This Banned Books Week, to Hell with the Hays Code!

In the early years of movies, filmmakers didn’t have any restrictions — apart from the sense of morality held by whoever was funding them — as to what they could put in a movie. And so the Hays Code was born.

Ultra-restrictive, the Hays Code was a set of guidelines to combat the liberal content increasingly present at the movies (which, of course, pales in comparison to today’s films). The bottom line: “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it.”

Last week I learned about this mock photograph by A.L “Whitey” Schafer, who fit as many code violations as he could into a single photograph. At the time it must have been seen as shocking by some and considered deliciously disruptive by others.

Read more here.

Personally, I see this photo as a a much-needed middle-finger to stringent rules that, among other things, banned depictions of childbirth, interracial relationships, “sexual perversions (such as homosexuality),” religious figures as villains, and illegal drug use. You could not justify illicit sexual relationships between unmarried characters, and scenes of passion were closely monitored. In love scenes, partners couldn’t be in a horizontal position while kissing, and women had to have “at least one foot on the floor” (i.e. not in bed).

So what did Whitey do? He set up this photo, which broke ten of the Hays Commandments in a single image.

Writers face the threat of people reporting, banning or burning their books all the time. That’s why this week is “Banned Book Week.” To a lot of us, having your book be listed as a threat by ultra-conservative groups is a feather in the cap. The Hate U Give might be the most recent example I can think of as a YA novel that’s constantly in turmoil because of its realistic portrayal of a black teen being shot by a cop. Harry Potter was famously burned for its magical content — though its massive popularity stoked those flames, too, as not every fantasy book gets the same treatment.

That’s why this photograph came to mind when I sat down to blog this week. As writers we often have to make people uncomfortable to make our voices heard. Safe stories are sometimes nice, but we learn when we’re pushed to see things the establishment doesn’t want us to see.

The Hays Code was eventually abandoned in the late 1960s when enforcement became impossible — too many filmmakers were just paying the fine and making movies that shook the country to its core. If no one had flouted the rules, we’d still be watching versions of Frankenstein where the doctor’s god complex was completely brushed over.

It’s our job as creators to break the rules, but to do it in a way that “punches up.” Represent the marginalized. Criticize those in power. Funny, how that not only applies to making art, but also making life…

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 19: An artist known as Epsom

The sculpture garden had exactly seven lifesize clay statues, donated to the gala by a nephew of one of the board of directors. His name was Matthew Gimley Solomon IV — a curse of a name handed down from grandfather to father to son to grandson — but the underground art world knew him better as Epsom. It was a little science joke he had created when he learned his initials, MgSO4, were also the formula for magnesium sulfate, better known as epsom salts.

It wasn’t that his work for the Gladstone Gala sculpture garden was particularly good. All seven statues were of humanoid creatures — an angel, a demon, a little girl, a little boy, a sorcerer, an archer, and an oracle carved from stone and each possessing a single rusted-metal feature — and while they demonstrated his talent for sculpture, they didn’t showcase any of the creative spirit he put into his other work, which was too avant-garde for this crowd. The board wanted to show open-mindedness by spotlighting the work of a one-name artist but not alienate their more traditional — and generous — donors, so while they allowed Epsom to go by his art name, they asked that he refrain from his usual melting-wax statues of screaming refugee children or towering spires made of tarnished wristwatches with broken glass faces.  

Matthew Gimley Solomon IV had put up a fight for appearances sake before publicly acknowledging that in the spirit of hope and healing, he would be creating something “new and fresh for the gala that aligned with the foundation’s values and hope for a better world.” What he really did was go into the old storage unit he rented for unwanted work and taken a feather duster to a seven-piece collection he completed in his second year at art school. Some repairs should have been made to the metal embellishments, as a couple pieces had submitted to time and rust to loosen from their clay holds, but Epsom couldn’t be bothered. A bitter taste flooded his mouth as he remembered how the professor had given him a passing grade with a neon yellow post-it note that read “Great technique, but no heart.” On the upside, those five words had inspired him to make his work all heart, with very little technique. On the downside, that approach had gotten him kicked out of the school. 

Epsom had refused to attend the gala, insisting that he had another appearance priorly arranged. He was present for the installation of his seven clay-and-metal creatures but left under the cover of a hoodie and jogging pants before the guests had arrived. The only appearance he had to make that night was a date with a former Calvin Klein underwear model at his penthouse where there was always a bottle of Moet in the fridge and box of condoms in the nightstand drawer. 

