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Is free expression, through art in pop culture, a danger to society?

Artwork by Ben Howarth (BHowarth72).

A dialogue between James Clark Ross and Ben Howarth: Part I

By James Clark Ross

The right to freely express oneself is a pillar of modern society. There still, however, appears to be a fine line between putting forward an opinion and insulting someone. That is because insults are subjective in nature, and different perspectives and contexts lead to various reactions.

When it comes to religion, many religious groups have claimed that they are discriminated. Many religious organisations, though, campaigned alongside secular groups such as the NSS for the amendment of Section 5, which deemed “offensive” remarks illegal. In light of the amendment at the start of this year — prior to which a student was arrested for calling a horse “gay” — grey areas still remain.

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The implications of using the term “gay” depend on the context, but is it a right to use that phrase freely, or does it spread negative connotations of the word?

Thus Ben and I have recently engaged in a few debates around the topic. A couple of news stories in particular provoked us into deep thought: the first piece concerning Miley Cyrus’s ‘twerking’ (Part I), the second analysing the perceived discrimination against religious groups (Part II). Subsequent deliberation ensued, with both of us putting forward our cases.

I (JR) personally agree that the performance of Miley Cyrus alongside Robin Thicke tainted the feminist image and further encouraged the deep-rooted sexism we see on a daily basis. Clearly the aim of the show was to be sexually provocative in order to gain public attention. That in itself, I feel, was an irresponsible act since the show was projected to a vast audience. With that platform, themes such as gender inequality and the commodification of black people — all whilst singing a suspiciously ‘rapey’ song – should at least be questioned. (Granted the antics on stage were hardly unprecedented, to say the least.)

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Was Miley’s performance merely an expression of sexual freedom, or does it exacerbate public attitudes?

Ben (BH) disagreed with the premise that the song was “a bit rapey”.

BH: “The lyirics (‘You’re a good girl. I know you want it.’) are clearly out of context. Context is everything. Johnny Cash wasn’t promoting murder when he wrote ‘Shot a Man in Reno’ either.”

JR: “But it’s only partly out of context because this song was always destined to be played in clubs. And I don’t think Johnny Cash ever intended to incite murder, nor did he ever write those lyrics sincerely.”

BH: “I don’t understand why the fact the song might be played in clubs changes the fundamental context of those lyrics. They’re part of his music, which is his art. They should be understood as being just that. He (Thicke) is not promoting rape. And even if he was, he should be allowed to because of free speech, I think — as horrible as that would be.“

JR: “But this ‘art’ has a habit of women being under-dressed and dancing provocatively in a sexual context. Yet it’s nowhere near the same for men.

“Indeed it’s not just music. Even clothes brands do it through their photography (and, of course, it doesn’t stop there).”

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For once a man poses in the same vein as a woman model.

BH: “I think it’s an interesting thing to compare male vs. female photography. But I also think that it misses the point of why certain photography is used. Men and women find different things attractive or appealing. Equality isn’t making both sexes act the same.

“On music, I still think it should be taken as a form of art. I do agree with you in that there are far more under-dressed women in music videos than men — it’s pretty hard to argue against that.

JR: “Yeah, music is meant to be a form of art; but when sales are the primary objective, and you are selling to a patriarchal society that doesn’t address sexism properly, ignorance leads to inequality. There needs to be more accountability.”

BH: “I don’t think singing about rape has, or ever will, encourage actual rape. The same way singing about murder doesn’t promote real murder. Music is an artistic expression and if you think it’s real then you’re naive. Artists have absolutely no responsibility to be wary about people misinterpreting their work. If I sing a song and you miss interpret what I’m saying then that’s your fault, not mine.”

JR: “The problem for me isn’t that musicians, and artists alike, consciously promote rape — you’ve acknowledged that yourself. Rather it helps dismiss rape culture, and gender inequality, in a mainstream setting.

“Furthermore, these people are role models; therefore they are in the position to incite certain attitudes and actions. Take Justin Bieber’s Mum, for example. She uses her position to push her pro-life agenda onto young girls. I believe that with such a position in the limelight, you need to act responsibly.”

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Justin Bieber and his Mum advocate pro-life ideologies.

BH: “I think that’s a completely different issue. JB’s mum isn’t producing art. She’s not addressing an issue in an artistic or creative way. I think that you have a responsibility to act carefully if you’re in the public eye. But that’s not art.”

JR: “But I don’t think Robin Thicke and Miley, etc. come under the bracket of genuine artistic expression. It’s pop music, let’s not forget that. Their priority is to sell, and spread their songs and their messages around the globe in the pursuit of fame. I don’t think I’m being cynical.”

BH: “Which artist doesn’t want to sell, spread their songs and be famous? Pop music is still art. The Beatles played pop music. As for Miley Cyrus, she hardly committed a crime; she did a bit of grinding. If you think your kids are going to pick up bad habits because they idolise her, how about you do some parenting and teach them better. People should take more responsibility instead of blaming such weak reasons as pop songs. I just think it’s lazy and dumb to blame art for such serious issues when there are so many other more responsible reasons they happen.”

JR: “If an artist depicted rape in some way, for example, I’d possibly be intrigued, for that is art. The vital difference here is that record companies and their ‘stars’ are mindlessly exploiting sexually provocative themes in order to augment sales through lyrics and videos. That’s not a sincere artistic expression. And with regards to parenting, I think even best parents will really struggle to stop their ‘Belieber’ daughters from idolising Justin Bieber and respecting his every word, for instance.”

BH: “It’s absolutely an artistic expression. The Sopranos exploited Italian-American stereotypes to augment sales and views of their TV show. Touchstone used sexually provocative themes to make Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman more attractive to the audience. A lot of artists use dark or sexual themes to try and generate attention to their art.”

So there we have it. If you’ve got this far, I thank you and I hope you found it all interesting. Do let us know your own views. Ben and I both feel education and awareness is the core solution when it comes to sexism, etc. But we differ on the extent of the problem and on how attitudes should be changed.

Should free-speech be protected for the sake of art? Ben says absolutely yes, while I’m more sceptical. Part II will continue the proceedings with the dialogue of a debate on the subject of perceived hate-speech against religion (which will be up soon).

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