What It Takes

What It Takes

Art and Polarity

By Shawn Coyne | Published: August 23, 2013

As I knew I’d be deep in the North Woods of Maine with no phone access or Internet this week (Help!), I didn’t want to take a chance and not get a WIT up for this week.  So, back from last year (June 20, 2012), here’s “Art and Polarity,” which I find to be crucial information for artists in our present “let’s not judge” culture.  Here’s hoping I’m not eaten by a Black Bear…

The other day I overhead this conversation:

Man #1: “I ran into Frank Smith (not his real name) at the beach yesterday…”

Man #2: “Isn’t that the guy who cheated on his wife, got a DWI, and said all of those nasty things about Jill’s daughter in law?”

Man #1: “…Well…yes…but I try not to judge.”

I run into this “I don’t judge” stuff a lot and it infuriates me on many levels. But as this is a blog about what it takes to create art, I’ll just address why this “moral position” is at best hypocritical and at worst a force as undermining and dark as Resistance.

If you want to create art, you need to make judgments about human behavior and take a side. How well you convey and support your point of view is a measure of your skill. On-the-nose judgments in art, like that hilarious statue of the founder of Faber College in Animal House with the epitaph “Knowledge is Good” are funny because they are so generic.

The epitaph tells the viewer that the setting of the story is a College founded by an idiot. What is really wonderful about that scene is that it appears in the opening credits, giving the viewer no doubts about the tenor of the art to come.

The scene in Woody Allen’s Manhattan where the Woody character is having cocktail conversation at the Museum of Modern Art is another one of my favorites…

Guest #1: “Has anybody read that Nazis are gonna march in New Jersey, you know?”

Woody character: “We should go there, get some guys together. Get some bricks and baseball bats and explain things to ’em.”

Guest #2: “There was this devastating satirical piece on that in the Times.”

Woody character: “Well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks get right to the point.”

Guest #2: “But biting satire is better that physical force.”

Woody character: “No, physical force is better with Nazis. It’s hard to satirize a guy with shiny boots.”

Today’s “let’s all get along, not judge or challenge anyone” groupthink also reminds me of a major scene sequence in Milos Forman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Polar Opposites: Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched and Jack Nicholson as R.P. McMurphy.

Jack Nicholson portrays R.P. McMurphy, a good time Charlie with authority figure issues. He’s playing crazy at a maximum-security insane asylum to get out of a work detail jail sentence. Years ago, they sentenced petty criminals to hard labor. I remember as a kid being in the backseat driving South and watching chain gangs cutting overgrown brush on the median of I95—Donn Pearce must have seen them too. He wrote Cool Hand Luke.

McMurphy’s Moriarty is Nurse Ratched, the head nurse in the asylum. Louise Fletcher played this role so brilliantly—all ice and pursed lips—she had difficulty finding work after winning the Oscar for it.

One afternoon, during an interminable group therapy session, McMurphy requests that the guys be allowed to watch the World Series that evening. Knowing that the last thing the other men would want to do is stand up and challenge the way she rules her kingdom, Ratched sees an opportunity to put McMurphy in his place.

She’ll put the request up to a vote.

McMurphy sticks his hand up to vote “yea” assuming that his fellow patients will come to the same conclusion that he has.  By simply raising their arms, together the men can let this lady know that denying a simple pleasure like watching a ball game to a bunch of lunatics is absurd.

Which one of you nuts has any guts?

The needy fuser Cheswick is the only other one who has the courage to challenge Nurse Ratched’s command. Meeting adjourned. The men are then shuttled into the shower room for their evening cleaning. McMurphy is out of his mind with anger.

If you’re a writer, this scene is a perfect example of a set-up that dramatically portrays a character’s inner change.  How does Ken Kesey pay it off?

From the first moment McMurphy lays eyes on Ratched, the reader/viewer knows he judges her as rotten to the core. McMurphy is not afraid to judge. His problem is that he acts on his judgments too quickly. That’s what got him in the clink in the first place.

In the nuthouse, though, he is forced to keep the judgment to himself. He’s supposed to be crazy! And to McMurphy, only crazy people don’t judge, so he shouldn’t either.

