Art as Confession

Rap isn’t my favourite music, but the other day when I heard a podcast on CBC about rappers being arrested for the content of their lyrics, I was intrigued.  Sure, there’s a lot of violent ideas floating around the rap-o-sphere, but the crux of the segment on Q was this: is it fair to use art as evidence of a crime?  I would take that argument a little further: If we consider the old adage “write what you know,” is it okay to hold an artist accountable for what they write?

Truth isn’t Always Stranger than Fiction 

It could be that using art as evidence is totally bunk.  I mean, yes, Sylvia Plath was kind of loony.  Her writings were creepy and she met a rather grisly end.  In this way, it’s kind of easy to see how art imitates life in a real way.  Way back in the day of pantaloons, Voltaire got sent to prison countless times for making fun of the government and the Catholic Church in his writings, which were used as evidence too.

Voltaire and his…pantaloons?

But here’s the thing: not all art is representative of real events.  Dare I mention James Frey and his not-so-true memoir “A Million Little Pieces?”  The Oprah of 2003 was mighty peeved when she learned that Frey was stretching the truth.  It was verisimilitude, he claimed (I think)–or maybe other people argued that for him.

What it makes me think is this:

Truth and fiction are kind of intertwined.  So just how much do you want to read between the lines?

Marketing Gone Awry

Later in the CBC program, it came out that in many cases, those rappers whose lyrics are being used against them openly say that they have committed these acts of violence and drugs as a marketing strategy.  Some of them never actually dealt drugs, but the act of spreading that “truth” gives their brand credibility.  It seems a lot like a less PG version of verisimilitude–a popular literary strategy where authors imply that at least some parts of a work of fiction are true based on elements inside the text, song, what have you that are real.

Treasure IslandRobert Louis Stevenson’s hand drawn treasure map is one prime example.  When the book came out, there were even people who searched for the fictitious treasure island because of the map.  Okay, so a treasure hunt is not the same as the rather violent lyrics of many rap songs today.

BUT.

I still can’t help thinking that it is just a tad creepy that any artist–regardless of what they write–would have their words used against them in court.

Write What You Know

Let’s forget about the rappers for a while.  What about the other side of this whole art as confession argument?  Let’s say for the moment that truth and fiction are hopelessly blurred, and sometimes it backfires.

In other literary news, John Green is in the doghouse for his latest work, “The Fault in Our Stars,” because he is neither a teenage girl, nor is he (hopefully) dying of cancer.  Some readers were outraged upset about this real-life detail, since it was not his experience to write about.

One reviewer writes:

Was this John Green’s story to tell?  None of the readers of this novel who have not experienced the kind of loss depicted here have a right to laugh at any  of it.  (Read more of this review here).

…It’s a pretty complicated issue.  John Green arguably hasn’t lived that experience.  However, I would argue that many writers haven’t really experienced what they write about first hand.  I mean, let me know if I’m wrong here, but J.R.R. Tolkien never went on a long journey to Mordor, nor did he know any trolls or wizards.  The jury is still out as to whether or not he was a hobbit.  And if Terry Pratchett only wrote about what he knew, Discworld probably wouldn’t exist, considering that most of the things that he writes about are fantastical (but awesome).  

By: T. Jacques
By: T. Jacques

If writing not entirely truthfully means being disrespectful and singing or rapping about violent acts can land you in the slammer, what’s an artist to do?

What’s your take?  Should art be used as evidence in a court of law?  Just what should writers be writing about anyway?

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99 thoughts on “Art as Confession

  1. Writing what you know means writing things that are emotionally true. “Write what you know” should not be taken literally, or there would be no fiction, only memoirs. Art should not be used as evidence because it’s fictional (unless of course it really is a memoir).

    1. Hi Christi!

      Thanks for responding!

      I agree that writing what you know absolutely relates to writing things that are emotionally true!

      What is fascinating to me about the idea of truth and fiction–in particular “writing what you know”–is that truth is so subjective. I think it’s this shifting perception of what actually qualifies as truth and who has the right to speak “truthfully” about what topic that is so interesting.

      What do you think? Is there a topic that you wouldn’t feel able to write truthfully about?

