Friday, April 17, 2015

The Din of Opinion: When Does Free Speech Become Spree Speech?


Working in a close-knit community like the equine realism market has tremendous social benefits. We come to know our fellow colleagues and collectors on a familiar, even personal basis, often finding support and kinship born of similar passions that form lasting bonds. In many ways, we live in a metaphorical “small town,” one tightly intertwined by shared events, overlapping interests, and the Internet. We begin to feel comfortable and at home in such a small community and set down roots we hope will be lasting and fruitful. Closely-knit venues also offer unique advantages for business. A few great pieces and a couple of carefully placed ads can result in tremendous benefits through such focused exposure and an extensive grapevine. In this way, good work is allowed to sell itself, letting artists focus more on studio work rather than intense marketing plans. Truly, doesn’t it feel wonderful to operate in a genre that feels so much like a community?


On the other hand, is it always really such a rosy picture? Couldn’t this casual familiarity be a liability at times? We have to admit that familiarity can breed an environment a bit too casual, especially if professional standards of social interaction are inadequate. We can indeed become less guarded in our manner of speaking and exercise less control over the intent of our words when we get too lackadaisical. Being so, we can become ever more relaxed voicing our public opinions regardless of their impact. In essence, we can become "tone deaf" to our own words and implications. Over time, we may get bolder still, feeling downright entitled to voicing our opinions despite the consequences. If we’re not watchful then, it’s deceptively easy to poison this community not only for ourselves, but also for those who share it.

Now some would have us believe that unfettered opinion is simply being honest, adult, lively or in touch with realitybut is it? What kind of reality does it really serve? Because just as easily, others can call such an environment vitriolic, immature, targeted, cruel, or disenfranchising. Is there really a difference between being helpfully honest or being needlessly abrasive? Can our public opinions be accountable to a communal responsibility, or are they our rightful ammunition to fire at will? Which scenario is more beneficial for personal growth and the development of the activity, or does that even matter?

Indeed, when dealing with something as subjective as art, let alone quality art, the array of opinions is as dazzling as a fireworks display. For every situation there’s a comment, and for every creation there’s a criticism. Part of being a mature artist is to accept this reality as part of the deal we signed. The reality is simple: We publicly display our creations and people will talk, for better or for worse. Deal with it, right? Because it’s unreasonable to expect this process to stop simply for the sake of our feelings. The human animal en masse simply isn’t that generous when it comes to such matters. Rather, an artist is better served by developing coping mechanisms to weather these comments gracefully, and to learn from them when necessary. 

We must remember, too, that the art venue we've chosenrealistic equine sculptureis a tight focus with a razor-sharp set of expectations that slice through market and studio alike. This means that realism isn’t as subjective as we may think it to be, particularly when comparative competition is thrown into the mix. Because when we compare pieces and ask, “Which is more realistic?” we’re walking down a narrow path that becomes narrower still each time that question is asked. No matter how we may lament it then, the tolerance within this focus for imaginative forays or learning curves isn’t as forgiving as we may need or want.

On the flipside, being a seasoned artist means knowing the strengths and weaknesses in one’s work, and striving to reconcile them. So isn’t any outside opinion a means for an artist to gain clarity? How will an artist know she’s off-track if she never hears otherwise? Yes, white lies are a social necessity, but when we’re dealing with an art form as relentless as realistic equine art, are such fibs really beneficial for an artist? Criticism, when appropriate, can be helpful, right?

We have to be honest with ourselves, too, in that seeking critique from private individuals doesn’t always work to our best advantage. If we are dependent on another person’s “eye,” that eye may be burdened by its own blind spots or misinformation. A private setting sometimes compromises the honesty of the critique as well, with an over-riding concern about hurt feelings. The “court of public opinion,” on the other hand, is inclined to spout unabashed candor in copious amounts since all sympathy for the artist is stripped away by the objectification of the situation. Still, being “cruel to be kind” may not be so bad! Pearls of wisdom can be found in public commentary, so why not utilize this inevitable situation? Here, the artist also gets the benefit of many opinions and accompanying tangents and discussions, all of which could offer fantastic avenues of improvement otherwise undiscovered.

Public discussion about an artist’s work also is a way for the community to figure out the issue of realism, not only for their own buying decisions, but also as the basis for communal expectations, which translates into how artists will refine their creative directions in the future. This is important to keep in mind because the basis of gauging realism not only is to compare the artwork to the living subject, but also to compare artwork to other artworks. The fact is that the community needs to talk about these comparisons not just as a natural outcome of trying to improve its own awareness, but as a facet of progress within the genre.