But when the evidence of Ratched’s evil is incontrovertible to him, he can’t help himself but act. He’s the novel’s protagonist. He’s the hero. If he doesn’t act on his judgments, there’s no story.

Kesey could have made any number of choices with this scene. He could have had McMurphy act selfishly, like a child, and physically attack a guard or an inmate or himself. Something the character has a reputation for doing earlier in his life.

Instead, for the first time (and the perfect time) Kesey has his character act beyond himself. He changes his behavior. McMurphy sees that these men have it within themselves to judge Ratched as a tyrant. If he can make them understand how important it is to make a judgment and to act on that judgment—even if it puts them in harm’s way—he will help them. And helping them will help him bring down tyranny. He’ll win.

McMurphy, already known as a consummate hustler, challenges all of the men to take a bet. He puts all of his money on his succeeding. He will pick up a thousand pound marble bathroom vanity, throw it through the barred window, walk to a nearby bar with his buddy Cheswick, wet his whistle and watch Mickey Mantle play in the World Series…Who wants some of this action?

He’s so convincing that only the most cynical among them take his bet.

Playing McMurphy as only he could play him, Jack Nicholson grabs the edges of the vanity, squats and surges into the plumbing. He turns blue from effort.  He commits to the action, gives it his best shot. When he’s drenched with sweat, spent and defeated, he walks out of the room.  But not before turning to the stunned assemblage and saying:

“At least I tried.”

As a child in the 60s and 70s, I was raised on stories like this. (I wish we had more of them today) And they’ve had a profound influence. This is why art is so important.

These stories taught me that to passively disengage for fear of reprisal is cowardly. Making a judgment, taking a stand and then acting against an injustice or acting to support excellence is the stuff of the everyman hero.

And yes, not saying anything, not “judging” the horrible or honorable behavior of other people is acting too. As deliberate an act as getting overly excited about an idea and shouting in a business meeting.

If you don’t call people on their shit, you’re placing yourself above them, as if their actions are so inconsequential to you that they need not be considered. You’re above it all, some kind of Ayn Randian ubermensch behaving only out of self-interest. The same goes for not giving a standing ovation for great work because others remain seated. If you admire a work, let the artist know. They can use all the attaboys they can get. It’s Hell in that studio.

Despite the initially convincing argument that to “not judge” is an expression of empathy—who knows, if I faced those same circumstances maybe I’d do something like that too? —It’s not. It’s an excuse for not standing up for what’s right.

Not saying something is uncaring. Not saying something means that you do not want to put your ass on the line and take the risk that you’ll be shunned for your opinion. It has everything to do with you. Nothing to do with the other person.

I’m aware that the world is not black and white. There are shades of gray between the two poles of every value. On the spectrum of “Truth and Deceit,” telling a white lie when your cousin asks if she looks good in her bathing suit is not the same as running a billion dollar Ponzi scheme. I get it.

And yes, most of the time, keeping our big mouths shut is the right thing to do. We’re all guilty of misdemeanors and don’t need Earnest Ernies pointing out our shortcomings. And when we do confront someone about their actions, we need to do it with tact and care. That’s empathy.

But this “non-judgment, I toe the middle line” attitude is dangerous. There is no middle line.  Not judging is a judgment.  And it pushes people away from each other—I best not make a mistake and judge anyone or no one will like me…best to keep quiet and be agreeable—instead of bringing them together—I thought I was the only one who thought Animal House was genius…

The man I overheard who doesn’t “judge” the adulterous, alcoholic driving, rumormonger sends a message to the world that destructive actions are excusable. It is what it is… There is no right and wrong. Nonsense.

But it is his passive aggressive dressing down of the other guy for “judging” someone guilty of antisocial behavior that is even worse. It masks his cowardice as virtue. And to not judge whether something is right or wrong is the furthest thing from a virtue.

You must choose a position in this world on innumerable moral questions and stand by your judgments. Woody Allen made this point in six lines of dialogue. Ken Kesey riffed on it for an entire novel. It’s important.

