When a classic becomes controversial: Part II

21 September 2021

In part two of our conversation about what we do when beloved classic works perpetuate outdated – and potentially damaging – views and values, local writer, director, designer and composer Joe Paradise Lui dives into the fray.

Joe Paradise Lui

READ Part 1: What happens when a classic becomes controversial?

A list of artwork I used to love

Here is a list of cultural and creative properties and people I used to love, that/who I now find difficult to interact with:

Marilyn Manson, General Yue Fei, Die Antwoord, M*A*S*H, The Jungle Book, Tyler the Creator, The Water Margin, Christopher Hitchens, H.L. Mencken, Harry Potter, George Orwell.

The list is far longer, but this is somewhat illustrative. Heroes of my young adulthood, influences that have shaped my development as an artist and a person.

Yet all… tainted for me now, in one way or another. Sometimes it is that the author themselves turned out to be a toxic blight on humanity. Other times I grew to realise that the heroism or values of the work itself clashed with my growing sense of justice and oppression in the world.

One unifying factor, however, is that, having been blessed with the sense of how art and artists can contribute to the culture and continuation of systemic oppression, I find I can no longer, with full heart and voice, support and love these artworks and artists.

Another unifying factor is that these were all “products of their time.” George Orwell, for example, was a true rebel and radical and had the clear sightedness to write and campaign against the unabashed love of the Soviet Union within his circle of socialist thinkers, while personally bearing arms in Spain for an anti-fascist cause.

Yet when he writes about queer people, I must pause. I don’t know that I would be able to make a work or write an essay or imagine a piece about George Orwell that did not ventilate his homophobia, and I would find it callous of any such artwork or essay to leave out such a crucial blemish on his public statements.

The current debate

Which brings me of course to the question that I was invited to write about:

“Should we, or how can we, remount classic performance works of questionable content?”

Some argue that works with oppressive values or subtext that perpetuates oppressive values (West Side Story for instance, or The Nightingale, or The Tempest, or Madam Butterfly, or Thoroughly Modern Millie) should either be presented radically reimagined to deal with the issues head on, or else presented with significant caveats and warnings, or not be presented at all. Why not spend the money commissioning new work with values worth representing?

Others believe in a need to preserve history, to celebrate the technical strength of the text, perhaps agreeing that these works are “products of their time”, but certain that there is a need to preserve… something.

The argument is fraught because on one hand we’re dealing with the need for some to feel safe and seen and accepted as human beings. The fear here is that continued uncritical celebration of such works reinforces the dehumanisation of sectors of our society.

The fear here is twofold – one of preserving an identity, and also a fear of censorship – that cancel culture will eventually come for all that is good in the world.

And on the other we are dealing with cultural properties that form the bedrock of an identity – the kind of things that make us feel fundamentally like human beings. The fear here is twofold – one of preserving an identity, and also a fear of censorship – that cancel culture will eventually come for all that is good in the world.

It is doubly fraught because people in these groups are not a monolith. Not all women, or people of colour, are likely to feel one way or the other. So it’s easy for either side to trot out some kind of spokesperson for an oppressed group to say “See? Listen to this one.”

Why it bothers me so much

I believe that art should seek to help us find the society in which we want to live. I do not want to live in a society that tolerates the continued dehumanisation of humans. I want my art to reflect that.

Having come from a country with a totalitarian government, from a society that, by and large, values and lionises blind obedience to government authority (see: General Yue Fei, and The Water Margin), I want to state outright that any kind of government or procedural ban on producing any work also makes me feel sick to my stomach.

However, by the same token, something being old, or traditional, or cultural, does not free it from critique. In a world where we are seeing, more and more, the deleterious effects of systemic oppression of all stripes, we can ill afford to allow one more production of a musical that includes yellowface without comment, or a gratuitous rape scene without content warning, to go without critique.

We are born into a racist, sexist and homophobic culture. We see it everywhere because it is everywhere.

We are born into a racist, sexist and homophobic culture. We see it everywhere because it is everywhere. It is baked into laws both written and unwritten, it is baked into the way we interact with each other, and it is baked into our culture.

Those of us who are arguing against the continued uncritical celebration of these “classic” works are in effect arguing that dismantling these systems takes work and self-reflection. It is not easy.

It in no way lessens the power or technical accomplishment of a work to acknowledge that work was complicit in perpetuating oppression. And part of that acknowledgement means understanding that producing such work requires a tackling of these aspects of the texts head on.

I can accept that this ancient stuff is of high cultural value to you, but if we must remount the work, why not do it in a way that is in conversation with its own flaws, or better yet, engaging the collaboration of the people most affected by any given work’s particular politics of oppression?

Why is this so hard for us?

