On Consent in Art Practice
September 2nd, 2015
by Patrick Blenkarn
The concept of consent being developed and being spread to combat rape culture, has gained a certain level of traction today worth celebrating. It encourages a kind of thinking that includes the other—any other person—and transforms a sexual relationship in something balanced.
But here’s my question: if we want to take the concept of consent seriously, how do we let it transform the way we do things outside of the domain of sex as well? Does a continued popularization of consent enable us, if not demand of us, to reconsider other concepts we use in our everyday lives?
In my everyday life, I am an artist, or at least aspiring to be one. For some practical encouragement to start my day, I often spend time reading online about the processes of other artists. In some of the art blogs that interview famous artists and present tips for young artists, the language can seem in direct opposition to notions of respect, responsibility, and consent.
Some of these tips for young artists encourage an artistic disposition set on urging artists to stop asking questions, stop worrying about consequences, and just begin doing one’s art. Granted, these blogs may primarily publish this content as inspirational fluff—but that strikes me as no excuse. These tips are repeated frequently enough, by a variety of high profile artists from Werner Herzog to Jim Jarmusch, they have become something of a cliché or mantra. Some are more explicitly against a kind of consent-based practice, including statements such as “Ask forgiveness, not permission,” or “There are no rules” (both of which also are much loved by war and business enthusiasts alike), or “All art is stealing.” Others, like the old standard, “Don’t write for an audience,” communicate a kind of self-imposed limitation on the artist’s relationship with those around them. Combined, they form the portrait of an artist with “You can’t stop me!” written across their face.
This notion of the you-can’t-stop-me artist strikes me as the spitting image of the isolated and detached “genius” figure of the twentieth century. Alone in their studios, these artists toil to change the world all on their own! These particular figures still haunt our culture through major film biopics and documentaries celebrating, among others, J.D. Salinger, Jackson Pollock, the beat poets, Lucian Freud, and J.M.W. Turner; through plays about Mark Rothko and songs about sad ol’ Vincent Van Gogh, and innumerable books about all of the above [men] and more [men]. So many men. All determined to do art their own way.
I should note there are better tips out there in the world of art blogs. I frequently read and hear about the need to be open to ideas and changes in one’s work. As an artist, you are encouraged to listen to the work, ask “What does it need?”, and be honest with it and yourself. When shared, these are beautiful ideas that, I think, when shared, contribute to the culture of consent I see growing in our current era. These ideas get us talking about consent in new ways—pushing and exploring the limits of the concept.
Pragmatically, it’s not hard to see how these ideas can sometimes seem secondary in the recipe of art-making to those I mentioned earlier. To be a successful artist, if that’s what you want to be, you do perhaps need to be uncompromising at first. You may feel you can only listen to your work when alone and have forced everyone else out. In the process of creating a new work, you have to be able to ignore questions of consent, to a certain extent. Exactly how an artist negotiates where they draw the practical lines between consent and non-consent can vary.
What is concerning to me is this consent-ignoring figure, which doesn’t like negotiating with anyone, isn’t contained within Hollywood representations. It also lives on in many artistic practices, and in the representations and/or misrepresentations of these artistic practices to our audiences and ourselves. Through its selfish, you-can’t-stop-me, “genius” art values, it extends rape culture’s insidious web. You may recognize this figure from its most popular role as the [male] artist that doesn’t care about anyone else in the pursuit of their art and who is easily forgiven for their wrongs once the art is made. Likely because they are so well practised at asking for it.
If the concepts of artistic consent and social, thereby sexual, consent are separate today, the only thing keeping them apart is an inherited fantasy of art’s separation from society. I can imagine someone making an elaborate argument that an artwork can transcend the domain of society, but I’m hard-pressed to understand how the process of making the artwork could be outside of society as well. The writers, activists, and thinkers who are pushing back against rape culture have shown, over and over again, that this culture pervades our media, laws, slang, jokes, and so much more. It pervades many of our artworks, whether those are commercially popular or not, both at the level of subject matter (what the story or image is about) and how that subject matter is communicated (think: close-ups of asses). I am suggesting here that it also pervades our practices and colloquial teachings on how to perform the roles of artists in society.
Really, the process of learning about how to make art by following these kinds of clichés is not very different from learning about sex by watching non-consensual porn. Many artists say these are the tricks and tips for how to do art best. In practice, however, a student learning exclusively from this advice, and in turn enthusiastically quotes it, quickly ends up knowing only how to be a self-privileging caricature—a caricature whose dominance among the artists we celebrate, privilege, and forgive, needs to stop.
Regardless of their efficiency for art-making, and maybe even making “great” art, we need to recognize that the concept behind phrases like “Ask forgiveness, not permission” are, quite simply, bad tools for engaging with a culture of consent. What fully welcoming the concept of consent into art-making looks like, I don’t know. But I have a feeling it might look revolutionary.
Patrick Blenkarn creates theatre, performance art, and other things. He lives in Vancouver. You can see some of his stuff at patrickblenkarn.com