Art is easy to define: any piece from any medium which emotes, allowing you to feel a varying set of emotions, is art. Everything from a meal that’s more of an experience than food, to a song that makes you cry, to a book that’s so good you speed through it — all of this is art.
If it makes you feel, it’s art.
If it takes you on a journey filled with ups, downs, diagonals, and many used tissues, it’s art.
That’s the problem with trying to make your work a safe space for everyone, and the same problem comes when you put trigger warnings on your work.
If you’re constantly afraid of disrupting that safe space you’ve molded for yourself and your audience, then you’ll be too afraid to make them feel. You’ll be too afraid to take them on that journey you’ve conjured because you’ll be too afraid of hurting someone. Or, worse, you’ll be too afraid of leaving your box and allowing yourself to feel something real.
There would be no journey. There would be no emoting, story, or art. All there would be is a fort made of pillows and fluff. All there would be is a bodysuit made of foam, worn to avoid the pain of meeting sharp corners.
That same box you created to make everybody safe would be hurting you. It would be keeping you from the journey you set off to take because you would have never left with your characters or your paint brush.
No matter what your medium is, the idea of a safe space destroys what you’re trying to do: create good art… excellent art… something that people can’t put down, stop watching, stop looking at, or stop listening to.
This ‘safe space’ idea leads into the idea of using trigger warnings. Your use of these disclaimers will remove people from your work before they even take the journey. They’ll be just as scared to leave their safe space as you are to leave yours. What happens when people are increasingly scared to leave their cardboard boxes? We see the world as increasingly painful, hateful, and dangerous.
We spew hate toward others simply because they don’t agree with these ideals we’ve grown used to in our boxes, which are porous — meaning the hate and discourse pours through whether we want it to or not. If we’re all spewing hate toward others simply because we’re defending our own ideas of what a ‘safe space’ is, then no space is truly safe, is it?
Trigger warnings and the belief in trying to create safe spaces will only further the creation of unsafe spaces. They further hate mongering. They further fear mongering, especially because everyone’s cardboard boxes and trigger warnings are different.
However, this isn’t just bad for the emotional aspects behind art.
Creating safe spaces and trigger warning disclaimers for your work also homogenizes art. Think about it: if we’re too afraid to use certain language, elements, and themes in our work, we’re not only censoring ourselves, but we’re also writing what everyone else is writing in a similar way.
Doing so destroys artistic integrity.
But, utilizing safe spaces and trigger warnings also polarizes our society more because, for the most part, there are two different types of people: liberals and conservatives. Because most people fall into one of these two groups, creating art for one of them and labeling it as such with disclaimers will only further the polarization between them.
If we continue down this path, we will only become more and more divided. There is a direct correlation between them, the creation and attempted adherence to safe spaces, and the experienced violence that is now much more prevalent, especially here, in the United States.
What are we surrounded by, day after day, more than anything else — even more than the people in our lives?
No matter where we go, and no matter where we are, the media is there. It’s everywhere. It doesn’t matter if it’s the news, social media, or pure entertainment. Whatever we see and hear, we absorb its impact. We also tend to surround ourselves with what we like, which means we’re not only conditioning ourselves to think a certain way, but we’re also allowing ourselves to become more polarized in a certain mode of thinking.
As artists, it’s our jobs to make complex narratives that cause people to think and feel, rather than merely creating a polarizing narrative that fits in one of those two, main boxes.
When we create art that makes people think, we allow our audience to come up with their own thoughts on the work. This is different than creating a piece simply for people to agree with you, and to agree with one of those divisions.
Nothing you create should ever be ‘safe’. If it is, you’re not pushing your audience to think or feel. Don’t allow yourself to fall into that trap. If you do, you’ll only have one leg to stand on. When that happens, it’s easy to lose your balance.
Now, what does any of this have to do with creativity and the act of harnessing it?
Well, once you free yourself of those boxes, not only will you be able to leave on your tale’s journey with your audience, but you’ll also be able to weave more complex narratives. Once you quit worrying about who you’re going to offend, and how you’re going to offend them, your story will breathe characters and breathe conflict.
It’ll become a thinking piece rather than fluff. Not to mention, if people are thinking about the narratives and conflict, truly taking them in, art as a whole will become less homogenized because every character or voice you’ve invented will feel that much more real.
Characters and narrators are human beings, whether you agree with them or not. The more you let go of hiding in your safe space, the more real they will become. That’s what every storyteller wants: characters who can tell their stories.
This isn’t only true about film, television, books, and the stage. It’s also true of music and other forms of storytelling. When writing or singing your song, you can’t be afraid of who you’re going to offend because you wouldn’t be living your truth. Creating your art is about living your truth, and being brave enough to do so.
You must allow yourself to live your truth, just like you must allow your characters, stories, and art to live theirs.
If you force narratives into polarizing boxes, you’ll be doing the opposite of what you set off to do: creating a narrative that creates an argument and a journey.
Helena A. Ortiz
July 15, 2020