The “artists’ letter” on Brexit, actors with political opinions, and Richard Armitage (?)
I am aware that this is a fraught topic, but I hope we can talk about the meta-issue. To wit: I think the question about artists and the legitimacy and effect of making their political opinions public, with the subset of Richard Armitage as the example we can discuss, is the interesting one — not whether or not the UK should remain in the EU. I’m hoping we can stick with that problem, as it’s come up here several times over the years and commentators often say interesting things. I don’t want a repeat of what happened last time, in light of the #nowalls post, which is that some people insisted on commenting on the actual political issue and made personal attacks that break the comment policy, and I blocked them. If you’re in doubt about the appropriateness of your comment, please make sure that it isn’t ad hominem.
This week, 250 British artists published an open letter in which they urged UK voters to vote “remain” in the upcoming referendum about whether the UK should maintain its association with the EU. Perhaps most notoriously, Benedict Cumberbatch signed, as have some other UK artists with whom Armitage has worked (Tim Pigott-Smith and Anna Maxwell Martin from North & South, for instance; Richard Curtis from Vicar of Dibley; Andy Harries from Strike Back) or people that we know he knows either well or superficially (Chiwetel Ejiofor; Kristen Scott Thomas; David Oyelowo; Helena Bonham Carter, to name a few). Equally, many people with whom Armitage has worked did not sign. Some names that come to mind quickly: Martin Freeman, Peter Firth, Iain Glenn, Dawn French, Lesley Manville, Ian McKellen.
We can’t typically say why someone didn’t sign — perhaps they weren’t asked, for instance, or the request didn’t cross their path. Perhaps the signatories reflect a pattern or social circle whose signs are opaque to me as a non-initiate (like most class divisions in the UK). Perhaps the letter’s organizers sought a particular profile of artist. Perhaps non-signers are pro-Brexit. Perhaps non-signers think actors should not express political opinions (or at least certain kinds of political opinions — because some non-signers certainly support other political campaigns). It’s always interesting to speculate. For instance, Derek Jacobi and Patrick Stewart both did sign, which makes it seem likely that Ian McKellen was at least asked, as he is old friends with both and he is of high stature in the British arts world. Moreover, he has expressed an anti-Brexit opinion, although it hasn’t been widely reported. Perhaps some artists see a difference between expressing an opinion when asked and signing a petition to be widely publicized that might be seen as a prescription.
Of course, any speaker with a large audience might be understood to be speaking prescriptively when expressing even an opinion to which he is entitled as an individual. In essence, it is difficult for us to speak separately from our occupations and expected audiences, one reason that I could not state a political opinion while I was a professor at a public university, either in public or in the classroom, without repercussions. In Texas my primary vote was a matter of public record. Armitage seems to have been dimly aware of this difficulty in his longer message on the refugee situation, leading to the counter-productively defensive posture that he took in those remarks. (I say this because at least 15 percent of the tweeps who responded to him reassured him he did have a right to an opinion — which meant that his defensiveness distracted readers from what I assume was his main point about the need to address the refugee crisis. Lesson one of English composition — there are few occasions when it is effective to undermine yourself as a speaker; if you choose this route, don’t do it clumsily). His remarks at least since the beginning of the Hobbit press indicate his concern over the question of the wider significance of what actors say about what they think about issues other than acting.
Richard Armitage is not a signatory of this recent letter, and we will never know why. I do remember someone wondering at some point in February (I can’t find the comment now) about whether he would express a direct opinion on Brexit and my surmise that he wouldn’t; he referred obliquely to the UK referendum in February, and so perhaps he thinks he has hinted at what he thinks on this topic when he concludes that section of his marks with the note that he’s writing about the kind of world he wants to live in, which does not involve him speaking prescriptively as an artist but only as a human. Still, at the time, some fan observers were angry because they felt he was not sufficiently informed to speak on the topic. (This reaction mirrors the situation in Fall 2013, when Armitage spoke out on the political situation in the United States after he had lived here for about a year.) So one line seems to be drawn around what one can say in terms of one’s expertise, and it’s true in my own case that I read his statements about acting and the creative process with more automatic sympathy than I do his rare statements on politics.
