The Sensitive Society

American Theatre, January 1995 | Go to article overview

The Sensitive Society


We are living increasingly in what I refer to as a Sensitive Society. I use the word "sensitive" not in its meaning as "caring" or "sympathetic." Rather, I use it to mean a society that is thin-skinned, ready to take offense, intolerant of criticism or satire.

That feeling undergirds a great deal of the controversy about art today, and poses a great potential threat to artistic creativity in the future.

In our Sensitive Society, comment, observation, satire, reportage, editorials, cartooning, caricature, playwriting and painting - all are now supposed to take into account the sensibilities of the reader or observer. This is not the world of Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce or H. L. Mencken.

The history of the Robert Mapplethorpe debate was one that deeply involved the arts community in the Sensitive Society. The story is familiar: the cancellation in June 1989 of the Mapplethorpe exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.; its subsequent display at the Washington Project for the Arts, where in just two weeks, more than 50,000 people came to see the show; the replication of that record across the country where more than a half-million people saw the show in seven different venues.

Some key lessons emerged from this experience - that images are much more titillating in the describing than in the seeing; that controversy and the threat of censorship sells; and that, despite the best efforts of those who would attempt to deny society the opportunity to look for itself, censorship never, never works.

But the Mapplethorpe exhibition did spawn a prolonged debate over appropriate content standards for government support for the arts. The issue about what society looks at, and reads, and hears, became the newest assault on freedom.

What the right-wing critics wanted, in fact, was that only "acceptable" art be funded by the National Endowment for the Arts - that means what was acceptable to Sen. Jesse Helms, the Robespierre of modern American society. They wanted art that is straight, Christian, bland, pro-flag, anti-abortion - all the elements of red-blooded Americanism. However, our society is simply too heterogeneous, too diverse, ever to have an officially sanctioned, acceptable art.

The concept of "acceptability" as an element of government decision making, then and now, must be firmly and unqualifiably rejected. It is clearly inconsistent with the tenets of a free society to have a government stamp of approval on acceptability. Experiences with repressive societies - the Nazis in the 1930s and the Russians in the 1920s and '30s - provide dramatic and painful lessons of a government's definition of "acceptability." A central lesson is that in a repressive society, artists are the first victims. By nature they are independent, questioning and unconventional - the very qualities a repressive society cannot stand.

But fighting off Jesse Helms and his form of orthodoxy is the easy part. Resisting orthodoxy from the left - from our friends - is much more demanding.

One such current manifestation of the Sensitive Society is the concern over political correctness. …

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