In addition, when we layer on a competitive element, such as in model horse showing, showers need to be able to discuss the realism of any given piece to learn how to become more successful within the activity. For example, it’s been this very dynamic that has improved the anatomy and depiction of color genetics within the model horse genre over the years, and which will continue to hone expectations in the future. In short, trying to “gag” these kinds of discussions for the sake of one’s feelings is literally to impede the progressive success of the art form itself. Perhaps nowhere else than in the model horse market does this dynamic come into sharper focus: The unending conflict between the expectations of the collectors and the boundaries of the artists in this elaborate game we call "showing model horses." Often artists working in that genre are confronted with a set of demands that can test the patience and mettle of any creative mind. So which has more precedence? The needs of the showers dependent on the artwork to participate, or the needs of the artists who provide the game pieces to the showers? It can’t be ignored that the showers’ opinions are vital since they vote with their dollars, yet if an artist is pushed beyond a breaking point trying to win these votes, how is that beneficial to the vitality of the activity?

We also must recognize that it takes all kinds to make a world, and so our respective communities are simply microcosms of the larger social patterns already present. Human nature is what it is, no matter where it’s found. Simply looking at the gossip columns or grocery tabloids proves that a large percentage of people are drawn to the sordid twists of life. It’s not a peachy world all the time, and we need to expect the rough spots, even in our curious little community. An artist should learn to shrug off such things and avoid internalizing them as personal failures. It’s part and parcel of being an artist, and especially so as an artist in this demanding game. 


Nonetheless, is the situation really that one-sided? What’s the real nature of spewing opinions into a community? While it can be said that public opinion can offer valuable insights, it also can be said that not every opinion holds the artist, or the art form, in its best interests, either. When we layer competition onto an artistic endeavor, too, doesn’t the motivation behind public opinion adopt a new connotation? 

For example, many public opinions are offered as “just a thought,” or claimed to be innocent little ponderings, usually with little consideration for the implications that train of thought will seed into the minds of others. A single carelessly planted insinuation can have unfortunate ripple effects, no matter how innocently intended. Words and ideas have tremendous power, especially when it comes to touchy subjects within a community, and even more so in a competitive community. Once implanted, these effects cannot be erased and we cannot take back what harm they have done! Add into this an active rumor mill and unmoderated forums, and we have a recipe for unjustified damage to someone based only on a self-indulgent comment. Do we really get to say whatever we want, whenever we want, just because we have the ability? Does “because we can” literally translate into “we should”? Is that appropriate behavior within a professional community? 

In the model horse venue in particular, there’s the added layer of tension between collectors and artists because of the unusual structure of the activity itself, in which artists create the winning game pieces used by collectors in the game of showing model horses. An observant artist will see patterns of bad public behavior because of this and be able to keep it in a healthy perspective. For instance, some participants feel compelled to fire off public opinions that are outright hurtful or condemning, either towards artists in general, or to target a specific artist. Note how many of these attacks are justified with, “it’s just my opinion,” the typical camouflage for many an agendized comment. With this tactic, almost every artist in the model horse venue has been “leveled” at some point, as the blade of agendized opinion attempts to hack off the head that rises just a little too high for someone’s sensibilities. As the weapon of choice used by malcontents, an artist is well advised to recognize it. 

For example, we might be publicly berated for being “too big for our britches,” or “too hoity-toity” for any number of reasons. Perhaps we’re adopting new protective policies, or pricing our work to reflect its improvement, or becoming more selective in what commissions we take, or changing our sales methods, or producing in a new medium such as bronze or ceramic. Even our artistic style can come under fire, and not because there’s something wrong with it, but because someone is trying to cut us down to size…their size! And so our work might be chided for any number of reasons just to chop us down. Simply put, the very things that establish and distinguish our success are those very things that make us a target for “leveling,” as though no one should be too good or too successful. 

Unfortunately, leveling is relatively common in the model horse venue, in many manifestations, due to the venue’s unique structure that spawns a deep-seated fear of disenfranchisement that pervades the entire community. People want access to winning work, but if artists start to "think too much of themselves" some people worry they'll be denied access to their works. Indeed, some participants are fearful they’ll be left behind in the competition if artists get too big or if quality gets too good or the activity gets too serious. In other words, “if you can’t beat ‘em, chop ‘em down.” It's a form of collective bullying that an artist is advised to counter professionally by always taking the high road.

However, perhaps even worse is the proclivity of some artists to attack others with public assaults or snide aspersions. Not only does this set a terrible example for the on-looking community, it also gives license for others to engage in this destructive behavior as well. When artists are turned into competitors rather than colleagues, we'll find this effect at work. But is this really the best way to build a future for our community?

