Scene4 Magazine: Kathi Wolfe - Life Among The Heffalumps
Scene4 Magazine-inSight

February 2011

Art and Civility: Sensitivity or Overkill?

I don't have any bombshells up my sleeve; but if this column is absolutely fabulous it will knock you out!

I bet you'll know that I have no literal bombshells under my blouse and that this missive, no matter how awesome, won't pummel you, breathless, down on to the ground.  Before the horrific shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others in Tucson last month, I wouldn't have worried about anyone taking my metaphoric imagery literally.  Nor, would I have given much, if any, thought about whether my use of the word "bombshells" or the expression "knock you out" would cause anyone to act violently.

In the aftermath of the shocking shooting, I still don't believe that my use of these terms would encourage, let alone cause, violence.  Yet, like so many people I know, I find myself musing over the power of words.

I don't think that Sarah Palin's use of rhetoric about crosshairs caused a mentally ill man to shoot people, but I can't help but wonder if we shouldn't reflect on the language we use. 

While violent imagery doesn't directly incite violence, such rhetoric can coarsen our cultural and political discourse.  Do we always want to view ourselves as being at war with our  political opponents (or with those with whom we disagree)?  Wouldn't it be more civil, and dare I say, more fun if we sometimes enjoyed culture rather than engaging in "culture wars?"

Metaphors, though only figurative, help shape our mindset.  Without our being aware they can infiltrate (another militaristic image) our unconscious mind and influence how we view other people and the world.

In my own life as a legally blind poet, I've encountered more negative metaphors about blindness and short-sightedness than you can (forgive the violent imagery) shake a fist at.  Of course, all those allusions to "taking a blind eye" and being "short-sighted" don't literally cause people to devalue blind and visually impaired people.  But they don't help the vision (pun intended) that folks have of us, either.

After the devastating tsunami that occurred in Indonesia a few years ago, I felt (figuratively) nauseated every time I read a poem using the word tsunami metaphorically.  How, I thought, could a poetic image of a "tsunami" of, say, tears, not trivialize an all too literal, real life natural disaster?

Yet, this having been said, how self-conscious should we be about the words–the metaphors, images-rhetoric that we use?

If I'm stuck in an airport for three hours waiting for my plane to take off, I have time to "kill."  If I fulfilled my fantasy of becoming a hot standup comic, I'd be thrilled if I "killed" during a gig.  Though I'm queer, I hope I'm a "straight-shooter."

You get the idea.

So when should we edit what we say to foster sensitivity, and when should we revel in the power that language gives us to express ourselves?  Only the gods know.  We lesser mortals try to be sensitive and expressive as best we can.  A noble aim, but a "shot in the dark."

The realm of art is equally problematic in regard to sensitivity and free expression.

To begin with, there's something inherently uncivil–transgressive–at the heart of art–no matter what the genre–whether comedy or tragedy.  With all of the murders in Shakespeare's plays, it's a wonder that social conservatives in Congress, haven't called for the banning of all of W.S.'s work.  Comedy?  Forgetaboutit!!!  Lucy Ricardo should have been locked up years ago for all the stunts she pulled–from trying to pass an overdrawn check to a bankteller to impersonating a hot dog vendor at a ball park in order to bamboozle Bob Hope.

Joking aside, the issue of whether there's a cause and effect between our art and violence is a serious one for creative artists.  One shudders to recall that David Chapman killed John Lennon because of his psychopathic reading of "The Catcher in the Rye."

As creative artists, we bear some responsibility for thinking about the impact of our work on the world.  Just because we have, thanks to the First Amendment, the right to express ourselves doesn't mean that we should gratuitously use violent or insensitive imagery.

Yet, if we worried too much about being sensitive, we wouldn't make art.  We would create bowdlerized plays, poems, paintings, etc that would be mere pablum, not art.

Though our art may offer comfort or have a moral compass, it's not our job as creative arts to be comforting or good in our work.  Even the most comedic art can transgress "family values." Recently, I watched an episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."  While highly regarded as a sophisticated sit-com, this TV program isn't known as a hotbed of sin.  Yet, fortunately, even Mary crosses the line sometimes.  In the show that I watched, Sue Ann Nivens, the nymphomaniac Happy Homemaker, tells Mary, "I enjoyed your party."  After saying this, Sue Ann adds (something to the effect of) "a white lie isn't a sin."  "In that case," Mary tells Sue Ann, "I really enjoyed having you."

The tangled relationship between sensitivity and the transgressive nature of art will engage us as long there are poets, musicians, playwrights, novelists, painters, composers and all other creative artists.

I leave you with one of my poems that is sometimes deemed too transgressive to read to high school kids.  It is one of my poems written in the voice of Helen Keller.  In it, Keller, deaf-blind, fantasizes about what it would be like to drive drunk.  It references such subversive (real life and fictional) characters as Margaret Dumont and Elmer Fudd.  Will it cause Heffalumps readers to revel in debauchery?  I'll let you decide.

Kathi Wolfe

If I Drove Drunk,

I'd sing Gershwin in Greek,
fishtail my way
through a sea of booze,
smile at the cops
and ever-so-politely
rip up their sober tickets.

I'd ride to Fredonia,
eat duck soup, pinch
Margaret Dumont's bottom,
and look surprised
when she jumps higher
than Bugs Bunny in flight
from Elmer Fudd.

In a Braille parking lot,
I'd jump-start the dots,
stop by OZ, take Dorothy
to Kansas, and sweet-talk
Auntie Em into giving me
a shot of Scotch.  How's
that for a Helen Keller trick?

(Originally published in "Helen Takes the Stage: The Helen Keller Poems" by Kathi Wolfe. Pudding House)


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©2011 Kathi Wolfe
©2011 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Kathi Wolfe is a writer, poet and a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
Her reviews and commentary have also appeared in an array of publications.

For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

February 2011

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