WHEN ARTWORK HURTS FEELINGS
TWO THOUSAND AND EIGHT (2008) was a great year for Asian Americans living on the West coast. One of Bruce Lee’s favorite students, Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s Los Angeles Lakers were at the N.B.A. Championships and Kareem was seen in the front row of the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The Summer Olympics were held in China and the multiple back flips and somersaults the talented 29 year old Chinese Olympian, Yang Wei, at five feet 3 inches tall, made through the air, reminded me of the multiple flips Bruce Lee’s stunt double, the acrobat, Yuen Wah, made in beginning of "Enter The Dragon."
I MUST INCLUDE BRUCE LEE as a central figure in this essay. One of the reasons why is because in the 1960’s he was hurt by artwork in the sense that there were motion pictures that portrayed Asians in a bad or inferior way (what I call a negative stereotype; please also see Bruce Lee: The Man and The Legend, copyr. 1973 by Golden Harvest Studios). Surprisingly, not all stereotypes are bad. For example, a positive stereotype is one that for example shows Asians as being gifted in Math and Science or adept at playing musical instruments. Another reason I include Bruce Lee is that Bruce was born in California and thus was a natural born American citizen. So, a lot of the readership of this publication can relate and empathize with him. He considered himself a Martial Artist, not in the violent, negative sense of the term, but in terms of self-defense, in terms of the Philosophy that is inseparable from martial arts. He was a writer, and considered himself an artist.
LET ME GIVE YOU AN EXAMPLE of how art can hurt people’s feelings and what to do about it. This example also shows another reason why Bruce Lee is a good choice to be included in this essay. Blake Edwards, a famous movie producer/director, it is well known, was one of Bruce Lee’s students. Before he became one of his several famous students, Blake directed the 1961 movie, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In that movie, Mickey Rooney plays the role played by a Japanese photographer living in a nearby apartment. Rooney wears makeup and a costume. Other than the sometimes troubling question of why an Asian role was not given to an Asian character, the character is shown as bumbling, speaking with broken English, clumsy. In other words, negative stereotypes of a newly arrived Asian immigrant. In fact, in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Bruce uses a tactic of fighting offensive artwork by not really fighting, he turns away from the screen while he is seated next to his date, Linda Lee (please see same movie released in 1993).
THIS SEEMS TO BET THE QUESTION: what was Blake Edwards thinking! I can only think that there seems to be a “poetic” or “artistic” license which allows artists like screenwriters to have their characters say negative stereotypical words that hurts a segment of the population so that another segment can laugh. Or such negative stereotypes are used by a character in order to add more realism to a character—the character is racist or bigoted. Case in point, in the music artistic sphere, Born in the U.S.A., a popular 1984 song by Bruce Springsteen has a line that says, “…to go and kill the yellow man.” This was and is offensive. Yet was it necessary to convey the realism of the plight and resentment of American soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War? I don’t think so. It could have easily been an effective song if the lines, “to go and kill for a word I didn’t understand”. [that word being “Communism,” a concept, a word, that a lot of American soldiers in Vietnam really did not understand]. The only good thing Mr. Edwards seems to have done is to employ quasi-martial arts scenes and quasi-martial arts choreography between Inspector Clouseau and Cato.--probably to show how Bruce Lee influenced him.
AS FAR AS TACTICS one can use to view offensive artwork and maybe even learn from it, I conjecture on what Bruce Lee would probably do or say. I make this reasonable, educated guess based on my intensive study of his life and his writings. Bruce would probably say "View the whole movie, including the particularly offensive part, learn and probably be entertained by what you can from it, and discard the rest, then come out with your own movie that displays your people in a positive light." I think that he would also say if you concentrate on the finger pointing a path to the moon (the particularly offensive segment of the movie), then you will miss (all that heavenly glory) parts of the movie which are good (such as the scenes of 1978 Hong Kong and the beautiful hills of Hong Kong, the Hong Kong seaport, and the landmark Siemens Building that are shown in Revenge of the Pink Panther.
