“Great Artists” and Social Conventions


The following story unfolded just recently: On the social network, Facebook, a very famous Georgian stage director was described euphemistically as a male sex organ. That anatomical comparison was prompted by his statement that the Georgian President is bad, perhaps because the President is secretly an Armenian. In the online discussion that ensued, no one appeared to commend this opinion of the stage director. The discussion instead focused on the question of whether or not the director himself was a great artist: Some said yes; others said no, and the rest said nothing.
What is so strange about this story? For me, only one thing: The stage director’s openly xenophobic statement. Then again, what is really so unique about that? Nothing, as it turns out. Also just recently, even-more-famous-person film director Lars von Trier almost inadvertently tried to whitewash Hitler. For his gaffe, von Trier was condemned universally. The specific epithets hurled across social networks to describe Lars von Trier were, probably, not particularly surprising to anyone who bothered to read them.

What was surprising to me was what happened at the next stage: On the Liberali magazine blog, well-known writer Lasha Bughadze spoke up for the stage director. No, Bughadze did not commend him for xenophobia; instead, the writer directed his criticism to the sharp reaction the stage director engendered on Facebook. Bughadze blogged that Facebookers’ reaction even outweighed the “blame” of the stage director. For Bughadze, two things appear to be worse than xenophobic statements: (1) comparing the man with the male sex organ; (2) questioning the stage director’s status as a “Great Artist”

Why do I think this fracas is worth analyzing? The reason is because of what it reveals about our society. We have to find out where, about whom, what, by whom, and how something should be said “in a good society” – in other words, what social conventions we must obey. In civilized (or, more precisely, democratic) states, this is no less important than are more formal norms of freedom of speech.

Since the death of God, His place in Western culture has been filled by the “Great Artist.”

Since no one even tried to justify xenophobia in this context, I will skip over that issue and raise another question: Is it ever acceptable to compare a (any) person with a male sex organ? My answer is: It depends on the forum in which the graphic comparison is made. Traditionally, the use of “bad” words in a public domain has been acknowledged as inappropriate and unwelcome. For example, if such words were used to describe people on Tabula pages, the Liberali blog or a talk show on any TV channel, I would not like it either. In a private space within a close circle, the use of such words is deemed “acceptable.” Someone probably invented “bad” words because they felt they were needed, so why shouldn’t they be used somewhere?

Social conventions change constantly. In Lasha Bughadze’s novels, for example, one often encounters such words which older-generation writers would never commend. The convention now is very different: We have become quite accustomed to “frank talk” in literature, films, performances, and we no longer are offended by it.

What about the situation on Facebook? Based on personal observation, norms there are rather softer than in the traditional media. That is only natural. Although a social network is not truly a classical “close circle” but rather a quasi-private space, it is a virtual room in which “friends” talk with one another. I have my Facebook “Wall” and post on it whatever I like; then someone enters my Wall, posts a word or two there and exits, and so on and so forth. The use of “bad words” – within Facebook conventional limits – is also accepted (including in assessing third parties), and I find it difficult to recall anyone who has ever been indignant about this. Nor did Lasha Bughadze voice his protest against the use of “bad words.”

It appears that Bughadze’s problem was not with the “impolite” euphemism itself, but rather with its application to the famed artist. The principle derived here: If a person has staged good performances, then his/her behavior, as either a personality or a citizen, cannot be measured by words used to describe those people lacking creative talent. I think that I got that meaning right.

And that’s exactly what prompts this article. According to the cultural  myth of “Modern Europe,” if a person can, say, compose rhymes, or paint, or dance “The Dying Swan” well, then his/her opinions about political or social problems are considered wiser and worthy of greater attention and reverence than the opinions of a public notary, dentist or taxi driver. I, personally, cannot say that this is true. My own observation of people of the first group is that they are no smarter, in general, than people of the second group. But this myth has deep roots, and it makes no sense to fight against it. Since the death of God, His place in Western culture has been filled by the “Great Artist.”

A “Great Artist” can be disliked by anyone because no special license or official status is required to criticize him/her.

Nevertheless, democratic societies know that any artist entering a public discussion space is bound by an unwritten “obligation of patience” similar to the one imposed on any “professional” politician or polemicist. Even more than that, if an artist’s statement deserves a priori more attention than others, then the negative reaction to it may also be proportionately sharper. If this simple truth has become arguable with respect to a particular stage director, then it means that we have yet to understand basic democratic values.

With regard to the question of whether or not Robert Sturua is a “great” stage director… Come on, that is not something worth discussing at all. We would do better to repeat the basic principles: (1) A “Great Artist” can be disliked by anyone because no special license or official status is required to criticize him/her; (2) When a “Great Artist” deigns to descend from mythical Mount Olympus and commune with mere mortals, the Great Artist is entitled to behave like an ordinary [*-----*]…  No, I will not repeat the actual word – after all, this is not Facebook but a respected magazine.



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