“But you’re stifling their artistic freedom!!”: on media criticism, public demand and voicing your wishes and concerns to TPTB.
Re: “Stop trying to make Destiel happen!! Stop bothering TPTB about it! Stop rubbing it into everyone’s face!”
Okay, so as you guys probably know, I write stuff about pro-canon shipping and adressing TPTB about the possibility of including more LGBT characters/same-sex couples/making Destiel canon and all that jazz. As some of you may also know, I’m also an art/design student. I’m in my 5th year right now, so I do have a little experience under my belt, definitely enough to understand the basics of how the whole artist<->client relationship works. On my dash, I regularly run into arguments against media criticism/pro-canon shpping/etc that go somewhere along the lines of “But you can’t tell them what to do/ask for things/expect things from TPTB, you’re compromising their artistic freedom!!”. There seems to be this general opinion that aritstic freedom is like a 1500 BC Shang dynasty vase that you shouldn’t walk by too loudly lest it’ll topple over, let along touch it with a single finger. That, honestly, makes me laugh sometimes, because if that was how things really worked at all times, boy would my professional life be easy and highly enjoyable all the way through. Simultaneously, it can make me pretty annoyed when people demonstrate that attitude in connection with constructive criticism that fandom sometimes tries to provide, and things like asking for representation of different groups in the media.
I’m just gonna come out and say it: this isn’t a good understanding of artistic freedom. It’s pretty wrong from the perspective of most jobs in the art/entertainment industry. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how the relationship between an artist and a client/society and the media works. I see that it often comes from an internal reflex of trying not to offend/not to be disrespectful/etc, and that’s all well and good, but that’s still not how things really work when you’re an artist of some sort. I’m gonna try to explain the whole “artistic freedom” thing from the perspective of an artist<->client relationship and the creative line of work, as best as I can, using some of the stuff I’ve learned during my training. But we’re not just gonna go straight to the relationship between TPTB and viewers, because it’s less direct and more complex. Let’s start with a simplified model of what a direct relationship between an artist and a client looks like, and where artistic freedom comes into it.
Say I’m an interior designer. A client comes to me and says:
”I’d like you to design a room in my house. It’s a room where I like to relax after work. I’d like everything to be in light and pastel colours, I want it to be very soothing and cozy, and there needs to be a sofa and a big TV.”
So I take on the job, we go to his house, he shows me the room and I get to work. (This is the part where I’m actually supposed to render the whole thing in 3Dmax/ArchiCAD/etc and OK everything with him and then have him visit the place a bunch of times while the work is being done, in case anyone’s interested in how these things actually go, but we’re gonna omit all that for the sake of a simplified explanation).
Here’s where my artistic freedom lies in this situation: working out the particulars within the boundaries that the client’s given me. Dividing the room into zones, arranging the furniture, thinking of ways to make it as liveable and good-looking as I can. Picking materials and shades. Maybe I’ll have some stucco work done along the edge of the ceiling. Maybe I’ll add a fish tank. Maybe I’ll paint a mural on one of the walls. I get to use my knowledge and artistic vision to make the client’s wish come true in the most beautiful, comfortable, aesthetically pleasing way. It IS true that cluents are often unsure of/straight up don’t know what they want when it comes to specifics and execution, which is why they hire designers. But they still have likes and dislikes and a feeling of the kind of place they’ d like to live in. There will be things that can make them uncomfortable and that they wouldn’t want in their house. What I should aim for, is to make them happy and comfortable and to make sure my work affects their life positively, because the physical environment we’re in affects us a great deal. Of course I’d also like to realise my own artistic vision and my potential in that sense and make everything look professional and aesthetically pleasing to my picky, trained eye. But I’m designing a place this person is gonna live in, and they’re paying me for it, so their well-being should be my first priority.
Here’s how artistic freedom does not work in this situation: the client moves back into the house when the work is done and walks into the room only to find orange walls, indigo carpeting, a mural of an apocalyptic scene on the ceiling, edgy futuristic furniture inspired by sci-fi movies of the 90s and a giant fish tank with mini sharks. Also there’s a counter & bar stools intstead of that sofa they asked for. I pirhouette from behind a corner in a silver jumpsuit, announcing “I know you asked for pastels, but I needed my artistic freeedoooom~” in my divine singing voice. The client starts screaming and then faints. The result of this situation is a very angry and disappointed client and, quite possibly, me not expecting to be paid in full (although I’m not sure how this last part works in different coultries etc, it really depends).
Does this mean I’m generally a bad designer/that I have no designing talent? No, just thinking about it right now, DAMN, that room could look SO COOL like that! But does it mean I did a bad job? YES, because I failed at the primary objective and couldn’t work with the given parameters. Does it mean that I’m a crappy professional? YES, yes it does. That room could be looking nothing short of exquisite from a design standpoint, hell, it could be so cool-looking that it would get featured in design magazines and other designers would look at the photos and go “Whoah man, great job!”, and people who wouldn’t know how I screwed my client over, which is exactly what I did, would think “damn, (s)he’s such a good designer!”. But that wouldn’t matter in terms of my professionalism, and my treatment of the client, and the fact that the room may or may not have been the most stress-inducing environment I’d have ever created, and that the person who trusted me with making them feel comfortable and cozy will have to come home from their already stressful job and try to relax with burning bulidings and screaming people above their head. I’m not kidding when I say that it would very seriously affect their psychological state overtime, and not in a good way. No matter how cool my artistic vision was, I did really terrible in my professional line of work, and I also caused indirect (or direct? Apocalypse on your ceiling, dude) damage to someone’s psyche.