  2. In my blog I write about my childhood and my family. I am the youngest of nine and I can guarantee you that their are nine different interpretations of the same event. It has been difficult for me to forge ahead regardless; trying not to offend and keeping true to my memories. It can be an emotional roller coaster. I am estranged from all but two of my siblings, and they are not to eager to read my blog. They would rather forget. Do I have the right to push forward….that is my struggle, but I feel compelled. musingsofjes.com

  3. Great post.
    I remember being hugely disillusioned when I learned that Annie Dillard wrote Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in a library carrel and not a country cottage. However, that shows the strength of her writing and my naivete at believing it was non-fiction.
    Still, the idea of artists being charged with their well-imagined crimes is ludicrous.
    Wait.
    I keep forgetting this is a New World/New Century.
    Chilling. Maybe I need to re-edit my novel.

  4. bringing to life the reader, writing, engaging the mind and heart, i seek wisdom even though wisdom is frowned upon in a world bent on the material, still i seek wisdom, great post, asks alot.

  5. Could it be rap is neither music or emotionally true. I do agree that what one perceives as truth is true. My truth is early rock n roll, after all today (Feb 3) is the day the music died.

      1. Lauren,
        Thank you for your comment….I am a newbie when it comes to blogs. Glad you like early rock and roll.
        I am thinking of changing my blog to rock and roll, rather than coffee. What do you think? If you have time let me know.
        Thanks,
        Alan

      2. Hi Alan! I think coffee and rock and roll are both pretty interesting topics. The question is: what interests you more? You could always try a few posts of both and see what is more fun to write about :)
        Stop by to chat any time :)

    1. I would disagree with that. I am a musician and I like to use rap in my songs. Although I am assuming that you are talking about “gangsta rap” which has in recent years been sold out and therefor as you put it “not emotionally true”. There are still many rap artists that rap about what they are going through.

      1. Hi there, thanks for stopping by!

        I do not think that any art is not emotionally true, rap included. I’d have to take your word for it about some rappers selling out. Mostly my interest in the idea of artists being sent to jail for their lyrics lies in the notion that it becomes harder for artists to create with emotional truth.

        The question is this: how comfortable can one feel when their art could be used as evidence against them?

        Truthfully, I felt kind of bad for the rappers who got into trouble.

      2. Sorry I was responding to alanj2014’s comment about rap not being “music or emotionally true”.
        I do not think that artists should have their lyrics held against them. If the law wants to use lyrics as evidence, they should hold the record label accountable instead.

  6. Some interesting considerations are raised here. Most important I think is that the concept of Thought Police is not just bad but very dangerous to us all. To prosecute a person for an actual crime committed by presenting real-world evidence is reasonable. To persecute a person for what he or she says, writes, or thinks is Draconian. It’s the role of artists to sometimes shock or to present unpopular views. To write about bombers is not the same as to plant bombs and kill people. This distinction must be maintained if we are to have a free and just society.

    1. Well spoken!

      The idea of Thought Police is pretty scary. One idea that eludes me is this–is it possible to maintain this distinction? When art is open to interpretation as a truth on some level, can artists allow for a level of emotional truthfulness without fear?

      Thanks for stopping by Bob :)

  7. Art and writing is a personal outlet to explore what we are and are most defiantly not. It’s a process that I think is completely normal. Those whose creative works end up under special scrutiny, but I tend to err on the side of less restriction. Not knowing is the reason we explore and it shouldn’t be discouraged!

  8. Absolutely love this post! I think the best part about all forms of art, whether it be visual, literature, music, etc, is that it is open for interpretation.

    As for writing nonfiction, it’s often difficult to remember exactly what words were exchanged between you and your arch nemesis, what color your aunt’s blouse was when you accidentally spilled a cup of coffee on her, which is why it is socially acceptable to slightly exaggerate or change certain details to help the story flow. definitely agree that truth and fiction are often intertwined. However, when you start adding events or conversations to a nonfiction piece that you know in fact did not occur, then you’re not being truthful to yourself or your readers.

    Artwork is another touchy subject. Many people who study psychology professionally often read into children’s art to decipher their feelings or perceptions of domestic situations, which I think is fascinating. But sometimes the kid just wants to draw a butterfly, you know? There’s no special meaning. It is what it is. Maybe it’s her mom’s birthday.

    And music? One song. “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin. No one knows what it means. The writers can’t even tell you.

    Now I’m done. Thanks for creating this awesome post and reading this unnecessarily long comment :)

    1. Hi Rose!

      Thanks for stopping by my blog! That’s a very interesting point about the psychologists and children’s artwork–I hadn’t thought about that! Since art is always being interpreted in new ways, it’s hard to pin down a true meaning.

    2. (harrumph – first attempt failed to post…)

      Reader, did you say what you wanted and needed to? Then not Not NOT “unnecessarily” long.

