I hear these phrases a lot:
Anyone should be able to play any role.
Any writer should be able to tell any story.
Art is universal.
Let’s follow those statements up with an important question: where does art live?
A common misconception about art is that it exists in a vacuum. Sure, when we think of art, we typically think of it existing in a plane above or below our current plane of existence. It’s an escape from reality.
But what we might not think about as much is how the artistic world is inextricably linked to the real world. It’s like a fantasy movie: two completely different worlds, but linked.
Let’s explore this.
WHAT DO AUDIENCES BRING BACK?
Sure, when we watch a movie, or read a book, or take in a play, we are enjoying a piece of entertainment/art in the artistic world. It’s isn’t real.
But . . . what about when we return from the artistic realm? This is where the two are linked: what do you bring back?
There is a concept called normalisation. If you see something presented in art and entertainment, you start to think it’s the way things are. For example: racial/gender/religious/etc. stereotypes. If you see things presented one way in entertainment enough times, you run the risk of bringing that presentation back with you to the real world. You subconsciously internalise this representation, and it might start to inform your opinions/actions in the real world.
Should anyone be allowed to tell any story? Well, if you’re not from a certain demographic and writing a story about that demographic, the big question is: are you writing an accurate depiction? Or, are you normalising an inaccurate representation? Make note people consuming it in the artistic realm will bring that perception back to the real world—most likely subconsciously.
Are you doing your audience a favour with your work? Are you well enough educated on a person of this demographic to write the character? Are you falling into cliches or stereotypes? These are some of the many important questions to ask yourself whenever you create work.
FINANCING THE ART(ISTS)
We live in a capitalist world. Right? This is the real world: we need money.
Do you know who else needs money? Actors. Writers. Directors.
Do you know what needs money to exist? Art.
There’s a reason why playwrights had patrons back in ye olde days. There’s a reason why authors get advances on books. There's a reason why actors sign contracts confirming their payment. The real world invests in the artistic world—the paints, the productions, the equipment, the performers, and MORE.
Why are BIPOC actors, or disabled actors, or trans actors upset when a white, able-bodied, cisgender actor gets cast for one of their roles? It's because while the art itself exists in its own realm, the investment that creates the art is very much this world.
Creatives need to find work. They need to make money. They need to tell their stories.
If a white, able-bodied, cisgender actor takes a role outside their demographic, then there are real world impacts of this decision. Even if the product in the artistic world is great, it’s still problematic because of the impact in the real world.
This impact is compounded because (for example) cisgendered actors typically play trans roles, but not vice versa. Roles can be whitewashed, but vice versa rarely happens. Able-bodied actors are frequently cast to play disabled characters because directors and producers feel casting disabled actors would be an inconvenience.
These actors need to be able to play their own roles. Not just for accuracy and representation, but because money is a finite resource. This discriminatory casting literally takes money away from workers who need the money.
Again, in the artistic realm, everything might be wonderful—the movie might be brilliant, the entertainment wonderful, the actors cast might be incredibly talented. But, when it comes to art, we need to think about the real world, and how the real world creates art. There are real world impacts in the very creation of the artistic world.
YOUR AUDIENCES CARE
Just as the real world finances the artistic world, the artistic world fuels the real world.
I touched on this a little bit in the first point, but let’s dig deeper: what impact does art have on people? Like, emotionally?
Sure, we create art, we think of it as existing in a vacuum. But then . . . what about the people who consume that art? Have you ever watched a movie and cried? Have you ever read a horror novel and been too afraid to sleep? Have you looked at a painting and felt joy?
Have you ever heard a joke told from a friend or family member, and felt personally hurt by it?
If art were just about creation, and explicitly about the artist in question, then writers would write stories in a diary. Paintings would sit in the garage. No one would ever consume the artwork except the creator. Under these conditions, art would exist in a vacuum.
The art we consume isn’t in a vacuum. It’s shared. Why do people share their art? Clearly, it’s because people consuming the art are important.
It’s the job of artists (who share their work) to care about their audiences, and the impact their work will have on people in the real world. This isn’t to say artists must be perfect—we just have to care and to make an effort to think ahead about how our art will be perceived in the real world. How our audiences will react, good or bad. Whether we are spreading misinformation.
If we don’t care about our audiences, then there is literally no point in sharing our art.
Literally. No point. Whatsoever.
So . . . should any actor be allowed to play any role? Should anyone be allowed to write any story? Is art universal?
We need to ask the question: where does art live? Is the art world some magical realm that exists explicitly in a vacuum?
No. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, unless the art goes unshared, and stays hidden away from the rest of the world.
Art is inextricably linked to the real world, the one we live in. And, as artists, it’s our job to think about the impact it has on the real world.
No one says we need to be perfect, and flawless, and create art that 100% makes the world a better place all the time in every way (truly, that would be impossible).
What needs to be said, is just to think about this relationship when we create. To care about the people in the real world through art. To educate ourselves on the real world, and what our art might (or probably) will do to actual people in the real world.
Should any actor be allowed to play any role? Should anyone be allowed to write any story? Is art universal?
My answer: no.
So what stories should we be allowed to tell? Roles to play? Art to create? Well, that's a post for another day—or, if you're truly interested right now, a simple Google search away.