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December 1993


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Doug Riblet <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 16 Dec 1993 00:47:49 -0600
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
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I wrote:
>I do not know what troubles me more:  the National Endowment of the
>Arts denying funds to artists like Karen Finley and Annie Sprinkle
>because their work is "obscene," or undergraduate students rebelling
>at being "forced to watch" artworks which offend them.  In my view,
>to shock and disturb an audience is one of the most important effects
>that an artwork can achieve.  The idea of 18-23-year-olds putting
>forth a "right" to be protected from such artworks and insisting that
>they only be exposed to artworks which provide pleasant experiences
>strikes me as one of the most disturbing trends in our culture.
>It is relatively easy to formulate a strategy for fighting state
>censorship -- how does one try to counteract the latter phenomenon?
Daniel Case wrote
>I hope you are not trying to suggest something along the lines of penalizing
>them for refusing to watch the film-I don't think refusal to watch a film
>constitutes "censorship". The students were disgusted-as you imply, that's
>going to happen. Wouldn't you refuse to watch, say, an anti-Semitic Nazi
>propaganda film? Certainly it would shock and disturb you, but I doubt that
>you would give in to proponents of such a film calling it art because it shocks
>and offends you.
I certainly did not mean to imply that being shocking and offensive is
sufficient for a film to be considered a quality work of art.  However,
some shocking and offensive films do deserve to be shown in university
film classes.  As Henry Jenkins pointed out, _Triumph of the Will_ is
shown quite often in film classes.  I find this film's ideas very
offensive, but I have never refused to watch it and I would be very
angry if I was ordered not to show it in a Documentary Film or German
Film class.
Many people find different films offensive for a variety of
reasons -- not all assert a right to refuse to watch or try to deny others
the right to watch.  Two years ago, we had a spirited discussion of
_Scorpio Rising_ in one of my discussion sections, with two Christian
students finding the film blatantly offensive in its intercutting
shots of biker subculture, Swastikas and found footage of an old
Passion Play film.  However, they were careful not to say "we should
not have been forced to watch this film," and we ended up with a rather
fruitful exchange of opinions in the class (I did almost no talking --
not a frequent occurrence) around the limits and functions of shock
value in art.
Daniel Case continues:
>A right to watch is not a duty to watch-there is also the right not to watch.
>The notion of human rights is based on the idea that people can make a certain
>amount of choices for themselves. If you were prevented from seeing "Taxi zum
>Klo" and you wanted to, wouldn't you invoke that priniciple?  The students'
>>right to refuse to watch it is the same right as your right
>to watch it if you want.  What would I have done?  Explained
>ahead of time what was going to be in the film (Having seen it,
>I say that no one should be unaware of its contents before seeing
>it)-I think that probably had a lot to do with the students' outrage.
This is a trickier issue.  Do students have a right not to watch a film
which deals with material or displays images they wish not to be
exposed to?
In my limited teaching experience, I have tried to deal with this
issue by raising it upfront in the beginning of a course -- telling
the students upfront that some of the films shown may shock, disturb,
offend them in some way and encouraging them to adopt a stance of
intellectual curiosity.  I have also tried to articulate my belief
that artworks which shock, upset, bore, disturb or otherwise piss
off viewers can be among the most valuable and inspirational
aesthetic experiences, even if the initial act of watching/reading/listening
is quite unpleasant.  As long as one does not adopt an accusatory
tone ("you students today are all idiots"), this message often
That said, I have no qualms about providing warnings upfront for
specific types of films.  I have done so with films such as
_Triumph of the Will_ and _Night and Fog_.  (For whatever reason,
the latter film has usually drawn more complaints.)  My only
reservations on this policy would be:  1) make sure the warnings
do not themselves reflect biases -- i.e., warnings for homoerotic
sex but not heteroerotic sex,  2) try to make the warnings vague
enough so that the more thick-skinned students are not deprived
of the right to experience a film's shock value in all its glory
("There's a scene in the film in which a bunch of bikers perform
a strange sadomasochistic ritual involving mustard.  Anyone who
might be offended by this . . . .")  If someone really insists
on not watching a film after all that, I would probably let them
do something else.
In the long run, however, I feel strongly about encouraging students
to be more open to strange, potentially unpleasant aesthetic
experiences.  Talking afterwards about why they were unpleasant
is fine -- this often leads to quite interesting class discussions.
However, I object to the idea that a college student who has
voluntarily enrolled in an art/film/literature/etc course
has the right to choose which artworks he/she should be "forced
to watch" based on his/her ideological or pleasantness
standards.  College should be a time for opening one's mind.  Part
of the reason that I find the Taxi Zum Klo incident so sad is that
the students (a small minority of those in the class, I would guess)
seem to have decided that they have grown all they wish to grow and
that they have a right to protect their insular minds against
Finally, I would like to make clear that undergraduates who adopt
this "I have a right not to be exposed to anything which might
offend me" attitude make up a small minority of students, in my
Again, best wishes to all who have participated in this discussion.
Doug Riblet