It goes without saying that the first amendment is important to artists. Freedom of expression is sacrosanct in the art world, a guarantee that whatever criticism (whether legitimate or ill-advised) artists want to lob at our culture, our government, or each other can be so tossed without legal consequence. Ostensibly, these statements are then weighed in the court of public opinion and discourse, and allowed to thrive or die on the weight of their own merit. That’s the theory anyway, but in practice things are quite a bit muddier.
The First has been in the midst of a makeover in recent years, being utilized as a rallying cry by the far right in standoffs against the universities that they perceive as liberal bastions. It was also cited (with artist expression being the case’s deciding hinge) in the Supreme Court’s decision to allow a religious baker to deny service to a gay couple. In addition to these, let’s say ‘expansions’ of free speech for those on the political right, there have been a number of contractions of free speech for those from traditionally marginalized groups.
In one example, the Supreme Court recently turned away the case of rap artist Jamal Knox, who has been convicted for making terroristic threats against the police…in a song titled Fuck The Police. I’m tempted to insert the thoughtful chin-rubbing emoji here, but I wonder if you can think of an artistic precedent for such a song? In cases like Jamal Knox v the state of Pennsylvania, bad faith actors are deliberately misinterpreting works of art to impinge on artist’s right to free speech. The Knox case is not a stand alone for rap artists, this is something that is happening with increasing frequency in courts across the country. (Sidenote: you can read a ‘friend of the court’ brief giving some context on rap music written in part by Killer Mike, Chance the Rapper and other rap artists here)
So what should we be doing in this moment? My call is this: make art that pushes against the tightening strictures of free speech. From protest art to art that celebrates the identities of marginalized people, to art that injects our lives with beauty and joy in this dark historical moment, any art can do this! A work that helped define this understanding for me was Flavio Garcianda’s Ella Esta En Otro Dia (She is In Another Day), which was part of the MFAH’s exhibit of post-revolution Cuban art titled Adios Utopia. The painting is of a young girl lying in the grass, staring dreamily into the distance. In 1975, when Cuban artists were still under strict orders to create only pro-revolutionary works, Garcianda made his statement by working against the standards, creating seemingly apolitical works that couldn’t be contained by an authoritarian government. As always, a work’s context plays a vital role.
Many of us, especially those in a position of privilege, still have no restrictions on our free speech. We can push the boundaries in any direction we choose, and though the blow back can be severe, (think Kathy Griffin’s Judith and Holofernes moment) there are unlikely to be legal ramifications. But we can all be guilty of self-censorship, of pulling punches simply for our own comfort. Now, as attacks against the free speech of black rap artists are being mounted and ‘free speech’ is being usurped by those who would seek to use it as a blunt force object against the marginalized, is the time to ask ourselves if this is what we are doing. Out of fear or fatigue, have we stopped using our art to push back?
Not every work that we make has to be overtly political. The wonderful thing about art is that it can contain the vastness of all human thoughts and ideas. As artists and human beings, we have only a limited understanding of the effects of our work on others, but we cannot have those impacts if we self-edit, or worse stop making altogether. For the sake of those here, and throughout the world, that make their work under threat or duress, we have a responsibility to make art with the kind of ferocity that only the free can muster.