I wouldn’t normally throw my hat into this ring because, well one normally I keep my big trap shut, but two I agree with most everything Coela and Emily have said. It is a good and noble thing to consider the consequences of what we create. It is great to promote positive agendas we have for our audience. Interesting and good things with strong positive messages that don’t bore people, are things that should be widely celebrated and taken as examples that better society as a whole.
But I am a free speech purist through and through. I don’t think artists need a license to create anything. Kids emulating Cartman, angsty teens quoting Rorschach, blue meth existing in the real world now because of Walter White, for sure these aren’t necessarily good things. But they exist because each of these characters fulfill the one and only duty successful art has. The only thing close to an actual obligation for an artist, is to create interesting things for interested people. That’s even if those people are only in it for themselves. And as artists we don’t even have to do that basic task, if we don’t feel up to it.
Personally, I think there is so much more we could do to celebrate art with positive messages for people. Clearly we are also free to create art that focuses on good and noble traits, that promote a better world around us. But I don’t think that’s art’s responsibility. It is something art can do. But it isn’t necessarily something art should have to do.
This isn’t me saying that as people we shouldn’t criticize things on whether or not they positively contribute to the world at large. But it’s not the job of the artist to be a positive contribution. We have to understand this, at least because everyone’s definition of “positive” is so very different.
On a personal level, as a creator, I try (though I don’t always succeed) to sticking to some of the positive principles lain out. I like to include different races and creeds. I hope I’m being sex/sexy positive (most of the time). I like things that promote discussion of topics or express curiosity, but it’s okay if I want to be simpler too. I’ve done some “bad” with some “good.” And I hope the world is more interesting for it. But if I wanted to create a “funny” or “sympathetic” racist homophobic despicable villain because a story would be better with them in it, I’d sure as hell do it.
It’s not in the artist’s job description to be good citizens. This doesn’t preclude you from being a “good one.” This doesn’t mean we ignore criticism of the “bad ones.” But please create whatever you want. We’ll fight with you later on the field of ideas rather than on your drafting table.
I’ll just put it out there, I don’t consider putting thought into the social ramifications of what you create “censorship”, it’s more like editing, and editing is a necessary part of creating the best possible product. Comparing that kind of self-editing to censorship is akin to encouraging people to speak without a social filter. You don’t always need to say the first thing that comes to your head, you can take a minute to consider “how necessary is what I’m about to say?”, “How likely is this idea to be misconstrued?”, “How can I communicate these sentiments more clearly?” It is entirely possible to over-edit and lose your voice, but nothing ever comes out flawless on the first draft.
The big thing I’ve learned in nearly five years of making MGDMT is to never underestimate an audience’s ability to not get a joke. Like, even the simplest, most straightforward gag I can possibly write will inevitably leave someone asking me what it’s supposed to mean, and it’s trained me to think much more clearly about the way I handle these comics. Sometimes I feel like I don’t wrap thing up as punchy as I could have, or like I’ve added a line of dialogue too many, but I do it because that’s the difference between one person saying “I don’t get it” and ten people saying “I don’t get it”. Sometimes people will flat out completely miss the point of something and I have to look at “okay, how did this misunderstanding happen and how much responsibility do I have to clarify it”. I’ve definitely done some comics where I cringe at how thick I’m laying on the moral, but it’s because of trial and error of communicating with this audience that I’ve learned where I have to explicitly hold people’s hands through what I’m trying to say to cut down on misinterpretation as much as possible. And it’s all about what the end goal is to the creator how much that needs to happen. What is important to you? Communicating your specific brand of humour or communicating your overarching message? What balance of give and take between the two do you need to strike to create the balance you’re comfortable with? There are absolutely times where I’ll come up with a joke and think “There is too much potential for this to read in a way I don’t want” or “I’m not sure the general audience I’m presenting this to has proven themselves mature enough to take this message the way I intend for them to” and end up leaving that joke on the cutting room floor. That’s just editing.
I’ve heard this sort of debate in relation to Buddhist swastikas among Japanese film and comic makers. Some artists decide that the swastika is such a powerful symbol to Western audiences that regardless of its actual meaning to the culture the book is coming from it will cause a distraction for Westerners and evoke certain emotions that were not intended. They feel the imagery makes it difficult for them to communicate the correct emotional atmosphere they want in the scene to this foreign audience, so they give localizers their blessing to edit the swastikas for English releases. Other creators say “this is my culture, if someone from another country wishes to consume it it is their responsibility to educate themselves enough to understand what our iconography means.” Other creators do not want their work to leave Japan at all, because they don’t want to deal with potential cultural misunderstandings in any capacity. At a film festival I went to in Toronto once, the head of the department responsible for arranging their Asian cinema night gave a speech about how difficult it can be to get Japanese directors to allow American festivals to show their films because they don’t want to deal with those unintended messages. The movie they screened came with a letter from the director explaining aspects of the film he was concerned were going to offend North Americans and what aspects of Japanese culture they were intended to satirize. Other directors don’t want to deal with this headache at all.
In that case it’s totally up to the creator to look at the audience they have, the audience they want to have, and what ideas are important to them to communicate and decide what they need to edit or not edit to get that across. It’s easy enough to say “follow your vision”, but if you give your vision a couple new drafts and make sure you understand how people who live outside your head are potentially going to interpret it, you’re doing yourself nothing but favours.