE. Tripod, 20 May 2004. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

Bonds, Mark E. A History of Music In Western Culture. 3rd ed. Vol. Combined. Upper Saddle River, London, Singapore, Toronto, Tokyo, Sydney, Hong Kong, Mexico City: Prentice Hall, 2010. 3-5. Print.

“The Epic of Gilgamesh: Context.” SparkNotes. SparkNotes, n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

“Greek Theater.” Greek Theater. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

Groux, Catherine. “The Debate on a Liberal Arts Education Continues.” U.S. News University Directory. U.S. News University, 7 Nov. 2011. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

“History of Ancient Theatre.” History of Ancient Theatre. Tupelo Community Theatre, n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

 “History Of Storytelling – How Did Storytelling Begin?” History Of Storytelling – How Did Storytelling Begin? Storytelling Day, n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

“The History Of Storytelling.” Essortment. Demand Media, 2011. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

 Mitchell, Stephen. “Gilgamesh: A New English Version.” New York, NY. Free Press, 2004.

 McLeod, Saul. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” Simply Psychology. N.p., 2007. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

 Tabarrok, Alex. “The Chronicle Review.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. N.p., 4 Mar. 2012. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

 Wong, David. “6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person.” Cracked.com. N.p., 17 Dec. 2012. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.