Additionally, if a market goes through a rough patch, such as with a poor economy, it can destabilize sales and often cause old paradigms to collapse. As a result, we can see artists take even more pot shots at each other in public view, often directed towards those who are succeeding. Many also are fearful about their future in the activity, fueling the impulse to lash out at those who appear to be the engines behind the changes by launching words intended to demean, besmirch, insinuate, or intimidate. Sometimes these aggressive opinions are voiced with the intent of righting some perceived injustice, but with no thought to the larger issues that should outweigh any one individual’s situation. Let’s face itmost of these incidents can be distilled into a concern more focused on personal gratification rather than the greater good of the community. In the end, what's actually accomplished are lingering bad feelings within the community that far outweigh any meager triumph accomplished by a personal crusade. People tend to forget that an opinion isn't a fact, and merely believing in our opinion doesn't make it any more factual.

There are other considerations, as well. One malicious or careless opinion might adversely affect not only an artist’s credibility, but also everyone who collects that artist’s work. This has far-reaching consequences beyond intensified derision in an already divided communitythere are implications of defamation of character (which includes libel, slander, and damaged business), which is a serious legal matter. Yes, libel and slander only pertain to malicious falsehoods, but how many times has an opinion masqueraded as truth and been used as a weapon? The nature of any public opinion does have legal ramifications, such as yelling “fire!” in a theater, sexual harassment in the work place, or spouting racist hate speech. Even armies of attorneys carefully guide comedians or commentators who utilize the combatative style of public speaking so popular today. “Free speech” does have limitations under the Bill of Rights, and closely observing the daily legal wrangling on that issue continually illustrates this point. Will it finally take a lawsuit to curb this kind of public behavior in our community?

Along those lines, does free speech have further obligatory limitations in a small, insular art community? It would seem that the very nature of basing an entire economy and competitive activity upon subjective realistic art demands even more care in how we treat each other with our public words. Remember, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," and even deeper, "reality is in an individual's perception," therefore anyone’s perspective on quality is equally right and equally wrong until proven otherwise by actual facts (not opinions). The question then becomes: What kind of community do we wish to build for the future? Can we shape it through our public treatment of each other now, especially when we disagree? Perhaps how we handle a subject is just as important as the subject itself?

This brings us to something every highly successful artist needs to fully understand as an important caution: Our words have more weight in the community so people will likely interpret them as more than “just an opinion.” Like it or not, our success comes at a price when it relates to our free speech, because reaching a certain stature means our words will be interpreted through a new filter. So even if we think we’re simply speaking our well-intended, innocent opinion in public, others won't regard our comments this way, but with far greater weigh initiated by our successful stature. This means we can inadvertently contaminate online discussions by appearing as an arrogant bully to anyone with negative baggage while those who agree with us can be targeted as cloying sycophants out to get into our good graces. This is the Catch-22 bias that comes with success. And this is how success can predispose artists to a miserable online experience only because so many envision themselves as no different from anyone else. Yet not understanding this effect usually means they end up as targets for all sorts of public attacks or nonsense, and limp away battered and bewildered. 

The fact is that popular artists don’t get the same kind of free speech others enjoy. Like it or not then, we must be more careful with our public words, and be selective about where we interact online. For example, avoiding public forums and opting, instead, to interact with like-minded colleagues on private forums often is the better option. Or seek forums with ardent, rational moderation. We must always “take the high road,” too, and act with utmost professionalism, even when the attacks are ridiculous and base, if only to minimize blow back. We should never hand anyone ammunition to fire back at us! It also means that adopting a “familiar” way of public interaction online isn’t a good idea, either. We should be careful with what we reveal about our personal life, too, along with our personal opinions, because anything we post or say quickly can be turned into return fire.

Yet just as an artist is expected to react in a mature and professional fashion in the public arena, shouldn’t everyone lobbing their public opinions be expected to behave in the same way, too? Aren’t we all accountable to the community we share? This question is perhaps most pressing in the online aspect of the community. Anonymous posting on forums (either through tag names, neglecting to sign a name after a post, or other means) can hardly be considered credible, no matter how seemingly rational a comment may be. A professional owns her words because this helps to create an air of responsible commentary when we’re held accountable to them. It’s difficult for irresponsible speech to prosper when people aren’t allowed to hide behind anonymity. It also can’t be dismissed that many public volleys of opinion appear to serve an ego trip rather than serious, compassionate discussion on pivotal philosophical ideas. Some people in the art or model horse community truly love to hear themselves talkand some love to hear themselves slam others they resent even more.