If you are an aspiring artist and you wish to avoid “judgments,” you’ll find that you have nothing to say.

Posted in What It Takes

36 Responses to “Art and Polarity”

  1. Thanos
    July 20, 2012 at 4:10 am

    By standing alone on our feet, we have a standing on the world. We do not swing in thin air (at least for the time being). If we come to think that we already do that, we could easily ‘judge’ behaviors like the above mentioned. I agree Mr. Pressfield.

    • ByHIsGrae
      August 25, 2013 at 8:39 am

      I love this blog…all I read is so applicable to LIFE…as the writer’s share their hard earned wisdom and knowledge on the art of writing.

      It’s helping me process an rather unpleasant, exchange I had with the guy’s teaching yesterday afternoon…it happened very suddenly, and afterward I kept thinking, “What just happened?”…Two attendees I hadn’t had a chance to chat with made it a point to speak to me…not addressing it, just touching base…

      It was day two and ‘his shit’…was taking its toll on me, I didn’t know it…it could have been dealt with with empathy… This help clarify the whole exchange.

  2. Sonja
    July 20, 2012 at 5:35 am

    Shawn,

    That last line was perfection and so true.

    I think it’s hard because just writing an innocent FB post, can garner smart aleck or mean comments…most people want to be liked and “be nice.”

    The funny thing is once you tell the truth most people nod in agreement, the palpable relief of Oh-thank-god-someone-told-the-truth! It’s sad that most of us in this new digital age don’t have the balls to be honest first.

    Thanks for this.

    Sonja

  3. July 20, 2012 at 5:47 am

    Brilliant Shawn. I sometimes feel bad about being judgmental, labeling it “discerning” instead, but that’s self-righteous. You called it out here. I like judging what’s right and wrong and taking a stand.

    Cowardice as virtue. Thanks for drawing the line.

  4. July 20, 2012 at 6:35 am

    This is pure gold. Thank you Shawn.

  5. Elizabeth Meloney
    July 20, 2012 at 7:09 am

    Thanks!

  6. July 20, 2012 at 7:44 am

    Well stated, yet sad that these are incendiary remarks in present day America. Probably the same reason no one calls July 4th “Independence Day” anymore. Also…congratulations for publishing “Turning Pro.” I read it and immediately read it again, then pulled “The War of Art” out of the bookshelf and read it again. Time to get back to work. I’m beginning to sense Resistance doing that thing it does so subtly and well.

  7. July 20, 2012 at 10:06 am

    What an amazing expression of though. Well said. In art or in business, the same holds true. Inept is the manager who shies to often from judgment. Foolish, and selfish is the manager who is ineffective at the art of expressing judgment. The manager who hopes to avoid being judged… destine for failure. Nice touch bringing in two of my all-time favorite movies. Thanks for that.

  8. July 20, 2012 at 11:29 am

    And yet … we could say that the greatest artists — think Shakespeare, for instance, or Tolstoy — are at their greatest when they are most inclusive. The amazing thing about Shakespeare is how he presents the positions and points of view of some many different characters — and though they may judge each other, we never get the feeling that the author judges them. Edmund and Iago are as rich and complete as Lear and Othello — and Shakespeare leaves the judgments to the reader. On the same point, in “War and Peace” Tolstoy takes us sweeping through the world and all it’s characters (including some of the animals) and each point of view is presented as completely as fairly as possible. One of my rules for myself as a writer is “no straw men” — meaning no weak characters who exist just to satirize or make easy targets of a view I disagree with. Maybe I’m like that in my day to day life, but as an author I should be bigger.

    • July 24, 2012 at 9:28 am

      Not that I can speak for Steven, but I don’t think that the two are mutually exclusive. I believe you can be both compassionate and realistic. To invoke Godwin’s Law early, I really can sympathize with the frustrated artistic ambitions of a young Adolf Hitler. That’s fine – it doesn’t change the rest of the things that were done, or mitigate them.

      Like you, I enjoy literature that shows the full dimensionality of character, where rather than black hats and white hats everyone is wearing their true colors. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy the Indian mythos so much: the heroes have flaws, the villains have virtues, and as a result it is easier to identify with them for an average audience.