From the light of personal stance vs. expertise, the letter from the 250 itself treads a fine line; it is definitely more than a collection of personal opinions, as it talks about the potential consequences to the arts if the UK left the EU, but it also limits itself to speaking on that issue, upon which an artist may be reasonably assumed to be a qualified commentator. One facet of democracy is that citizens are allowed, even encouraged, to speak out on political issues that affect our well-being and interests, and so the charge that artists only defend the EU because they have benefited from it puzzles me me a bit. I also defend the United States on the grounds that I have benefited from being a citizen! The opinion of anyone speaking as an individual may be charged to be arbitrary, but surely actors speaking on the arts are at least potentially as qualified to express themselves as teachers speaking on education (whether or not the reader agrees with the judgment expressed or the information provided). If no one spoke in the name of expertise or personal interest, and everyone chose simply on the basis of whim, it’s hard to see how that could be seen to be more fair in itself, let alone lead to a better result, since presumably concerns about the benefits and negatives of the EU are susceptible to reasoned evaluation and the identification of better or worse arguments.
It is also plausible that one might think that as an artist, one could use one’s bully pulpit for good (beyond the realm of establishing what the most effective way to play Macbeth is) — although that probably only works in situations where near-unanimity already exists on the goodness of the thing one is urging, in which case the urging is at least superfluous and potentially sanctimonious if not done well. The difficulties with good intentions rarely occur at the level of rhetoric, but rather at the level of execution, at which point the speaker is most often long gone or was never planning to be there in the first place. And most humans, not just artists, would prefer to express our good intentions rather than have to make sausage, which is a great deal more difficult.
All this leaves the artist in a confusing bind, since it’s hard to know how to express a personal opinion about politics that isn’t understood as a larger political intervention — indeed, depending on the size of one’s audience and one’s professional prominence, it may not be possible. Like most ordinary mortals, many celebrities (with some notable exceptions) lack the time or inclination to become more than pretty faces for charity. On top of that, our relationship as fans with celebrities is confusing and liable to quick jolts. Many of us identify with them or find them interesting to the extent that they have features that make them seem like us despite the distance between us, or to seem be an extension of the fan’s self, so that when they do not fulfill this need, the turn to anger can be quick and irreversible. It’s amazing how quickly an artist’s well-intended political position can bring one to the breaking point; I’ve noticed this spring that I have an extremely short fuse when it comes to the Bernie Sanders campaign, and that Susan Sarandon’s remarks about the presidential primaries burnt me out on both celebrity comment and on her as an artist. Would I take her more seriously when speaking on the NEA, though? At least potentially. But a celebrity I admire who ventures an opinion that touches negatively upon my sense of self risks severing that connection of identification. At that point she stops becoming an aspirational figure and changes in the blink of an eye into yet another wealthy, powerful person trying to enforce her opinion on me. This problem — and not the inherent reasonability (or not) of the arguments about art made by artists– explains the venom in Simon Jenkins’ editorial linked above.
Will anyone change his opinion on this matter solely because Cumberbatch is pro-EU when it comes to the arts? Prominent people raising the issue, at least, is a positive development; perhaps everything about the decision to stay or go isn’t or shouldn’t be based on agricultural subsidies or the granting of work permits. Still, I hope people don’t change their opinions solely on this basis — or rather, that they would weigh these arguments along with the others they are aware of and do some research of their own. Presumably a Brexit’s effect on the arts is but one facet of the decision a voter makes. As far as I have seen (and I didn’t do tons of research on this, admittedly), responses to this letter have been largely negative, and particularly to Cumberbatch (who was rather vocal about his frustration with the Syrian refugee situation of late). This isn’t so surprising as affirmation does not make an editorial of particular effect; there may be less reason to come out in support of a position one already agrees with simply because it doesn’t sell papers. On the other hand, Cumberbatch and his fellow signatories clearly triggered that impatience that comes from the fact that professionally, he’s ceased to be everyman and joined the ranks of the apart.
So here’s another dilemma for the artist — the celebrity artists about whose opinions the public might be assumed to care most are simultaneously more likely to attract attention to their causes for that reason and more potentially likely to provoke negative responses when their opinions touch on identity issues precisely because they are powerful enough to do so. Famous artists are more likely to be able to afford or at least weather these consequences (one thinks of the Dixie Chicks’ trouble with their audience after 2003), which suggests that they have a greater obligation to speak. Conversely, so many artists (including Armitage, at times) have remarked that widespread, detailed knowledge them may hamper their identity to work successfully in that audiences find their role changes less convincing. So they may have a greater obligation not to speak, so as to preserve their capacity to create great work.
This was supposed to be a short post and it’s really looking like one of my old lectures — where I weigh one argument against each other ad infinitum. I know that I personally found it difficult to live in a situation where I was not really allowed to speak politically, so I do not envy celebrities making this decision. Maybe the best I can say is — when artists speak, even or including on areas of their own expertise, they are subject to the same constraints as all of us. They are free to speak but they are not free of the consequences. Still, for them, inevitably the consequences are different both in quality and magnitude.