Does art imitate life? Does life imitate art? Do we copy the violence and sexuality that we see and read in our media and literature, or does it copy us?
A perpetual debate if ever one existed, and one I’ve talked about here on many occasions before. Whenever it leaps back to the forefront of discussion, however, I’m compelled think it through again. This morning, the debate was at the front of a conversation about the MPAA rating system, and how its closed inner circle of raters is supposed to be performing a public service, and yet are anything but public. There will forever be social scientists among us who want to scream about statistics and observable studies claiming that youth spending time with violent video games and watching violent movies are more likely (depending upon other risk factors) to engage in violent criminal behaviors. While I appreciate the soft sciences…indeed, I make my living in them…I’m forced to quote one of my undergraduate psychology professors here, and note that statistics are evil: you can make them say anything you want them to say. As an artist, I inherently and fiercely rebel against the de facto censorship that is our rating system, and is, in fact, from whence it came. Shouldn’t shielding children from this content be the parent’s responsibility? Yet, as that portion of our societal structure continues to decay, it is arbitrarily decided to legislate it, and thus censorship continues to exist, if not thrive.
Part of the irony I find is that conservative religious factions were a large part of the outcry that led to the establishment of this system in the first place. Yet, those same religious persons who cling to the Scriptures apparently read them with selective insight. The violence and sexual content of the history and poetry of the Old Testament alone would, if placed on film today, earn at least an “R” rating (as it did in The Passion of the Christ), if not NC-17. So, instead of permitting themselves to become engaged in story, those who cling to religion as a license to be forever comfortable place control boxes on their televisions that censor out language for them (yes, pick your jaw up from the floor, it exists), and search Internet sites that spend their time criticizing the “questionable” content of a movie instead of the artistic content (i.e.: if there’s cursing, its bad).
The bottom line is, artistically, that violence and sexual content are often necessary to relay the story. If we shield ourselves and our children from that, then we are depriving them of story (a principle method which Christ used to communicate truth). This doesn’t excuse the gratuitous use of violence and sexuality present in much popular culture media and literature, where it exists simply to raise ratings, and often in a much more intense form than was necessary for the story. Perhaps our focus should be on guiding our children toward quality media instead of allowing popular culture (synonymous with non-substantive) media to be consumed.
I went to a play last weekend. In the program, on the front page beneath the cast credits, was a bold-typed warning: “There will be gunshots during this production.” I was prepared when the character drew his pistol and let off a blank round on stage. Perhaps the ratings system should be abolished in favor of simply placing information up-front: “There will be violence and strong language in this film.” Then let the parents decide. Of course, that assumes that parents are functioning as parents, which seems to be the exception rather than the rule in our culture.
Not only does art provide a mirror to life, it predicts it. This was Tillich’s concept of art, that artists are prophetic in the sense that they see where their culture is, and foresee the dangers of where it is headed before anyone else does. Ironic then, that we silence the voices of artists by censoring them in the name of protecting our children. If we listened to substantive art instead, I think, we might warn them away from where their culture may tragically arrive far sooner than we expected.
Of course, we can only do that if we’re not too busy protecting them…and ourselves… from discomfort.
Your post was very exhilarating to read as it truly touched on every aspect that should be considered in the censorship of film. You made an excellent point when referencing the Old Testament, as it would certainly earn the R-rating from the MPAA. I consider myself a religious individual and greatly appreciate the film, The Passion of the Christ. The gruesome scenes of Jesus being beaten are very difficult to watch, but there is purpose to Mel Gibson’s decision of showing these images. As an aspiring filmmaker, I realize the importance of storytelling and agree with you “that violence and sexual content are often necessary to relay the story.” Like with The Passion, removing the scenes of violence would not convey the same story and message that were intended. Also, I admire your idea of abolishing the movie ratings system and simply placing warnings before the films. This would force parents to know what their child would be viewing. Nowadays, it appears parents are exhibiting more leniencies in terms of what their children are being exposed to. Every week I meet with a seven year old student whom I tutor. Recently while he was telling me a story, I was shocked to hear the “f-word” come out of his mouth. Again, he is seven years old. I still have a few years before even thinking about becoming a parent, but I felt that it was important for me to tell him that the word was inappropriate. Film and television have great powers in influencing the audience, and it all falls on the parents to decide what their children do and do not see.