      In the initial example, I think the point is that when the guy says “I don’t wanna judge” he seems to be not judging the acts as well as the person. Is everyone who cheats, has a DWI, etc. evil? No, of course not. But they also have to be held responsible for their actions, and make restitution. If that sentence had been followed by “Nice how the counseling helped him and his wife, and he’s been Clean & Sober for three years now. Jill & her daughter also got a written apology hand-delivered to her house by him when he realized how much his words had hurt.” That changes the story, without taking away from the initial impact of the actions.

      Again, can’t speak for Steven. But what I took away from this is that while you can’t change what has been done, you can’t just dismiss it, either. “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is etc.”

    • September 1, 2013 at 12:18 pm

      I don’t think those artists are indecisive. I think they show us that even villains don’t see themselves as evil, and possibly even have a good side. To use Hitler as an example – and I’ve never read Mein Kampf – but I would bet a full paycheck that he just saw himself as a good guy who got screwed by the system. Good writers, I think, write the characters the way the characters see themselves.

  9. July 20, 2012 at 12:03 pm

    Consider this my standing ovation, Shawn.

  10. July 20, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    Nicely put. Thanks Shawn.

  11. July 20, 2012 at 12:39 pm

    Here. Here.
    (and guilty as charged!)

  12. July 20, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    I love letting my characters say a mite more boldly what I still find myself saying out loud sometimes.

  13. Wolf Rimbaud
    July 20, 2012 at 5:45 pm

    Unbelievable! A blog that actually says something. Bravo!

  14. July 21, 2012 at 5:50 am

    This is a great post about judging and art, and your insights can help us become stronger writers. In real life, though, which your opening anecdote seems to be from, I can imagine myself as the speaker you call passive aggressive. I struggle with not judging (in real life) because we never really know the whole story about someone, and there is way too much judging being hurled back and forth today. Lord knows, I’m not perfect. Ultimately, we have to have compassion for all of our characters, too, even the despicable ones. Sometimes people refrain from judging, not so people won’t like them, but because many spiritual paths teach this. It’s complicated. But I can see how taking the middle path can lead to bland art that doesn’t really say anything. :)

  15. Martin
    July 21, 2012 at 6:05 am

    Great Shawn!

    That last line goes into my copybook of inspiring phrases with your name under it. Thank you very much for the wise words and the lesson.

  16. Basilis
    July 21, 2012 at 7:21 am

    Great comments and thoughts from all the above. I have to add that the article’s ending sentence is so true.

  17. daedalus
    July 21, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    Well done.
    To ‘judge’ or not.
    Alas, most today are fearful of even mentioning the
    butchery of the ‘communist idealists’ of these many
    years. Better to go softly under that scythe of White Genocide than stand up and … what … fight?

    thanks again,

    daedalus

  18. July 22, 2012 at 11:40 am

    Well said, Shawn.

    It’s important that we develop our own opinions and make judgements, and it seems so strange people are afraid to make their own judgements based on the fact that others will pass judgements back. It’s almost as if people choose to opt out entirely in hopes of establishing an impossible neutrality. I think the key lies in developing strong judgements and stances, but holding them loosely and being ready to reevaluate and adjust them if you discover them to be mistaken.

    Love the site, and great post.

  19. July 22, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    Just so timely for me, so inspirational and simply true. I am so motivated to A. just be more open and honest when people are just not right, and B. think about this piece and doing some beautiful work. Just makes sense, when you do work you review it and judge it, same with those who need to be told. Judging is good. Thank you, Steven.

  20. Anne
    July 22, 2012 at 7:31 pm

    A true story: I came to Wellington, New Zealand, in 1991. I am from Chicago and lived 18 yrs in NYC. In 1995, New Zealand won America’s Cup for sailing – only the 2nd country in 145 yrs to do so. I was standing in the town square with at least 2,000 other people when Peter Blake and his team came on and held up this huge, beautiful cup. I started yelling (Yea, yea…) as loud as I could. I was the only one making a sound. Everyone else was silent. I couldn’t believe it. It was really spooky. I knew everyone there felt immense pride and had showed up to express it.

