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Are You Censoring Yourself?

by Eric Maisel, PhD

Today I want to resume chatting about the idea of “engaged creativity” and the artist’s relationship to society.

Most of us would be quick to say that we are free to think just about anything and to express ourselves in any way we see fit.

In reality, artists do a lot of measuring, somewhere just out of conscious awareness, about what is safe or seemly to reveal and what is unsafe or unseemly.

They decide to set their novel in a foreign country because they do not feel safe talking about the evildoers in their own hometown.

They paint lively abstractions or cheerful landscapes because they fear what Goya-esque horrors might escape from their brush in a narrative painting.

When a nonfiction idea begins to percolate in their brain, an idea that if published might cause the government to retaliate, they find reasons to dismiss the project.

We all do these sorts of things.

We are talking about the most primitive and important of motives here, our personal safety and survival; and why, because of the power of these motives, so many artists and would-be artists practice ongoing self-censorship.

One aspect of this self-censorship is the way we bite our tongue at our day job and, in a corollary safety measure, skip making art that reveals what our corporation, institution, or agency is up to.

We don’t tell tales out of school about the school where we work; we don’t reveal the dirt about the police department that employs us; we don’t portray our madcap board of directors in our novel or paint a Kafka-esque likeness of our governmental agency.

These are knotty psychological and practical matters that confront virtually every artist. Here is one report, from the writer and performance artist Eva Weaver.

Eva writes from England:

“I have decided to quit my job as an Art Psychotherapist in the National Health Service after seven long years. I worked in a big psychiatric hospital with various people, in-patients, out-patients, acutely distressed, psychotic clients, others with ‘personality disorders’ and alcohol problems, and suicidal people.

"When I was younger I could have never imagined becoming part of the Mental Health system, as I always thought there was something intrinsically wrong and bad about the psychiatric system, a system that still depends so strongly on the medical model.

"But I found myself with a job within a flourishing and lively arts therapies department and for years I was quite happy there, seeing that good work could be done WITHIN this system.

“But I have gone right back to my previous position. I now think that our department has been systematically destroyed over the past two and a half years, we’re only a shadow of our former selves, we lost all autonomy due to ‘institutional re-structuring’ (what a ridiculous phrase for such a violent process!!) and it has become impossible for me to continue to work there and still feel good about myself.

"One scary issue for me has been to see how I have felt silenced, just like my clients, by a system that in the end really only cares about economics and personal power.

“I have not yet worked directly with the outrage I feel about all this in my writing or my performance art, maybe because I have a feeling that I need to gain some distance in order to speak again, to find my voice again.

"I am German and only when I moved to Britain twelve years ago did I start to slowly find a voice about the shame and guilt that I brought with me because of my German heritage.

"Now, twelve years later, I have Jewish friends and I am taking a performance piece on tour in which I honestly, humorously, courageously and deeply speak about my experiences of being German here and about my outrage, shame, and deep sadness about the wounds of history.

"All this has finally found a voice. And I have a feeling that my next piece will be very much about my journey within the Mental Health system, my strange position within this.

“I am sad that I seem to need the distance in order to really speak out, but better to speak at some point than never at all! In expressing this I am aware just HOW silenced I have felt for the past months, and how now that I have given my notice and will leave before Christmas I can breathe deeper and feel myself more fully, including my rage and sadness.

“Can one be part of a huge system and still speak out? I don’t think that I am a coward but there is something very silencing about such huge places and hierarchies.

"Maybe it’s always easier to speak from the perspective of an outsider; to speak from inside a system is much more difficult, as one is so much more vulnerable.

"I think I am only beginning to understand what it takes to speak from inside a huge system. I have a lot more to reflect upon about how and why people censor themselves when they find themselves inside some powerful institution.”

Eva’s experiences are quite typical. Can an artist get away with living inside his society while at the same time daring to tell the truth about that society?

"Or will he invariably be punished and exiled if he tells uncomfortable truths? The matter is as complex as matters get.

One television satirist becomes a huge star for excoriating the sitting President while another television satirist becomes a pariah for telling the exact same truths.

All publishers during a certain epoch are too frightened to publish books about atheism; then, a mere decade later, because some atheism books have appeared and become bestsellers, these same publishers start beating the bushes looking for books on atheism.

A museum puts on a well-attended show of Goya prints that point out the sins of capitalism; and yet no gallery within miles of that museum will touch contemporary prints on the very same subject.

How is an artist to calculate the odds that he will remain safe is he tells too brave a truth or that, courageously telling that truth, he will garner any sort of audience?

An artist is right to feel confused and uncertain as to what will happen if and when he decides to censor himself less.

What have your experiences been like when you made a conscious effort to create with a more pointed pen or brush?

Have you had some successes and some defeats—or only defeats? Have you felt better—or worse? Have you been made to pay or have you escaped retribution?


    Little updates:

On the latest episode of The Joy of Living Creatively, I chat about how the anxiety produced in us when our creative projects shift and change often causes us to flee the encounter. What can we do to survive all of this morphing? Listen and find out at the site.

On the latest episode of Your Purpose-Centered Life, I examine the idea that believers have ample reasons for deciding to make personal meaning and that the effort to make meaning is the truest demonstration of a believer’s desire to take his or her religion seriously. Tune in here.

This article is from Eric Maisel's Creativity Newsletter Nov 25, 2007.

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Eric Maisel, Ph.D. holds Master's degrees in Creative Writing and Counseling, and a Doctorate in Counseling Psychology. He is a California licensed marriage and family therapist, a creativity coach and trainer of creativity coaches, and teaches through lectures, workshops, and teleseminars.

Dr. Maisel is widely regarded as America's foremost creativity coach and has taught thousands of creative and performing artists how to incorporate Ten Zen Second mindfulness techniques into their creativity practice. See his site for ebooks and more information on his work.

Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of more than thirty books - some titles at right >

Also see more articles by Eric Maisel.

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