So he had no idea that his mediocre art school project was about to become the focal point of a vigilante-villain showdown.  

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 12: Amanda Palmer talks at TED

I get into TED Talk ruts when I’m procrastinating, and one of my favorites to hear over and over again is Amanda Palmer’s discussion on the art of asking. It’s about putting yourself out there, shamelessly and fearlessly exploring your creativity, and allowing others to join you.

A lot of her talk has to do with letting rather than requiring people to contribute monetarily to the arts — music in particular — and that’s a hard one to apply to writing when I see authors of both bestselling and unknown books plea with their followers to stop bootlegging their work. But the meat of her presentation is that when you open your arms and let people enjoy and sometimes participate in the act of creativity, chances are they’ll say yes.

It took me a while to be comfortable starting a creative writing blog. I used to write about media issues and journalism, feminism and racism, professional life and personal achievements. That seemed safe because I was often just expounding my opinion, and (as Weezer says) if you don’t like it, you can shove it. But putting creative writing pieces online for anyone and everyone to come across was dangerous, because if people didn’t like it, it wasn’t necessarily because they were wrong: It was, in my mind at least, because the work I had published was bad.

A year and a half later, I’m realizing that’s not the case. This reader-writer community doesn’t go out of its way to shit on something by an unknown, unpublished writer. Instead, every time I get pinged because someone liked a post I put up on Convincing the Muse, I want to put just a few more words on the page. It’s encouraging, and it’s community.

Poem: Time on his arm

He wears time on his arm
Literally, artisically, devotedly.
Not as a watch that slips on and off,
Slows down and speeds up,
Inexplicably stops one day
(it just needs a new battery…or maybe a repair shop).

No, he’s got Dali clocks under his skin.
Minute hands, hour hands, Roman numerals
Tangle among flies and flowers and dreams,
And tie together with vines that bind around his forearm.
A permanent reminder that time is impermanent.

So how funny is it
That whenever that surrealism-swathed arm
Wraps itself around my waist,
Offers itself as we walk down the street,
Extends to hand me a drink
Or reassuringly squeeze my knee,
Time seems to stands still.

(Or at least I wish it would.)

 

Writespiration: Takashi Murakami’s “Kansei Korin Gold”

Living in Chicago means you can see something spectacular on any given weeknight. Tuesday night was the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Takashi Murakami exhibit. For a casual art lover and music fiend like myself, the main attractions were the work he did for Kanye West’s “Graduation” album (see below); the multiple recreations of D.O.B., his twisted Mickey-Mouse-esque mascot (also below); and his full-wall murals that combine elements of traditional Japanese artists like Hokusai with modern creators like Hayao Miyazaki and Jim Henson in complex cities of activity.

But, as was probably intended by the curators, I left with a far different impression of the avant-garde Japanese artist’s work — and a new favorite that’s still got me thinking a day later.

Takashi Murakami's "Kensei Korin Gold," a circular screenprint with multicolored leaves and flowers.

Takashi Murakami’s “Kensei Korin Gold,” as seen at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

“Kensei Korin Gold” (above) is is far more spectacular in person than in a photo. The gold leaf background is textured with blobbish smiling skulls, and the black waves sparkle with orange glitter, as if Murakami colored them in with one of the Glitter Crayolas from my childhood. Each flower has a slightly different facial expression such as joy, dismay, sluggishness, shock, etc., which turn this from a standard ornamental Japanese print to something with fantasy and personality.

That’s the kind of detail, diversity and dichotomy I try to inject into my own work. Instead of screenprinting, I use screenwriting (and prose-writing, poem-writing, etc.) to try to create things that are, like “Kensei Korin Gold,” attractive from afar and downright mesmerizing up-close. Seeing how easily Murakami does this is both challenging and inspiring.

Takashi Murakami's art for Kanye West's "Graduation" album

Murakami’s cover art for Kanye West’s “Graduation” album. That small image glowing on my iPhone screen is nothing compared to the glossy original currently hanging at the MCA.

"Tan Tan Bo" by Takashi Murakami

“Tan Tan Bo” by Takashi Murakami — A version of his mascot, D.O.B., who is a visual combustion of Japanese and American animation.