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Artistic licence



I can’t contain my autism: when right-wing people complain that it’s “not factual” to have, for example, a black African rifleman in the British Army’s red tunic in a Doctor Who episode set at the battle of Rorke’s Drift, I have to say that whether it is factual or not is irrelevant. Your complaint is irrelevant, it’s due to a thing called “artistic licence”. The film Zulu (1964) is taken to be a “right-wing” film—a conventionally patriotic film. It is not historically accurate; it’s pretty accurate, but as people who know about these things say “it’s not a historical reenactment” (nor does it claim to be). In fact, to watch a historical reenactment on film—apart from for autists—would bore people and actually would make little sense because reality is not neatly linear and plotted like a film (aside from all the lulls, even in a battle, that would “feel wrong”).


So no artistic representation can be criticised on the grounds it is “not factual”. It’s an artistic interpretation of events that happened in history—and artistic licence can stretch a long way, so that “the facts” are barely relevant. You see this in Shakespeare: for many people all they know about Julius Caesar is the line “Et tu, Brute?” and they know that from Shakespeare—except it is highly debatable whether Caesar *actually* said that, and if he did he probably said it in ancient Greek. So should we dump Shakespeare for this *error*? Perhaps if we’re autists, but even autists—perhaps especially autists—understand that there’s a difference between art and scientific history in the mode of Thucydides.


There are many reasons to play around with an artistic representation of historic events, and there is no “law” that says you may not—in fact, art positively encourages explorations in representation; and, indeed, in modernity it is taken for granted that the artist’s role is to “challenge expectations”.


So, perhaps, I’ll do an HBO-BBC series about Lord Horatio Nelson except I’ll cast Idris Elba as Nelson. Nelson wasn’t black. Look, I know that but I want to play with your expectations and preconceptions about English history, about how you perceive power relations, and to make you think about what it means to be an “English hero”. Boo! Hiss! (This is all very Nietzschean by the way, the will to power is my ability as an individual to channel chaos creatively through a play of masks that outrages “the mob” with their petty nationalist prejudices and beery complaints about “He ain’t black tho, is he!”—hence Nietzsche is a leftist figure).


It has been this way for a long time: the image above is from Orson Welles’s “ground-breaking” (the idea art “breaks new ground” is integral to this worldview) interpretation of Macbeth in Harlem—the gimmick there being that the cast was all black and the action moved from Scotland to Haiti. Welles was a huge ego, not unlike his own Citizen Kane (was it about Hearst or was it about Welles?). The ego must shock “bourgeois” opinion, bombast.


What is art? In modernity people struggle to answer this question because modernity is secular. Here is the simple answer: art is religion—the two are synonymous, hence in a techno-scientific world art is disprivileged (it’s about judgement, prejudice, instinct, and intuition—all unscientific).


The modern right is itself so debased that when confronted with art they dislike they default to a “scientific” critique, “It ain’t factual though, is it? I mean if we did a DNA test on Nelson he wouldn’t have sub-Saharan DNA, would he? Stands to reason. Reason and logic.” Yet the right does have a point because the way, say, a black African crops up in British uniform at Rorke’s Drift is not just some individual writer or director engaged in “artistic exploration”, rather it’s the state’s beliefs represented in artistic form: in other words, it’s the state’s mythology—and the state’s mythology is that white men are bad, women are good, homosexuals are good, and non-white racial groups are good.


However, you cannot object to mythology on a factual basis. “Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is not factual and therefore cannot be performed.” Well, no—art doesn’t work that way. The Western right is hamstrung in this regard because they are themselves modernists; so they’ll say, “Do STEM, just earn money and get on with it.” What they mean is “don’t engage in the artsy fartsy non-scientific stuff, that’s all made-up nonsense”; and that view itself comes from modernity—“art” = “religion” = “made-up nonsense”.


Hence conservatives, being modernists, cede their national mythologies to the left. The nation’s mythology is itself disordered because the other side to the modernist individualist coin (rational individual who pursues his STEM degree and makes money) is that the artist is a heroic Nietzschean who “makes their name” as an individual genius and does so through “challenging preconceptions” and “creative destruction” (i.e. destroying the national mythology); it’s pretended that art is, as with science, “moving forwards”—even though it’s still a cyclical myth it’s pretended it’s “progressive” (really, it’s just a perverted myth).


The counterpart to the artist as “groundbreaker” is the medieval stonemason who works at his cathedral completely anonymously but whose work sustains a tradition that supports the society in which he lives. He learns his skill from a mason who learned his skill from a mason who learned his skill from a master mason—and what was passed down was how to hold a chisel in a certain way, just as the master did; it just doesn’t come from books. A similar idea subsists in music—you learn to play the piano from someone who learned from someone who learned from someone who learned from someone who learned from Liszt. It’s not the same as if you learn to play guitar on YouTube, upload your own song, and then become a 3-minute viral sensation—that’s just chaos, really (get the Bitcoin, overindulge in Ket, die at twenty-three).


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