I got word today, on Twitter, that the printers hired to do the program guide for the American Repertory Theater's production of Cabaret with Amanda Palmer had refused to print the book because of one of my photographs, which they found objectionable.
It's Cabaret, you know, a play that has Nazi solders, nudity, cross dressing, sex and drug use -- it's been playing since the mid 1960's and Bob Fosse made a movie of it -- so I'm guessing you know what you're getting into when you're printing the souvenir program guide.
But let me backtrack a bit....
Making a Poster: It All Seemed so Innocuous
I'd gotten a call sometime in June asking if I could come up to Boston in early July to do a poster for the show. Director Steve Bogart has in mind as an influence the poster for Liliana Cavani's strange 1974 cult classic The Night Porter (which has nudity, Nazi's, cross dressing and sex in common with Cabaret so it's not that odd of a jumping off point.)
I studied the light in the poster and figured it was pretty straight forward. The light wasn't hard to duplicate. This is one speedlight behind a small shoot-thru umbrella up and to camera right, you can follow the shadows back to find the source. Sarah Tundermann assisted.
The pose, on the other hand, turned out to be very difficult.
Steve Bogart directed.
I shot ...
(That's Steven all the way on the right and next to him is marketing manager Jared Fine and the intern who's name I forget but who got sent to the sex shop to buy black latex gloves (and returned with free gloves and a fan letter for Amanda from the people at the sex shop.)
I'm never terribly keen on duplicating something someone else has done -- I like taking influences, mixing things together and going from there and after we'd done "the poster" we did a bunch of other things built around the elements of the Night Porter image.
(Second one taken with my phone, woohoo.)
and we did this for a while and then we went to see Lady Gaga and I came home. A few days later I got a call from Jared saying that they liked so many of the images they were going to use a bunch of them for various things. And they did.
And they were going to make a program guide. How lovely. And I didn't think anything of it until today when I heard on Twitter that Print Place wouldn't print it.
One person's art is another person's pornography
To me there's nothing offensive about this photograph -- it's not something you couldn't see in any issue of Vogue; but I live in a particular world where I'm surrounded by artists and painters and photographers and sculptors and filmmakers and people even naked people are just a part of art. But that's where I live.
So here's the photo that sent everything to a screeching halt.
(There's one slipped nipple in the original which I've made safer for work because, you know, you're not inside a theatre with a parental warning note on the door going to see a play about Nazi's and strippers.)
After word got out there was a small TwitterStorm and Printplace.com backtracked and said they'd print it but the damage was done and everyone had run off to their corners to grumble. (This is me grumbling in my corner.)
But art -- in its execution -- is often provocative. Sometimes blatantly, like Courbet's L'Origine Du Monde other times with more trappings, like Marcel Duchamp's curious installation Étant donnés where you realize that the art isn't the physical piece so much as the anticipation of seeing it, while watching the shocked reactions of the people in line in front of you. Other times it can be more banal, like Warhol's Brillo Boxes.
All art doesn't need to push at boundaries though -- plenty, perhaps most, exists within a tepid comfort zone -- the walls of that zone are pushed out occasionally -- Cabaret pushed some of those walls, and Hair and today Terrence McNalley's pushing out with Corpus Christi but a bare breast in a booklet for a play about a strip club is something I see as still in the realm of "nothing to write home about".
Like Cole Porter wrote: In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking but now, God knows, anything goes.
When you say "I'm not going to participate in your art because I think it's obscene" on the one hand you're slapping someone in the face -- what you think of as beautiful, I think should not be seen but, to be honest, on the other hand you're often validating them. If people in the main-stream hadn't freaked out about Robert Maplethorpe you'd probably have no idea who he was, unless you were prone to reading the fine print on the backs of Patti Smith albums. So complaints about art help define it. In part you know if you should like it because of who hates it. And it's also free advertising.
Upon hearing about Print Place's refusal to proceed, my initial thought was to wave my black beret in the air and say (imagine the voice of Keanu Reeves) "You can't impose your morality onto me dude, I'm an artist!" But then I find myself thinking "What if I ran a video production company and someone called and said We want you to make a movie about how awesome bullfighting is." Would I be justified in refusing? Would they be justified in sending the Twitterverse out after me? Would they be waving their little matador's hats at me fuming about my backwards understanding of culture? Could Print Place, in turn, suffer boycotts from their regular customers if this filth was seen churning off the presses like so many dirty magazines?
This Fox news video with the provocative tile "Minnesota under attack from Sharia law" was getting forwarded around a lot the last couple of weeks -- its claim, that Muslim cab drivers and checkout clerks are refusing to do things their religion forbids -- like carry passengers who have alcohol or handling bacon. The commentator concludes that this behavior is an "onslaught" to Minnesotan's culture -- we should be outraged. And here we have a printing company, headquartered in Texas (most likely not run by Muslims) who don't want to print work they find morally reprehensible and I find myself torn, and seeing two sides of a picture which really look the same. It's a package of bacon, it's a nude photos, it's a bullfight.... Behind it all are people trying to live good lives but with very different interpretations.
Where does one person's right not to participate in something they find opprobrious end and someone elses right to do something legal end? Can I refuse to print bumper stickers for a political candidate? Can I discriminate against someone because I think their ideas are bad. I guess is what it gets down to. And this isn't an isolated incident. In fact, Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho gained notoriety when the women in the typing pool at Simon and Schuster refused to work on it because of the extreme violence -- the book was dropped, but saying something's immoral is a dinner bell for curiosity seekers. Another publisher picked it up immediately and it sold well.
In any event. If you want to see Amanda Palmer's left breast in all of it's shockingness, I'll let you know when the program guide's available. We made a pretty thing, the world is a little better for it, I believe that.
In the meantime --
I'd love to hear your thoughts.
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