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Guest Writer

It's in the struggle that art emerges
Where does the buck stop?
by Joan-Carrol Banks

orry, but this letter from AFTRA, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, provoked me. Can we look with a critical eye at this notice that I’m sure a lot of performers got in their mailbox?

Stop Increased Indecency Fines Against Individual Performers, Announcers and Broadcast Journalists

Please TAKE ACTION to ensure that members of the House and Senate do not include individual fines in pending Indecency Legislation.

As the legislative year winds down, Congress has renewed its effort to increase fines on individual performers, announcers and broadcast journalists for the broadcast of material deemed indecent. The current Senate version – attached to the Department of Defense Authorization bill – does not increase performer fines. That bill is in conference, where there has been a push to include fines of up to $500,000 against individuals.

This last-minute push to hold individual performers, announcers and broadcast journalists accountable for the programming decisions of corporate licensees represents a clear threat to the First Amendment and will have an immediate and significant chilling effect on artistic freedom. When you take into account that the definition of indecency is an amorphous, moving target and that the Federal Communications Commission has never fined an individual performer, announcer or broadcast journalist, this legislation represents a striking shift away from the FCC’s long-standing policy that holds that the broadcast licensee is responsible for programming decisions.

In an age where entire networks have been usurped by huge media conglomerations for their conservative purposes, yes, we should be very concerned about issues of what's "decent" when applied to journalists who are actually trying to get a story out. We should definitely rally behind truth and freedom of speech as long as we have breath in our bodies.

But let's not confuse these vital, important issues of real journalism and freedom of speech with the overused, worn-out, pathetic argument that careless performers with no regard for societal standards on the airwaves – airwaves that belong to everybody young and old, not just advertisers – should be protected and defended under the huge umbrella of "artistic freedom."

That's all we need – a bunch of hysterical actors screaming about their art in what is a complex issue in a much larger political crisis that goes beyond the First Amendment.

The FCC has made it impossible for all political candidates to be heard in a crucial election year, and we’re getting exercised about the wrong issues.

First of all, no one held a gun to the head of Janet Jackson or Justin Timberlake. They did it, they knew what they were doing, nobody forced them into it. So fine them. Make an example of them.

My small sons were watching, and the entire Super Bowl halftime program made me furious on a day when my entire family should have been able to relax and watch some TV together.

If we don't fine the individuals who agree to this sort of lewd behavior, who's to take responsibility? Has accountability become a completely extinct concept in this society, where unelected leaders can invade countries at will, let buddies who are corrupt financial crooks walk free, and run the domestic economy into the ground without batting an eyelash?

Where does the buck stop anymore?

If you’re not mad on a moral level, why not then on an artistic or even politically correct level? Television consumers are told to turn off their TVs during sweeps week if they object to being assaulted by the obligatory strip-bar scenes in every crime drama, for instance.

"Oh, it must be sweeps week," we say. "They have to include these scenes in order to draw ratings that will determine advertising rates."

I'm so glad these shows have "artistic freedom" but, on an aesthetic level, it's become a tired cliché, a slavery to what's literal rather than transcendent. In a politically correct sense, it's degrading, objectifying and dehumanizing – not just to women – but to us all. I’m sick of it.

And when shows, driven by advertising demands for ratings, are forced to cater to this lowest common denominator, this is called artistic "freedom"?

Let's not be naïve. And let's not even get into the issues of ageism and sexism for female actors who are shut out of the mainstream's insatiable hunger for all that is youthful, body-focused and artificially thin – yeah, I’m one of the actors out there who actually looks like a normal woman. Where's my “artistic freedom?”

As AFTRA members in Portland, we are asked all the time to turn down good-paying non-union jobs offered at above-scale daily wages, yet we are not to be encouraged to turn down jobs requiring us to shock and disgust viewers in their own homes?

Being able to use our senses of good taste and artistic discrimination on the few airwaves still left to the public at large is also a part of "artistic freedom." Actually having the freedom to choose, being able to make lucrative choices that also benefit a large spectrum of the society rather than just horny adolescent males – that, too, is "artistic freedom."

Here's a cliché for you: with great freedom comes great responsibility.

Much as I grit my teeth to admit it, I do agree with some conservative Republicans on this one. It's great to have this freedom to make choices. Let's not abuse it.

