Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Banning Picasso at the Lapin Agile, is it censorship?

The production of the play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile by Steve Martin was banned at La Grande High School by the superintendent and the school board. Was that censorship? Yes. Was it illegal? No.
When we sought to have the play produced at Eastern Oregon University and the intitial response from the EOU president was no, was that censorship? Yes. Would it have been illegal? Yes. That is why the president relented finally and allowed a student club to sponsor the event.

I would argue that censorship operates differently in these two cases and that while it is repugnant in principle, in practice it is not so cut and dried. In the first case the law seems pretty clear that high schools may regulate speech in a variety of ways. Disputes about student speech therefore often boil down to whether school policies have been violated or perhaps whether the policies in question can withstand legal challenges. There are, for exam
ple, sometimes competing claims about the educational environment and whether certain forms of speech are likely to interrupt or prove detrimental to students' ability and opportunity to learn. The shutting down of our theater production was a legal move, I believe, but this in no way should suggest that it is or ought to be the end of the story. The heart of the censorship debate as it touches the high school has to do with educational philosophy and cultural values.

There have been many letters from community members critical of my play selection opining that there are myriad plays out there that are not controversial and wondering why I haven't selected one of them. This question deserves an answer not just a shrug or a rant. But my answer will reveal, I think, a fundamental disagreement with these folks about the nature and the purpose of education at the high school level.

Controversy is a perfectly legitimate vehicle for learning; indeed it could be argued that controversy is an essential ingredient to certain essential kinds of learning. Controversy is nothing more or less than the presence of rival claims. As such it is a prerequisite and a catalyst to informed discourse and debate. Without controversy there is literally nothing to discuss, there are only facts to assimilate and formulas to commit to memory.

Theater thrives on the tension between characters and ideas. One could argue that controversy is its engine. Calling a play uncontroversial is akin to saying that it has no heart. If what is enacted onstage does not make rival claims upon our hearts and minds, if it does not occasionally perplex and provoke us, it is not doing the job it has had ever since its inception in ancient Greece.

Yet some people want to domesticate theater; they want to rewrite its job description. They want theater to simply amuse us, to allow us to merely while away the hours. The is no earthly reason why theater cannot do this too, but to suggest that this is the primary function of theater is tantamount to high jacking an entire art form for the narrow and selfish pleasures of one specific group of people. Consider the following analogy. Imagine a high school football player being asked by squeamish members of the public to merely play at half speed, to not hit with full contact, to not reach deep down and find that little extra to make a difference at a critical moment. People who don't know what it means to compete between the lines may not understand how deep the desire runs inside an athlete to discover the limits of his potential on the playing field. The same is true of student actors.

My role as a director is to furnish my student actors with creative challenges that allow them to discover their potential. People who want to question my play selection are entitled to do so, but they ought to consider the ramifications of second guessing a serious and well founded theatrical project. When a teacher and a principal with 50 combined years of educational experience between them, with proven track records of high standards and unquestioned commitment to students, when they commit to a project such as this and are passionate in advocating its benefits to students, one would hope that would count for something. Where is the presumption of good faith? Where is the conservative temperament that patiently observes and reserves judgment until the results are in evidence?

Instead, what we witnessed in this case was a rush to judgment, a impulse to censor something because it seemed controversial. It was, to my mind, a response ruled by fear as opposed to one ruled by curiosity. This is a brand of censorship that eats away at our innate capacity to learn because it tends to foreclose opportunities for new and interesting experiences. I would be the last person to suggest that we as parents and educators don't have an obligation to protect our young people from influences and experiences that they are ill equipped to face. And here is where we get to the heart of the matter. What are they equipped to face? And do we want to encourage or discourage them from facing controversy?

While reasonable people can disagree about such things, the most distressing thing to me about this whole affair (the Picasso Affair)has been the almost total lack of willingness on the part of the complainants and their supporters to acknowledge any potential merit in this theatrical project. No mention of the cultural and historical context of the play specifically it's being set at the beginning of the Age of Modernity, the allusions to artistic and philosophical movements, to famous artists like Picasso and Matisse, to scientists like Einstein, the wit and intelligence of the humor, and to the absurdist techniques employed by Martin in his play. Instead the rhetoric of the complaint conveyed complete and utter disdain for the project on absolutely every level. It is impossible to have a dialogue with someone who has cast your motives and your objectives into the gutter, even while protesting that they don't mean to impugn your teaching talents.

It's censorship pure and simple, but it is a censorship that emanates as much from the bottom up as from the top down. My position here is not play the censorship card like some kind of shibboleth, nor is it to insist upon some absolute right of free speech; rather, it is to simply confront the thing and call it by its real name.

The case involving the university is different insofar as it potentially represented a top down effort to prohibit speech in a manner that was transparently inconsistent with policy and law. For the EOU president to even contemplate banning a club from sponsoring this production suggest that for her the principle of intellectual and artistic inquiry is not as near the sweet spot of the university's mission as might conventionally be supposed. It is hard enough to digest her refusal to allow the university theater department to have any role in sponsoring the production, citing inter agency cooperation, a rather chilling phrase times being what they are.

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of censorship is how, if it is given a toehold, it steadily erodes our instinctive and intuitive defenses against it. A community member who opposed the play recently wrote me a letter in which he endeavored to lecture me on the dangers of "Vice". Substitute "Censorship" for "Vice" in the following excerpt and you have an eloquent statement of how it works. He wrote:
We know what "Vice" is and how ugly and frightful it's consequences are. You and I have been taught that when we become too familiar with "Vice", it becomes easy to "endure, pity, and embrace."
Indeed. First we endure censorship, excusing it even as we perhaps regret our own practices, all the while rationalizing that we only do it for the good of those less discerning than ourselves. In the end, however, we drop all pretense of openness and we cozy up to the the uncontroversial, the utterly banal and predictable, and we amuse ourselves to death whilst we ignore the clamorous voices outside the confines of our gated consciousness.

Let's not get too comfortable with shutting down theater productions, with avoiding certain topics, or with shying away from controversy. Rather, lets cultivate the kind of inquiry and courage and judgment that will ensure a lifetime of learning, discovery, and, hopefully, happiness.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dad, you're always the educator. You are one of the few people who strives every day (and I've known you for 31 years!) to make us think. Thank you for that! It's made me a thinking, questioning, curious, well-rounded person... and an awesome teammate at Trivia! Haha. Love you!!! ♥Erin

4:10 PM  
Blogger adam jk gallardo said...

Well said, Kevin.

10:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But you don't have to endure a lifetime of learning, discovery and happiness if you already know or have been told what to know so this won't be the last of this matter.

Oh? Ensure? Nevermind.

12:48 PM  
Blogger Mark N. said...

Hi, I think I ended up here by following a link from, and such is the serendipity of the internet.

It was, to my mind, a response ruled by fear as opposed to one ruled by curiosity.

There seem to be two types of thinkers in the world: those whose thinking processes are controlled by their fears, and those who rise above those fears as they strive to do what is right. I think it's obvious which group you and your drama students are to be found in.

The middle school that my youngest daughter currently attends sets up a six week period of time each year for the students to rehearse and perform a play selected by the drama instructor. Several years ago, "Guys and Dolls" was briefly considered as the play for the year, but the idea was dropped when the drama instructor realized that there was gambling and drinking and nightclubs and a fistfight in Cuba in the play, so another, more tame play was eventually selected. Middle school parents were going to be offended, you see.

Hang tough, I hope you have the best performance experiences possible.

1:20 AM  

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