There COULD be a situation where I’d get to, largely, do anything I want and use my artistic freedom like it’s nobody’s business. That situation would involve the client saying “Just do anything you want with it, man! I love your style, I’m sure it’ll be badass. Total freedom for you.” (This does actually happen sometimes and it’s every designer’s dream come true). But that still wouldn’t cancel out the notion that I should understand very clearly that I need to produce a liveable environment for them where they’d enjoy being every day, meaning that I still can’t turn the whole room they’re intending to sleep in into an office golf course. I should still remember my primary objective.
Another situation where I could (and do) have full artistic freedom is when I just go and draw or paint or design something without anyone commissioning me to do it, and then I try to sell the finished product. This is another way things work in the artistic world, and a lot of people seem to think that this is the model of the relationship between TPTB and the viewers. In reality, this is a very poor comparison:
- When a client sees a painting and buys it from me, they’re seeing the entirety of what they’re getting from the start. I couldn’t possibly be baiting them anything or screwing them over subversively and if there’s something they don’t like about it, they can just not buy it to begin with, walk away and I get zilch. Which is really not exactly the case with, say, movies and series.
- The effects of a painting are incomparable to the effects of the content on a whole TV channel, or even the content within 1 tv series. No matter how famous a single painting is, it will never project ideas into your brain as effectively as images in advertising, and if it DOES (i e if someone paints a woman with a waist so small her intestines wouldn’t fit inside and boobs like balloons), it’s because it goes in line with that advertising media subculture (make money off fitness/diets -> tell people they should lose weight -> thin becomes the ideal -> artist paints anatomically impossible ideal = advertising for weight loss, result of same bullshit being rubbed into their brain, done like that because it sells), meaning that you’re just getting the same thing projected through another person’s work and the media is still the main perpetrator here.
- When I paint something to sell it to 1 person, I account for the audience of a couple of people, okay, a hundred in a dreamy scenario. Even if I have it in an exhibition, it most likely won’t be seen by millions all over the globe. That doesn’t justify everything I could possibly paint there, but it gives me a different level of responsibility from someone who’s the head of a movie franchise, and if would be unbeievably irresponsible of them to think that they’re in the same situation as me. With great power comes great responsibility. TPTB totally have great power.
Now, imagine the media sphere is that room. We’re all inside it. We consume hours and hours of media every day. People who are responsible for the content in that media are the designers, and we’re the client. We either literally give our money in exchange for the content we consume (go see a movie, buy a dvd, etc), or indirectly fund it (advertising, etc - ratings), or both. Either way, the existence of the media is dependant on the fact that we consume it. We’re an integral part of the relationship. The media are responsible to us the same way I’m responsible to my client when I’m designing something for them. Media content we’re surrounded by affects us a great deal, just like an interior of a room affects people who live there, except it’s a much stronger, much more direct influence, because the media can pretty much directly project ideas into our heads. We internalize what we see, we’re given ideas of social norms, acceptable behaviour, life goals, ideals of beauty all through the prism of the media. This complicates that artist<->client relationship and puts tremendous responsibility on the people who produce media content, and that responsibility is divided, based on the size of the audience of each segment of the media sphere. What does all this mean?
- It means that people who produce media content aren’t independent artists in free flight who can just do whatever on Earth they want. They’re responsible to us as their client. TPTB don’t work in a vacuum. They have parameters they should be aiming to work within/match.
- It means that people who produce media content CAN and DO screw us over with their work, and it’s not just a matter of whether you liked or didn’t like something you watched, it’s a matter of the media being responsible to you for the ideas they put in people’s heads, which directly and indirectly affects your life in a thousand ways, every day.
- It means that people have every right to voice their concerns and constructively criticize any type of media content if they feel that they’re being screwed over.
- It means that we can and should expect high quality of work, legitimate concern over the ideas the media project on their part, not just on our part, and that we have every right to raise the question of every kind of representation you can think of, and EXPECT it, because it IS the media’s responsibility to try their best and include it, because it directly affects people’s lives and well-being, the these people are part of the clientelle too, they have every right to expect good treatment and their share of the pie.
- And, finally, it means that YES, we all have every write to ask, tweet, write a letter, make our voice heard when we’re concerned about the issues above or when we feel screwed over because everyone’s eating their pie and we’re not. You have every right to do this, this is NORMAL, it should be EXPECTED and it should be ACCOUNTED FOR. TPTB should be well aware of all this stuff, if someone really seriously isn’t, it means they’re a crappy professional (alternatively, a possibly crappy person for choosing to ignore it).
Following professional ethics in this situation on the viewers’ part comes down to pretty much doing what you’d do with any kind of formal relationship, i e: constructivity, respectful tone, all that jazz. This doesn’t equal emotionlessness or not getting your point across effectively, you can choose a respectful tone and get any point across VERY well. Of course we can’t make people do things, but explaining what we like, what we don’t like and what we’d like to see should be important to both sides of the relationship. If you don’t feel concerned about something, that’s a-OK. But if other people do, they have the full right to say so.
It’s absolutely fine if people don’t share my perspective, opinions, problems, I get that. But if you give me “artistic freedom” as a reason not to do something like pro-canon ship Destiel, i e ask for a recurring same-sex couple in a mainstream series, I’ll probably laugh. Or cry at the irony of the situation, depending on the position of the stars.
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