    Nowadays, things are more boisterous, but the national character here is still to keep your mouth shut and not reveal who you are. There is talking behind someone’s back as well as saying nothing. Many people do not want to show who they really are. They don’t want to be disliked or appear “rude.”

    As I said, things have changed some. I try to tell the truth with kindness and respect. In some cases, I check to see if someone is open to my opinion before I offer it. I talk to my New Zealand friends about how dishonest this trait seems to me. I encourage them to tell me the truth and then thank them for it.

    In closing, I see more people speaking up by imitating the straightforwardness of others. I really embrace it when they don’t use other voices and styles as an intermediary.

    • Erika Whiteway
      July 25, 2012 at 5:17 pm

      Having compassion for our despicable characters, as said is about having compassion for ourselves, our dark side. No person and hence no character is entirely good or entirely evil, we have to embrace evil (this reminds me of Colonel Kurtz in ‘Apocalypse Now’, the scene of him in his bunker when he is confronted by Charlie Sheen and Kurtz looks out of the darkness and says, ‘…the horror…the horror…’) to understand it so that we may be effective people, not just writers, in a cruel world that demands our attention. One either succumbs, as Kurtz does, to evil or one rises above it, and there is no black or white about it.

  21. Janis
    August 23, 2013 at 8:50 am

    You could call this “Life and Polarity.” Everyone knows about that old psych experiment where men who were instructed by psychologists to (falsely) electrocute test subjects, and how willing most of the men were to do it if they were ordered to.

    I never forgot something I noticed when I watched the obligatory film about it in an old psychology class. They interviewed two men in the film: one who hadn’t done it, and one who had.

    They guy who hadn’t done it was, to put it mildly, a curmudgeon. When asked, “But what about all the psychologist’s hard work?” he replied, “Oh, the hell with him.” He had what would be called arrogant body language, smoking during the interview, not making all that much eye contact, with an “I don’t give a damn” tone of voice. The sort of guy who would rub your fur the wrong way just … because.

    The guy who did it was Mr. Sunshine — pleasant, polite, calling the psych who was interviewing him “sir.” “Yes, sir. No, sir. Yes, sir.” Lots of pleases and thank yous. Sounded friendly and obedient. Just the kind of guy most people think they’d want for a neighbor … until the jackboots start clomping around, upon which point it’s the asshole you want at your back when the jackboots starts clomping around, isn’t it?

    I noticed this with people I’ve known in the past as well. People who want to be liked by everyone want to be liked by the camp commandant, too. (“But what about hiiiiis feeeeelings?“)

    Humans are all too often venal and cruel. Going against cruelty is therefore, very often, going against the grain. And people who go against the grain generally get on other people’s nerves, don’t they?

    There is an evolutionary need for assholitude.

  22. August 23, 2013 at 12:21 pm

    YES! A thousand times, YES! In the arena of victim advocacy, the myth of neutrality is ever present. It feeds the problem; people who don’t want to get involved, mutual friends who think that remaining neutral is some superior form of maturity. Not so. It is cowardice and a lack of boundaries for oneself, if not for those you claim to care about. Great post, Steven. Thank you!

  23. Avery
    August 23, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    What about this scenario:

    A man cheats on his wife and goes on a alcoholic binge for two years. He loses all of his friends. He loses his job. After years of therapy and soul-searching, he realizes he cheated on her because she was an overbearing bitch and the girl he met At the bowling alley was the first nice girl he’s met in 20 years. He sobers up, goes back to school, becomes a productive member of society. Meanwhile, his whole family is still Angry and judgmental and ostracizing. But, he has done hard work to clean up his act and his life And is even doing volunteer work. He is also doing creative work. Although he feels guilty for the past, he wouldn’t change it because it has made him who he is now.

    Would you still judge such a man as a jerk? Or is he only a jerk right after he cheated? I have to say I completely disagree with this post. We may judge works of art and we may judge behaviors. But to judge people is simply making a remark of the state they are in at the current moment and not their final state. The culture of not judging did not come from psychology it came from a parable in the Bible. You make a lot more connections and have a lot more compassion if you look at the person for their potential and not one or two behaviors.

