Sex, speech, gender…Posted: December 19, 2008
This Occasional Superheroine post raises a lot of thorny and interesting issues and deserves a thoughtful response.
This is likely not going to be one but I’m going to respond anyway.
There are two fundamental issues here that deserve some unpacking. The first is: is there really a – qualifiable – difference between “low brow comics” (i.e. shitty, sexualized Michael Turner covers) and “high brow comix” (i.e. shitty Alan Moore erotica). The answer is – of course – yes and no.
Yes, in that Lost Girls – for all it’s numerous problems – has artistic merit. Moore is trying to say things about human sexuality and literature that goes deeper than mere titillation. Lost Girls is “art” in the aesthetic and cultural sense – not just purely materially. Turner Supergirl covers – Turner’s interior work to boot – has neither of those values. Turner’s art is not trying to challenge us or speak some sort of artistic or cultural truth. No, instead he is presenting what he thinks teenage girls “are” – hyper-sexualized objects. It is the causal indifference to the values embedded in his work that makes Turner’s shit “low brow”. Moore – for all his numerous flaws – is conscious of the values he is attempting to impart. That is what gives his work a value – and defensibility – that Turner’s lacks.
The No part the answer is that dividing line between low and high art is arbitrary – my defense of Moore and denouncement of Turner says a much about my values and taste as it does about their work. There is no universal metric that divides the low and high brow – such divisions are culturally constructed and relative. But that does not mean that they lack value or importance. The very arbitrary – perhaps hypocritical – nature of such dividing lines is part of their value. The dividing line between high and low brow is always open to debate – it can and should shift. One’s tastes constantly require articulation and defense because they do not exist because of some Platonic form of art “out there” – instead they exist within us and because of our values and experiences. Once one knowledges this – the contingent nature of their own tastes – the value of the division becomes clearer. Admitting the relative nature of our own values and tastes is not to degrade them but to instead open up new possibilities – that life and art is not set in stone but organic and ever changing.
That was long way of say this: of course the line between high and low brow is arbitrary and hypocritical but that doesn’t make it worthless.
The second fundamental question of Valerie’s post is this: how do we deal with “bad speech” and value “freedom of expression” at the same time? Both Turner’s art and Moore’s Lost Girls are “bad speech” – they teach bad lessons and have bad values. They are both sexist works – I would argue that Moore’s is worst in this regard because it is creepy and sexist in the name of “sexual liberation” and instead of just the almighty dollar. The same could easily be said Jack Chick comics and modern pornography.
If we are to value “freedom of expression” we must tolerate such “bad speech” – thus DC Comics, Top Shelf, and Chick all that the “right” to publish their garbage. This “right” does not mean that they are free from criticism. Far from it. I would argue that is one’s obligation to confront, criticize, and denounce “bad speech” where ever one finds it. One – of course – should also promote “good speech” where one finds it. If one wants the “right” to “freedom of expression” one must also except the “right” of others to criticize you.
Images, words, etc. are not harmless. They can teach values to their consumers. But in a society that values “freedom of expression” we must allow adults to consume what they want – even “bad speech”. This is because of the relative nature of “bad speech” – my “bad speech” is the Christian conservatives “good speech”. However what one consumers is can not – in a society that truly values “freedom of expression” – be immune of criticism. If one wants to read Lost Girls – go ahead but don’t expect to not be called a sexist.
I think the above addresses some of the concerns raised in Valerie’s piece. I’m sure much of it objectionable to many – and I look forward to any responses.