      If you needed more space or a tangential approach, you could always link to a more in-depth treatment on your own blog…

  9. I think it depends. If the rapper in question rapped about details of a particular crime that weren’t released by law enforcement and couldn’t have been obtained without personal knowledge, it may be appropriate that he was at least questioned.

    However, as commenters have already pointed out, if writers were only allowed to write from personal experience, fiction would be severely limited. I just wrote a story (from the elephant’s perspective) about a baby elephant seeing its mother killed by poachers. Obviously, the story was not written from personal experience.

    Great post!

    1. Thanks for stopping by! It’s true that it kind of depends. If there is some cause for concern that a crime is real, then it’s reasonable. Although sometimes it’s based on marketing!

      Sounds like an interesting story :) I look forward to reading it in print sometime :)

  10. I think your post is pertinent to music and art as a whole. Bend and mold; Art is what you make it.

    One of my favorite songs of all time is “I Am the Walrus” by The Beatles. It’s undoubtedly a bizarre tune and has raised many questions of it’s meaning by musician/ songwriters over the years.

    John Lennon admitted a decade later that the song didn’t really have a meaning. Actually, a couple acid trips helped make the walrus song the strange melody we listen to today. John also claims the song was written to show that he could write lyrics that don’t make sense, just like fellow artist Bob Dylan.

    The song can be taken any way depending on how your mind digest it. Every line in the song isn’t just random words scrunched together however, they stem from a moment in John’s past or a point of inspiration. I’m sure acid can depict some strong imagery and feelings.

    So even though the song track has no direct meaning or reason, it is full of color, emotion, and empathy, solidifying its place as original art.

  11. I read “The Fault in Our Stars” and I am astonished that the author doesn’t (that we know of) have any first-hand experience of cancer or dying. But I think the nature of storytelling is the creation of something that the audience can experience and relate to, and this applies to songs, movies and novels, so if Green nailed it then good on him.

  12. Hello Lauren,
    Congrats on Freshly Pressed. One of the problems I notice about writing what you know is that memory is faulty. For example, I thought my first memory as a child was causing my sister to fall down the stairs and break her arm. It turned out…that wasn’t actually my fault. My memory was altered by my two older siblings blaming me for the event, but they confessed about two years ago to my mom, when they found out that I really did think it was my fault. And as it turns out…my mom already knew that. I was the only one left in the dark.

    Writing what you know may or may not be writing from your personal experiences. For example, John Green did not experience cancer or being a 16 year old girl himself. That is pretty obvious, since he’s not a girl. However, maybe he had a friend, a relative or even an acquaintance who did go through those experiences.

    I am an aspiring author, and I think writing only the version of truth as you see it is pretty limiting. Authors often spend hours researching topics before they write, and even if they did not experience it personally, I think that research can be considered “writing what you know.” After all, if we only wrote what we experienced personally, then many books would probably be pretty darn boring.

    1. For that John Green comment…I mean that he did not experience being a girl first hand…I have no idea if he experienced cancer, nearly dying or any other life-threatening event in his life.

    2. Wow! I’m glad your siblings finally told you so you didn’t have to feel bad :)

      It’s true that research is a good way to push the boundaries of writing what you know. I usually research for my larger writing projects for a little while to get a better feel for it before I start.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  13. As writers (and as humans, for that matter), our view of the world is crafted not just through our own experiences but the experiences of those we know, and our observations of the people and environment around us. A writer’s gift is that he or she can interpret these feelings and observations into something that holds meaning for others in addition to himself/herself.

  14. Are writers REALLY talking about their own lives? Maybe at times. They can add their own experiences to a character’s story. How about artwork? That doesn’t always apply. It can be all imagination.. no truth.

    1. Imagination is what creates the magic! But I also think that running in tandem with imagination is a level of emotional truth in the art that I have loved most.

      Thanks for stopping by :)

  15. Nowadays it is dangerous to write anything…as you soon as say something you’re criticized right and left. Just to give you an example… to the question why wasn’t he on Twitter, our Berlusconi replied “because I will be attacked on every word I say”. Greetings from Trapani!

  16. I think being artist is letting yourrself free…. if even in this they start putting limitations … its like you are allowed to do party but only till 9.00 pm ….

  17. We should continue to support eachother to share our stories. Stories hold different perspectives and different weights. Once we let our stories go, they do their own thing. It is our responsibility to realise that what we put out there is for real human beings.