    Besides Haven’t we all been the jerk somebody hated once upon a time? Einstein’s theory of relativity is relevant here. People are jerks relative to whoever is viewing the jerk.

    • Janis
      August 26, 2013 at 2:25 pm

      “After years of therapy and soul-searching, he realizes he cheated on her because –”

      — it was all her fault, of course.

      If after years of therapy and soul-searching, a person doesn’t acknowledge personal responsibility for one’s choices and actions, they should get their money back for all that therapy, because clearly it missed the mark.

      Same goes for everyone, not just men, BTW. This just struck me as a really childish excuse, along the lines of a 4 year old kid who got into the cookie jar, and then tries to argue his mom out of punishing him by saying, “But if I were dying, you’d give me those cookies!” Yes, kid … but you’re not.

  24. Bipasha
    August 23, 2013 at 3:03 pm

    NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!! :)

    “I try not to judge” is the ideal we should strive for. Because we have plenty of people on the “other side” who stand ready to judge every single word that comes out of your mind. Judge every SINGLE thing that you/or themselves write, say, do, think. There is hardly a moment that passes by without judgement/labeling of somekind of the moment.

    This is exactly what makes babies and children so attractive. They say/do things without analysing if its good/bad to death. But as we grow older and get brainwashed by society into thinking this is “good”/this is “bad” we start going into constant judging mode.

    With just non stop mental judgements about other and ourselves. And the innosense in lost. And we are trapped in self conciousness. What will everyone think about me and vice versa.

    the need of the hour is acceptance and tolerence of others and ourselves.

    • Janis
      August 25, 2013 at 12:54 pm

      “Because we have plenty of people on the “other side” who stand ready to judge every single word that comes out of your mind.”

      The way to compensante for an error is not to make the polar opposite error.

  25. Mary
    August 24, 2013 at 7:23 am

    Well said – thanks!

  26. Roger Ellman
    August 25, 2013 at 2:27 am

    Hell, yes!

    Thanks.

    Enjoy Maine.

  27. Brendon
    August 26, 2013 at 10:31 am

    I like what you wrote, but one things irks me – Ayn Rand is highly judgmental. To characterize her work as “above it all” is incorrect. Part of what gives her novels their lasting impact (and so infuriates her critics) is that she makes MASSIVE moral judgments throughout her work. They’re so brutally clear at times her critics accuse her of seeing the world in black and white, and not having enough nuance in her work. She is the last example of an “above it all” author.

  28. August 27, 2013 at 5:38 am

    My HS counselor’s office, circa about 1978, era of animal posters used for inspirational quotes like infamous kitty with Hang In There Baby! This was a turtle on the curb in a big city with traffic. It said, “Not to decide… is to decide.”

    I have remembered that all of my days; isn’t it profound? I know it referred more to taking action, but I also see it as about judgments. Know where you stand because if you don’t you’re still ending up on some fence. People judge US for our indecisions, even! Plus I think it’s true that a man can say little more than who he is. I really liked this post. Don’t be sorry, just be true; that’s what I tell my kids anyway. Be good with your truth.

  29. September 17, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    This is a difficult topic for a teacher. How and when to judge is a slippery slope. The many budding artists who have come into my studio or classroom would quickly lose their motivation if I judged them too harshly. On the other hand, the experienced painters I work with need a kick in the pants now and then. For the beginners I always find something positive to say, to keep them going. Am I lacking in discernment? I hope not. What I’m hoping is that by being non-judgmental with the beginners some of them will turn into the pros, who occasionally get my boot in their butts. The other beginners, the ones who don’t progress, well that’s the law of averages I guess. Am I soft? Lacking in courage? Maybe. But if I get just one beginner over the hump, past the fiery gates of hellish criticism, into the lands of the pros, then I’ve done my work.

    So, I guess my point here is that judgment is not an all or nothing thing, at least not in my experience as a teacher.

    As always, your post made me think about the topic and not come up with some knee jerk reaction to it. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to clarify this notion to myself as well. Very valuable post indeed!

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