Subsequently, some comments seem less intended to address a serious allegorical problem than to make some snide insinuation targeted at someone. If we notice, these kinds of posts are rarely based on substantiated information, relying instead on hearsay, bullying, emotional provocations, knee-jerk reactions, ill-informed opinion, or some other ugly agenda. What’s more, those types who flourish within this kind of environment are drawn to it because their behavior finds validation there, allowing it to become ever bolder and brasher. It often can feed on itself, too, resulting in an excess of opinionated posts to the point where one wonders how such people find the time. The ultimate result isn’t a more dynamic, intelligent discussion that fosters the open sharing of diverse and learned ideas, but one made poorer as people are driven away by the unpleasantness. In other words, rampant, unaccountable free speech has the exact opposite effect it intends in a close-knit community.

For that reason, perhaps we need to acknowledge that there's a kind of artistic “hate speech,” or “spree speech” that runs unchecked in our community under the guise of free speech. Just like hate speech is intended to intimidate and brutalize targeted groups or individuals, this tactic does the same to certain sects in our community. Yet how can we differentiate between a genuine opinion and something that’s caustic? If it’s not the subject being discussed then, is it how that discussion can morph into something other than philosophical ideas and rhetorical debates, and into something else?

Perhaps this is the tipping point where a simple opinion ceases to be free speech and takes on this darker guise. When we objectify our peers and steer a discussion into something maliciously self-serving and personally combative, does our opinion become harmful rather than helpful? This is an easy slippery slope to plunge down, since the Internet allows human beings to be turned into dehumanized words on a screen, or our fellows at shows to become opponents rather than contemporaries. For the sake of our collective future then, it may be more helpful to self-edit our public behavior with respect for our fellows, rather than pander to a free speech free-for-all. Truly, when does the weight of our possibly self-serving public opinion override the greater good, or the harm or hurt it could do to another person? 

To that end, it should be noted that people are watching and listening. Make no mistakeevery word we speak in public reveals reams about us, good or bad, and people take notice. We'll develop a pattern of behavior in the eyes of others, which can serve to our credit…or not. This especially has weighty consequences for an artist since her public words are often her public face, especially online, which can directly impact her business or standing within the industry, or with colleagues. There has been more than a few times where positive public behavior has created new connections between people, and just as many times when being tone deaf to one's own words has caused negative professional consequences. 

Then again, what about an opinion on a controversial issue that’s well intended, informed and potentially helpful? We must recognize that in order to gain consensus and standardization, a community does have to discuss key issues, many of which are uncomfortable or cause something to be singled out. Here perhaps is where spree speech can do the most harm if left uncheckedwhen these essential discussions are commandeered by spree speech, the possibility of intelligent discussion is corroded, not only compromising any progress that could have been accomplished, but also leaving poisoned waters in its wake. Indeed, one begins to wonder if the community is even capable of an informed and professional discussion on controversial topics without it becoming a war zone. 

Clearly, an artist must understand that some opinions are valid and some aren’t if she intends to keep her positive perspective intact. Likewise, some people voice their opinions with good intentions, and some do so with bad intentions, while others are simply oblivious to anyone’s else’s reality but their own. Being tone deaf to one's own public words can wreak untold havoc in a community. Andyes“free speech” has a rather loose definition in this country, but when this right isn’t exercised in the spirit in which it was drafted, it can harm a community, and even the freedom and prosperity of others. Enduring the rants of even the most unbalanced people as they exercise their perceived freedom of speech may be the price we pay for this freedom, but we can learn to keep their behavior in perspective and make responsive judgments about the people making them. We can avoid those people, avoid the forums they frequent, block them, or employ intelligent moderation on public lists.

To that end, we need to recognize the implied motivation behind an opinion to determine if it’s truly free speech or spree speech. At the same time, we must be able to identify our own motivations behind our words to ensure we’re speaking in a way that builds cohesion rather than contempt. These often under-developed skills can take time to learn, but they are pivotal for steering a career down healthy paths and for ensuring the long-term greater good of the community. 


That said, we should also realize that we all make mistakes from time to time with our words because we are human. The Internet is especially prone to missteps in verbiage or interpretation because it lacks all the social nuances, tonal inflections, body language, situational pressures, and spontaneity so important for normal human communication. So perhaps a sister skill we all need is the ability to forgive each other faster than our compulsion to launch a retaliatory public attack. Like “WOPR” in War Games, it’s probably better metaphorically to learn the art of not starting a war, and simply play chess!

One thing we always should bear in mind is how small the equine art communities actually are. Word gets around, and we’re all interdependent on each other in some form or another. How we treat others in public ultimately determines how each of us is treated, in very immediate, direct ways. Each time we speak in public, perhaps we should be more mindful of the kind of future we want, not just for ourselves, but for each other, as well. In this way, we can make sure we’re practicing free speech rather than indulging spree speech, and we are allowing the neighborhood to grow and become a fun and nurturing place for all of us.

"The rule in carving holds good as to criticism; never cut with a knife what you can cut with a spoon." 
~ Charles Buxton

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