Authorial Intent, the Ethics of Structure, and the Punk Rock Ethos

In my senior year of college, I wrote, directed, and acted in an adaptation of Hamlet set to the music of Nine Inch Nails.  After the final performance, while being grilled by my professors, I realized that, with no intention of doing so, I’d created a misogynistic piece of art. (For those of you unfamiliar with Shakespeare, there are two female roles in Hamlet: Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, and Ophelia, his girlfriend. Neither of them fare terribly well in Shakespeare’s script). In my desire to keep the play’s story intact and get inside Hamlet’s head, I had consigned Getrude and Ophelia to their tropey fates and validated the tired Madonna/whore complex that Hamlet uses to reduce them to caricatures.  This would have been understandable if I were staging a more traditional Hamlet. But somehow, even though I was bringing in projections and smoke machines and rewriting the entire script and replacing huge chunks of it with sordid industrial rock numbers, there was some part of Shakespeare’s Hamlet that was sacred to me, that I couldn’t bring myself to reshape or discard: the fundamental arc of its story. I was blind to two things at the time:

  1. That story uses the death of women as plot points to amplify the desires of men to kill each other, and if I was comitted 100% to telling that precise story, I could not escape that crappy trope, and
  2. If rearranging, recontextualizing, or completely destroying the plot of Shakespeare’s masterwork was going to offend anyone, I was probably going to lose those people right around my version of Act I Scene 2, where Claudius lip-synchs “Big Man With A Gun” accompanied by lasers and lots of gyrating pelvises. No one who remained would be upset if I gave the women more agency and depth.

So, yeah, that’s how I put about two years of mental energy and weeks and weeks of blood, sweat, and tears into a piece of art that betrayed my principles. All of which is to say, let’s talk about intent of the artist vs. message of the work.

Let’s say you’re writing a story about a hero, someone who is measured beyond ordinary metrics, someone who does good things for good reasons. Let’s say that your hero makes a hard consequentialist choice that impacts people other than themself–they do something that seems harmful, but they do it in order to prevent something even worse from happening (one of these days, I will make it through an entire BLP article without mentioning consequentialism, just you wait). Let’s say, instead of condemning their actions, the world around your hero praises their action, understands the sacrifice that needed to be made in order to avert greater catastrophe. Got that set of hypotheticals in mind?

Now, here’s the question: by presenting this story in this way, with these variables, have you written something that advocates an authoritarian outlook? Does your work, through your hero, excuse the actions of those in positions of power who “sacrifice” the lives, livelihood, property, or holdings of other people, who may never have intended to put themselves in harm’s way?

Let’s modify this scenario: what if your hero makes this hard consequentialist choice based on information that no one else knows? If the rest of the world still forgives them, are you as the author tacitly advocating for the ability of a privileged few to throw folks who don’t know better under the bus in pursuit of progress or salvation? What if your hero suffers as part of this choice, but they are still forgiven? What if they are not forgiven?

I could spin hypotheticals all day long, but it might help to boil this argument down to what I see as the root issue: are there narrative avenues that are blocked to you if you’re creating work with a political conscience?

I’m not talking about subjectives here: we’ve already established that the values you have as a creator don’t always translate to the art itself. When I say “narrative avenues”, I’m talking about the tropes of narrative structure, the basic building blocks of character, location, and event, the most clinical elements of storytelling. Can you structure a story such that it conveys regressive social ideas even if none of your own original creative concepts are applied?

If so, then if we are to do good by making art, it is not enough to simply make art. If our values are to be enshrined in our art, we must lay down some, perhaps many, of our tools, and pick up new ones, or underutilized ones, and tell stories that are radical on a structural level. This is the ethos that drives punk, dada, DIY, and every other reactionary art movement, and it’s supposed to be scary. I’m personally scared. I don’t want to abandon any of my tools; they’ve all proven their utility to me countless times. But when I look back at my old work, I’m filled with a sense of disconnection, of alienation. I don’t believe my old work represents me. In most cases, I don’t even believe it represented me as I was when I created it. It was art for art’s sake–because I used to believe that art for its own sake was a pure good. But I’m sick of feeling like my work is hollow. I need to make work that feels like it matters, work that I feel invested in.  I hope you do too.