Social responsibility


Scrolling through my Facebook feed to get my early morning “news” fix, this thread on the Diversity in Australian Media public group, caught my attention. The page admin (and film/tv producer/director) Ana Tiwary, had posted a video that calls for the stereotyping of Muslims in the media to end. What ensued in the comments was a bit of a stoush between her and Kostas Nikas (also a film-maker/director/producer).

Kosta, never one to shy from expressing an emphatic opinion online, challenged the call for writers to be charged with the task of producing socially responsible content, highlighting the importance of artistic licence. Ana responded by pointing out that the post was meant for those creators who care about the impact that their work has on society more broadly to begin with – especially in terms of producing work that may propagate dominant, damaging stereotypes, leaving even less room for alternative stories and voices. Both of them make important, valid points. And both, though from different starting points, were advocating for a broader, bigger, more nuanced conversation around social responsibility in the arts/media landscape.

I’m grateful for these open, vibrant, intelligent arguments around diversity in the arts and media. I’m grateful that these discussions happen in the public sphere among people who live, work and breath these issues every day, so that the rest of us can read, watch, be challenged to think about and broaden our own perspectives.

But I think the discussion around artists and social responsibility is a bit mis-placed. Is it really up to a creator/producer/artist to imbue their work with a sense of social responsibility or to toe some elusive social responsibility line? The line can only ever be elusive, because in a diverse landscape within a diverse society, plurality in opinions and value systems abounds. Sure, there are some things that are held pretty much universally as good/bad, but when we go deep, your idea of social responsibility is quite likely going to look a little or a lot different to mine.

Social responsibility and the making of meaning in art

The role of social responsibility in art comes down to purpose I reckon. If your purpose in creating content is to encourage social change by challenging stereotypes, for example, then you should totally be writing that character that shatters all the stereotypes. If the purpose of your work is to agitate/provoke/make comment on a topical issue without pushing one particular social agenda, maybe you will feel the need to write that stereotypical character into your work. But what if the purpose of your work is to tell an interesting/engaging/exciting/whatever story? To just tell a story? To just produce a story that will be received by the viewer/listener/audience/consumer in whatever way they are open, ready and willing to receive it?

Artists are in the business of making meaning. And ultimately, meaning is made not in production but in consumption. So, with this logic, whose “job” is it ultimately to be socially responsible? In my opinion it is the consumer’s.

Here’s a real life example: A few weeks ago I wrote a post about what I loved and what I hated about Superwog. Their work is both ridiculously hilarious and relatable AND appallingly sexist. So, as a consumer I make the decision to either watch/share their content and buy a ticket to their show… or NOT. Right now I choose “not”. Is this being socially responsible? Maybe – depends on what my purpose is, right? Their content on the whole doesn’t align with my values on the whole. This opting in or opting out is the power that we have as consumers. And if we feel so inclined, we might choose to exercise that power for social change purposes or for some other reason.

Social responsibility and the making of messages in the media

While the base product of the arts is meaning, the base product of the media is messaging/communications. Yep – the lines are often blurred of course. But it helps, for arguments sake, to set up some definitions. While, artists/creatives shouldn’t be charged with the task of upholding the prevailing norms of social responsibility in their work, publishers, curators, and media outlets with a large reach and high visibility (and in particular those funded by public money) should be held accountable when disseminating content that is harmful to the public (eg: like when that content is also perpetuating damaging stereotypes). When this responsibility towards the public good is infringed, it’s again up to the consumer (otherwise known as the citizen) to call it out and advocate for rectification and change.

Sometimes art/creative content is an instrument. Sometimes it’s just art

Sometimes of course it is co-incidentally or by it’s nature, both. In my last post about policy and funding in the CaLD arts space, I wrote about how CaLD arts have been used historically as instruments of social cohesion and the challenges that this legacy in policy and funding has created for artists whose purpose is one of producing work (informed by culturally and linguistic diversity) purely as artistic/cultural expression. The challenge of course is that CaLD arts have been tarred with the “community arts and cultural development brush”, which makes it hard for CaLD artists to be taken seriously outside of this context. If we require of artists to imbue their work with a sense of social responsibility, we’re skirting dangerously close to the line that divides professional arts practice valued for its intrinsic worth and that of it’s poor community/cultural development cousin, valued for it’s instrumental worth.

Social responsibility and an instrumental approach to creation is the domain of public cultural bodies and public policy makers, as well as those artists/creators who self-define as social change activists. The rest of us just need to keep producing and consuming whatever we want; to reject or challenge those things that don’t align with our own values, and, if so inclined, to engage in the debate.

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