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In Defense Of Old Racist Art


Not very long ago, the argument that some works of art are so corrosive to society they should not be experienced would have been anathema to a liberal worldview. Traditionally, in the culture wars, it was conservatives who railed against Murphy Brown’s pregnancy or protested the prevalence of profanity on our airwaves. Liberals, on the other hand, were viewed as widely tolerant of artistic expression, confident that controversial work was good for society and deserved protection. But a recent op-ed by Sharon Pian Chan in The Seattle Times, widely shared in the arts community, reveals a significant shift in liberal sensibilities regarding art. Censorship, once a very dirty word in liberal circles, has undergone a makeover of sorts and, in its new guise of social responsibility, it is making an unfortunate comeback.

Chan essentially calls for banning the original Gilbert and Sullivan musical, “The Mikado,” from American stages. Chan objects to the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s casting of mainly white actors and its use of make-up, calling it “yellowface,” but ultimately her problem is not with those elements. She objects to the show itself. In her view, the undeniably pejorative treatment of Asians in “The Mikado” is reason enough to stop producing it. Towards the end of her piece Chan has this to say about the future of the comic opera:

There probably is a way to produce a version of ‘The Mikado’ that entertains and makes sense in a contemporary society where difference is valued. The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society could, for instance, partner with the Asian-American theater group Pork Filled Players to reinterpret the opera. That’s what Skylark Opera did in Minneapolis—worked with Asian-American group Mu Performing Arts to stage a modern ‘Mikado.’

So in Chan’s view social responsibility demands only performing “The Mikado” as a revised reinterpretation of the original. But there is a serious problem with this idea. If nobody ever gets to see the original Mikado, how can these new and improved, culturally sanitized productions have any meaning? When artists create work based on classic texts, which they do all the time, from “West Side Story” to “Wicked,” the original work plays an important contextual role in the new creation. Chan’s desire to protect us from racist elements of “The Mikado” actually undermines the story she wants us to hear. As modern audience members we may cringe at certain words and attitudes from Victorian England, but we also come to understand the progress that rendered those once widely accepted ideas obsolete.

We Can’t Understand What We Don’t See

The Western canon is rife with racism, sexism, classism and every other ism that is. In fact, it is largely the Western Canon that defines these isms. As distasteful as the traditional characters of the Noble Savage or the Magical Negro may be to today’s audiences, they still represent significant steps forward in the racial attitudes of their times. The Bronte sisters may have been 19th-Century proto-feminists, but their ideas about the proper role of women would be well out of place in today’s society. What began in the 1970s as an effort by leftists like Howard Zinn to expose the placid lies in our cultural history has turned into a revisionism, a kind of cultural revolution that values today’s social mores over a complex understanding of Western Culture.

These protections do a great disservice to anybody wishing to understand our culture’s past and present.

Nowhere is this new whitewashing of cultural history more obvious than in the NewSouth Edition of Mark Twain’s classic, Huckleberry Finn. The edition, first published in 2011, changes the word “nigger,” which appears 219 times in the book, to “slave.” The justification for the edits is that exposure to hateful words harms students who read the book. In retrospect, this new Huck Finn foreshadowed the current and much maligned trend towards “trigger warnings” for literature. Just as Chan wishes to protect us all from the racism in “The Mikado,” NewSouth Books wants to protect students from the ugliness at the core of Twain’s seminal text. But these protections do a great disservice to anybody wishing to understand our culture’s past and present.

In practice, the new liberal penchant for censorship makes no sense. Somehow, the vicious brutality and racism depicted in “Twelve Years a Slave” is not only acceptable, but laudable, while the actual racism present in much of our cultural canon is too dangerous to be seen. What exactly is the danger? What is Chan trying to protect us from? Is she worried that attendees of the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society will leave “The Mikado” with greater racial animus towards Asians? Is she concerned that people who choose, for some reason, to attend a show they find offensive will be offended? Nobody, thank goodness, is being forced to sit through three hours of Gilbert and Sullivan (except perhaps unfortunate school children and their parents). Apparently there are people who actually enjoy it.

Imposing Their Moral Code On Everyone

Of late, some conservative outlets, including this one, have taken to comparing contemporary liberalism to religion. They see the establishment of a set of moral codes so pure and immutable that they serve as their own justification, just as the word of G-d does. The desire to censor art that runs afoul of these moral codes is perhaps the surest sign yet that these conservative critics are on to something. After all, a central role of all religion is to dictate what is and is not acceptable for its believers to experience, often very specifically works of art.

A central role of religion is to dictate what is and is not acceptable for its believers to experience, often very specifically works of art.

Let’s be clear: Chan is not saying “‘The Mikado’ offends me so I won’t go see it.” She is saying, “‘The Mikado’ is offensive so nobody should see it.” Is the offense taken by Chan regarding “The Mikado” really more genuine or reasonable than that of some Muslims regarding the work of Salman Rushdie? Why? What makes the offense she takes more objectively actual? Why should her ideas about what is and isn’t offensive be foisted upon everyone? In fact, there is no objective standard anywhere that can transform her opinion on this matter into a fact.

Ultimately, what makes the proposal of simply not performing or reading old works of racist art so insidious is that no generation is the sole caretaker of the canon. The influential works of the past helped to create our culture, whether we like it or not. Erasing them from our history books, or stages, or syllabi, cannot reverse their impact. The original impetus for the liberal program of historical and cultural revision was to highlight the complexity of our past—to expose the fact that some founding fathers held slaves, or that westward expansion came with a horrific toll on native populations, or that the heroic Franklin Delano Roosevelt interred Japanese citizens. It is precisely this critical lens with which we now teach Western Culture that prepares us to see works like “The Mikado,” or “The Merchant of Venice,” and place them in context. Studying Western culture is like putting a puzzle together and, frankly, we cannot do it without all the pieces.

If we try to exile the ugly or ignorant bits of Western culture, we won’t be left with very much.

We often hear from liberals how much work there is left to do. “We have a black president but there is so much work left to do,” or “more women are in college than men but there is so much work left to do.” I have always taken this to be a hope and an assumption that our children, and their children, will be more magnanimous and less bigoted than we are. Just as the attitudes of previous generations are unacceptable to us, ours will be to our progeny. So yes, we have more to do; so did Gilbert and Sullivan. They were no more capable of understanding the modern concept of race than they were of understanding the space shuttle. If we try to exile the ugly or ignorant bits of Western culture, we won’t be left with very much. Worse, we won’t understand what we are left with because the works that propel us forward rest on the backs of the works that preceded them.

We need to stop pretending that Western culture is the villain in human history. This is the story being told in every graduate Master of Fine Arts program in America; it is a story widely accepted by the artists and administrators running the cultural ground game. “The Mikado” is not a threat to anything. In fact, it has served as an inspiration to several generations of musical theater artists. Do we share Gilbert and Sullivan’s opinions and commentary on race? Of course we don’t. Can we appreciate their contribution to art without condoning racist attitudes? Yes, we can. Liberals who find themselves compelled by the siren call of censorship should wake up. And conservatives who think these subtle intrusions are a mere distraction should wake up, too. This is exactly where culture is won or lost.