Why it’s so hard for us

There is a philosophical issue and a systemic one.

a) The Philosophical Issue

It frustrates me when people seek to preserve uncritical productions of these “classic” works in their unexamined form with the argument that these works are products of their time and that the values of the time were different.

I understand these texts are products of their time.

But it strikes me that people who argue this line should perhaps consider that a production is not a text.

A production of The Nightingale exists separately to Hans Christian Andersen’s short story of The Nightingale.

A production of West Side Story with a gratuitous rape scene and no content warning is not a product of its time. It’s a product of the here and now. It is a work of art separate to the text and book and score that is the West Side Story.

If you want to preserve that history, it’s there for you in any library.

But if a company chooses to mount any work of art, they are already choosing to “modernise” something classic, by sheer dint of mounting in the year of our Lord 2021. And if you are going to mount your work in 2021, then you should absolutely be held to the standards of criticism in 2021. And you should be making work that grapples with the issues of 2021.

… if you are going to mount your work in 2021, then you should absolutely be held to the standards of criticism in 2021.

For me, this is what makes these productions different from historical works like General Yue Fei, or 1984. It is one thing to contextualise a time and social mindset of a culture and a history, and read a work with that context in mind, and quite another to claim those contexts for a work produced today.

It is also the difference between reading Kipling and listening to Marilyn Manson – who still profits (as the companies that make these tone deaf remounts) off art that perpetuates systems of oppression in the world today.

b) The systemic issue

The other part of this problem is almost thornier – because it involves well-meaning people who are in positions of power almost guaranteed to ensure their inability to handle criticism.

The well-meaningness here tends to make itself manifest in productions that go to large lengths to address issues in the work that wind up somehow making everything more offensive.

Or else it is a seeming well-meaningness. Intended to placate or pre-empt a section of the public that will have “an issue”, and then papering over everything in the most ham-handed possible way.

A major part of the problem is that the works that tend to throw up these debates tend to be works from the dominant culture. And the people that are running the very well-funded companies in the global West tend to be… well. Of that culture.

To put it crassly…

White people in charge will always think they have the answer.

Maybe some of them do? I’ve known some very considered and smart and on-it white people who have done great work with stuff exactly of this nature.

But the systemic part of it is that these specific people are in positions where everyone around them is highly incentivised to agree to all their whims and decisions, and they are themselves highly incentivised to be the kind of hero that these classic works of art have trained them to want to be – the hero that swoops in through the midst of turmoil and with cunning and wit and sheer determination, saves everything from the quagmire.

Put that together and you have this exclusive clade of White People (who are 90% men) deciding that Now Is the Time for them to Solve the Historical Problem of Problematics™ in Classical Art. Not for one second asking if it is for them to decide the time and place of the reimagining or reclaiming.

When it’s been done well, there has been

  • Space made for the voices Othered by the text to lead the process
  • Genuine consultation and communication.

The problem is that a lot of the time when you do this, and you’re a person in the dominant position, you come to realise that a lot of your assumptions were wrong, and your plans need to go out the window.

And when the entire enterprise of culture-making.. and entire industry is geared to telling you that you are constantly right, and all your decision are genius…

Well I can understand why it’s mostly done terribly.

So should we remount these works?

I think if it were up to me I’d throw all these out and make room for commissioning bold new works.

But I do understand that people want to see The Taming of the Shrew again. And that for some reason it is important to some people to make The Taming of the Shrew a Feminist Work instead of, I dunno, commissioning a woman to write a new feminist work.

When I examine my feelings about it, I find myself much more sympathetic to the people trying to remount classic works in alert and responsive ways than to people who are seemingly mainly interested in the preservation of history (to those people I say, go to a museum, or a library, or YouTube.)

Less cynically, I even know firsthand that re-imaginings of this sort can be powerful works of art – a touchstone connecting the things that bind us together in the past toward the things that we hope will bind us together in the future.

I am just weary of yet another Orientalist Classic made with no consultation, or another Rape Scene inevitably becoming gratuitous.

I am weary, and I want us to consider the possibility of doing better. And perhaps acknowledge that perhaps with best intentions, we can still make a lot of awful mistakes with this stuff.

And I hope that when we do, we can respond with humility and a genuine desire to change.

Joe Paradise Lui is a submerging – nay, drowning – artist and undisputed winner of the 2013 Spirit of the Fringe award.  He has won no awards since. Lui is a founding member of Renegade Productions. Within its aegis he creates experimental theatre and performance works.

Lui is also a freelance director, writer, and a sound and lighting designer. His most recent professional directing work was “Unsung Heroes”, with Black Swan State Theatre Company. His most recent independent directing work was Beginning at the End (of Capitalism), presented at The Blue Room Theatre. His most recent design work was The Sum of Us by Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company as part of Perth Festival.

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