Jenna strips for peanut butter and chocolate on "Survivor" during prime time. Justin and Janet bare a breast while dancers gyrate to bad disco on a Sunday afternoon in front of millions of viewers. They know perfectly well that these things are indecent. That's exactly why they do it. And we call this artistic freedom when broadcasters make the cynical market-driven decision to run it.

Too bad that everyone has to pay for a mistake that two performers made, but as the absurdly restrictive Hays code has shown, setting strict limits led to an enormous burst of artistic ingenuity and subtlety – often resulting in something far more explosive and effective.

Real artists can take on any challenge and limitation and run with it. The results in lesser talents can be downright silly, but it can also lead to lean, intelligent works that raise the bar for others. Plus, a ghost of the Hays code still exists in the voluntary ratings system we have today and I don’t know a single parent who isn't grateful for it.

Don't get me wrong. Nudity can be a wonderful, beautiful, powerful artistic tool when used in film or theatre or cable television. It can also be very funny. Profanity is funny, too. It just is. It can also be crass and gratuitous – even pornographic. Fine, I have no problem with that. But I've bought a ticket or paid a fee to view it or hear it and realize that I get what I choose to pay for (or what I've been forced to pay cable companies for if I want any viewable reception on my television set at all).

Therefore, when I watch an adult film or program of any kind, I have hired a sitter, left the house, sent the kids to bed or even, in rare cases, allowed my children to view a tape of it with me (after viewing it myself) accompanied by lots and lots of discussion.

I object to having to take these precautions when I watch the halftime of the Super Bowl, for crying out loud.

So AFTRA, don't blather to me about "artistic freedom" when artists are called upon to show a decent, reasonable (and minimal, I might add) amount of restraint on the public airwaves. I object to the stranglehold big media conglomerates and advertising have on what should belong to everybody, including my kids. And I’m tired of performers who feel they have to stoop lower and lower to further their careers and get attention.

In an increasingly privatized world, network television, last time I checked, literally still belongs to all of American society. While we quite rightly should be concerned about the vagueness of the decency requirements for everyone on the airwaves, let's not shoot ourselves in the foot by refusing to see that parents and others have a very valid argument for fining individuals who should be responsible for their own behavior on the networks.

This is not an artistic issue – and if you think it is, you’re fooling yourself and cheapening the definition of art.

This legislation is a result of a lot of really angry people writing to the FCC in a mob mentality. People are mad, unreasonable, and willing to throw the baby (the First Amendment) out with the bathwater.

Could this rage burgeon politically and begin to bleed into censorship of the theatre and film? Sure it could. In fact, we can see it everywhere already – the pendulum has swung in society. As an attractive young ingénue in L.A. in the '80s, I was told flatly by major agents that, unlike actors, actresses had no chance whatsoever to make it in film if they were not willing to take their clothes off.

As we can see by the recent rash of Hillary Duff, Mandy Moore and Lindsay Lohan movies, this is no longer the case. Not such a bad thing, but stay with me here: This recent bit of legislation takes the cultural shift further and in a much more potentially sinister way as the country as a whole is struggling against collapse under the fascistic control of neocon fantasy.

As artists, we must thoughtfully ask ourselves how and why it got to this point and what balance could be struck with angry conservatives to draw them back to reason rather than whining about "artistic freedom."

I’d like to see a serious discussion of the difference between pornography and art – and appropriate venues for each. Since before the dissolution of the National Endowment for the Arts, we have angrily defended all artistic choices with the argument that basically amounts to "we are artists; we therefore owe society nothing and cannot function properly with restrictions of any kind."

This argument is rubbish.

As anyone who has seriously attempted art of any kind knows in his heart, art is all about overcoming the restrictions placed upon it and it is in the struggle that art emerges – ultimately to the betterment of society. Perhaps if we governed ourselves with a little more thought as to what our actual motives and limitations of imagination are when we make indecent decisions and call it art, we, as liberals, wouldn’t be in this position.

Furthermore, at the risk of being over-broad (God forbid we should actually look at the big picture) if we’re going to get mad about censorship by the FCC, why don't we as artists demand answers to harder questions that affect us more seriously in terms of arts funding in election years – such as why so few corporations are allowed to monopolize so many broadcast venues, facilitating network takeovers for political propaganda.

Why was the rule for fair and equal time for various political candidates abolished and sold to the highest bidder for commercial airtime, resulting in loss of information critical for making intelligent electoral choices?

This issue that AFTRA is focusing on is just a tree that we can’t see past in the thick of a great big proverbial forest of things wrong with the FCC.

Find more from Joan-Carrol in our archives.

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