BRUCE LEE WAS AN OPTIMIST. When he was denied, by Warner Bros. Television, the starring role for the Kung Fu television series, he rationalized the let down as a business decision and publicly told people that he did not take it personally. But the role was an Asian role. It was not a role of a white man to be played by Asian man. Impersonal facts of life such as the low supply of Asian American actors (at the time the Kung Fu t.v. series was made) take the part of the pain of such a decision out of one’s mind. Also since he had a major creative input in the making of that t.v. series, he was probably paid handsomely for his part in the writing of that t.v. show, although I do not know for sure. I can make an educated guess, because there would have been a well-publicized law suit, as law suits are always a matter of public record. Bruce Lee could have held a grudge against Warner Bros., but he did not. When he was offered by Warner Brothers Motion Pictures a movie that was later entitled "Enter The Dragon," he did not reject the offer, but gladly accepted it (please see the book, not the DVD, Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey, copyr. 2000 by John Little, specifically photo of him smiling and shaking hands with Warner Bros. executive Fred Weintraub).
ANOTHER TACTIC USED BY PEOPLE who are hurt by movies that can be insensitive and vulgar, is to publically protest these movies. The great Asian warrior (for he was a warrior of words, a lawyer by trade), Gandhi, used the media and press to show injustices and to raise awareness for his cause. Also, Vietnamese Buddhists in the early 1960’s employed this technique by holding up placards in English (even though they knew little or no English) for the written press/t.v. news media and some sacrificed themselves with gasoline and flame to raise awareness in the domestic and international sphere. All of this was done to raise awareness at the heavy-handed, brutal conduct of the Catholic government of Ngo Dinh Diem against the Buddhists and their pagodas. In 2008, the movie Tropic Thunder was offensive to people with disabilities and to African Americans. At its initial release and other later showings, people with disabilities protested and used the media effectively to raise awareness. They claimed that the movie was a hurtful piece of “art.” Such protests are effective in the sense that moviemakers (and also the rest of the filmmaking community) learn from them and maybe they will be more sensitized and they will take care not to offend people with their artwork. Then these moviemakers will practice self-imposed censorship. (Read "Creative Gold Beyond the Yellow Ceiling" for additional background info by clicking HERE.) They censor themselves and do not include what could be interpreted as offensive to some segments of the American population. Also, protests, shed negative light and attention on the particular moviemaker who has produced offensive artwork. Protests raise awareness and then moviegoers would probably boycott these movies, hitting the insensitive moviemakers in the pocket with decreased sales.
MY PERSONAL OPINION is that both tactics are effective. But with the second tactic, you do not get to learn anything from any part of the offensive movie that may not be offensive, but instead informative. I suggest that a moviegoer look away or fast-forward the part that is hurtful and try to be open-minded on what can be useful or entertaining. For example, how can you say you liked a book if you have not read the entire book? There are times when anger is justified. There is a feeling of indignity that helps people fight for their rights. But, I suggest using the old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words [or artwork] will never hurt me”. The anger one feels when watching an offensive segment of artwork is not healthy. It’s much healthier to change the channel for a brief moment, or to look away.
I CONCLUDE this article with two important sayings or wise aphorisms written by Bruce Lee and found in Striking Thoughts: Bruce Lee’s Wisdom for Daily Living (edited by John Little, copyr. 2000 by Linda Lee Cadwell).
SAYING 1: “I’ll not willingly offend, nor be easily offended.” [I added emphasis, from page 71 of aforesaid book].
SAYING 2: Saying 2: “Research your own experience; absorb what is useful, reject what is useless and add what is essentially your own.” (from pg. 171 of aforesaid book).
THE FIRST SAYING is so simple, yet so powerful and profound. It needs no explanation. Try not to be easily offended, even by artwork. Also, it gives advice to those ignorant filmmakers and artists, who are probably on the wrong path, astray like lost sheep, it tells them that they should not offend people on purpose.
THE SECOND SAYING indicates that one should absorb what is useful even from a tasteless, insensitive movie or other type of artwork. It then tells us to reject or to turn away from what is useless. It also states that one can add into the body of artwork that is out there, positive movies and positive books which depict positive things about segments of the population.
THANK YOU for your time in reading this. I am not only an artist, but also someone who views art and have had personal experience when artwork has hurt my feelings. But I have learned that anger really hurts the person who is angry. Such anger should be minimized in order for a person to be truly healthy.