Where are you, Timothy Leary?♦
Or: Who’s an artist? Who’s a criminal?
The listserv of the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia usually functions as a free and open forum to post shows, audition notices, job listings and the occasional apartment sublet (or stray cat). Its recent posts, however, have focused on a controversy surrounding a show appearing in this year’s Fringe Festival: Christian Lisak’s performance piece, That’s Why They Don’t Call It a Picnic.
Lisak’s show concerns his recent stint in a federal prison camp, which by itself, presents no problem—plenty of artists have written or performed about their experiences in prison, federal or otherwise. The controversy began on September 5 when Ms. Joanne Broadward posted the following on the Alliance listserv:
“In case anybody needs to be reminded Mr. Lisak was a former teacher at the University of the Arts and was caught selling dope through a very clever scheme using bike messengers . . . However, being presented as part of the Philly Fringe by Vagabond Acting Troupe, producer; J. Ciccone, owner of the property and Mr. Lisak to profit from the retelling of past criminal activity of which the teller was CONVICTED is a CRIMINAL offense in itself. I’m sure that he’ll get a great audience because it is an interesting story. But please remember YOU will be
supporting a convicted criminal and shame on VAT, Philly Fringe and
What crime did Lisak commit?
Over the next few days, dozens of listserv members commented on Broadward’s initial posting. Some castigated Broadward for raising the issue and a few others defended her right to post such thoughts in a free and open forum.
The remainder of the responses fell into one of two categories. The first held that Lisak has been duly punished for his crime, and consequently we should not now punish him again. The second argued that Lisak committed a crime, but that he also possesses many points in his favor (good teacher, great artist, contributor to charity, etc.). But all the responders— and Broadward as well— seem to agree on one point: Lisak committed a crime.
I don’t expect theater artists to think like philosophers (or even lawyers), but I expected quite a bit better than these tepid replies, both of which miss what strikes me as the real point.
I’m going to go out on a very short limb and argue that the domain of criminality is restricted to those actions (either through force or fraud) that violate the rights of another non-consenting adult or innocent third party. This, of course, happens to be the standard that artists (especially) usually apply to sexual or artistic matters. It’s a shame that they don’t see just how fundamental this definition is to human liberty, particularly since Lisak had a very valuable year of his life taken from him by the state.
In that respect, responders should tell Broadward to realize that Lisak is actually a victim of state aggression against human rights, up to, and including the right to possess, use, and even sell narcotics to consenting adults, so long as no innocent third party suffers direct harm.
My body, my mind
I certainly expected more from artists in Lisak’s defense. Where’s the artist-cum-protester like Timothy Leary among the lot of you? You’re so willing to fight for sexual and artistic expression without realizing how vacuous these “civil” rights are without the initial right to ownership in one’s body from which they rightly follow.
The first appropriate response to someone like Broadward was uttered by Lysander Spooner in the 19th Century: “Vices are not crimes.” The second answer is: If you want to be an artist, defend individual liberty. The free speech of an artist is no different from the freedom of a person to use (and even sell) drugs: Both stem from the right to self-ownership, the right to decide what individuals will and won’t do with what is properly theirs—in this case, their bodies. Broadward has a perfect right to boycott, but Lisak has a perfect right to perform. (And both, if they so desire, should have the right to use drugs.)
Bach but not Beethoven?
My only remaining question for Broadward is, “What would happen to the level of art we enjoy in this city if we avoided the work of everyone who’s ever used or distributed narcotics— or more important, run afoul of the laws of the state?”
We’d find ourselves listening to Bach but not Beethoven, reading Goethe but not Nabokov, studying Kant but not Voltaire, and seeing the plays of Ibsen (his exile was voluntary) but possibly not those of Shaw, and certainly not those of Jean Genet. We might not find ourselves reduced to “church-only” activities, but we’d be much poorer artistically nonetheless.
Drug users strike me as contemptible. But unlike most liberals out there— on the listserv or elsewhere— I won’t shrink from defending Lisak’s right to engage in that activity. That’s a tough call for some people, I recognize. But defending Lisak’s right to talk about his activity, or other people’s right to listen to him talk about it— that should be a no-brainer for any artist. We might even learn something in the process, God forbid.
In this respect the best principle for artists was laid down by Marie Curie: “Nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood.” And she wasn’t even an artist.
To read responses, click here and here.
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