      1. Hello :) What I can say is that it can be so exhausting to work from the outside in. Always worried about how one will be perceived. I am more concerned with being true to myself now. Working from the inside out :)

  18. Interesting! You cannot prosecute artists for their work, that is the beginning of the end of freedom of speech. Who gets to decide what truths are allowed to be told? All stories need to be told, it helps people to be compassionate and to understand how it may feel to walk in another’s shoes. All artists have to show something of themselves in their work however they express it. I do not doubt that certain hip hop artists do lie about the gangster lifestyles they live, in fact I will bet some record companies encourage them to do so. Always in art artists will try to imitate true originals. I do like hip hop music, not because I like hearing about people taking drugs and beating people up, but because in certain “real” artists’ music, there is an honesty and an energy there that inspires me. What I can relate to is their journey out of a bad life into a good one – Jay Z is an artist that inspires me and I think a lot of people try to imitate him but those kind of people miss what he is really saying which is about how to climb out a life like that – not apologizing for it, but not encouraging it. I think if you have any real interest in any kind of art though, music, painting, writing or otherwise, it is obvious if something is genuine or fake and irrespective of whether what you are saying or portraying actually happened, if what it is you are trying to show to the world is genuine and truthful, people will relate to it whether it happened to you or someone else. They say write what you know and I had always confused that with writing about what actually happens in my day to day life but what it actually means is write about what you know you feel and other people will relate to it.

  19. For me, stories develop from the truth. I start out with a real life situation, but then my imagination takes over as I think about what might have happened if I had said this or done that. My best writing comes from a mixture of the truth and fiction.

  20. “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.”

    Thoreau: From “Walden”

    Outstanding post and poignant for me, as I am currently struggling with a draft post I think good, but it details some, shall we say, illegal activities. Specifically, smuggling of contraband. These activities occurred many years ago, but who knows?

    My blog (Barely one-week old) is entirely about my personal experiences. Write what you know, eh? Good advice.

    Lenny Bruce was arrested several times for speaking the truth about what he knew (Well, that’s my opinion.) Ostensibly, he was busted for using words like ‘cocksucker’. How times do change.

    Again, I enjoyed your post and now have some more things to ponder.
    Thanks,
    Lance

  21. I like what Christi said, backing you up about writing what you know. It’s the emotions that are usually meant to be true, as true as you can feel them, even if the facts don’t match up. I had an ex who often saw himself in my poems (not always in a good light). He would frequently say, “But that’s not how it happened!” I would always reply, “I’m a poet, not a historian.”

  22. Speck as in speculation? Well as long as they aren’t writing a confession to a crime I guess it’s okay to do whatever you want. The truth is usually BORING unless writers pump it up! (artistic license and all that).

  23. OK, the mulling is over, time to take a slow sip…

    I write in a variety of modes: fiction, poetry, song lyrics**, non-fiction, essay, commentary come immediately to mind, beyond the long and winding history of computer programming and scripting that has paid my way for the majority of the last thirty years. I read in what is if anything an even wider scope.

    I’ve never ONCE been tempted to include any real-life illegal escapades I may or may not have been involved with in ANY of my written work intended for publication within my lifetime. (Hmmmm. That may be a small stretch of the truth, as certain shall we say “youthful excesses” may technically have been illegal at the time that they occurred, or might be construed within certain legal jurisdictions to have been illegal then OR now, were I to try and be 1000% accurate. No typo, I said and I meant one thousand percent. Deliberate exaggeration.)

    The interwebz and all of the expansion in potential readership that exists today places a tremendous burden upon every writer, formal author or not. Very few of us are lawyers, and very few who are truly know the complete body of law which can be brought to bear upon any of us who generate any type of intellectual property ever seen by another sentient being. There is a long and bloody history of writers or their works being suppressed, incarcerated, mutilated, or destroyed because of failure to adhere to one law or another. Galileo was tried for trying to advance the Truth as he discovered and understood it. Marco Polo was exhorted to retract all that he had published about his journies, and is reputed to have responded on his death-bed that he had written about no more than half of what he had seen. And we all pretty much know the outcome of Martin Luther daring to publish his opinions about the corruption of the Church.

    Are the public confessions of a rapper (or any other artist) admissible as evidence in a criminal trial? I believe that they are, and that they should be, so long as they relate to “real” and actual events. Should I be liable for damages under civil statute if one of my articles about weaponry was seen by some random person as they searched for information across the Internet? I certainly hope otherwise, especially as I do not publish detailed bomb-making plans or precise modern chemical formula. (Sorry, world, blackpowder is far too well established to hide and far too simple not to be easily re-discovered with any knowledge of the basic ingredients…)

    You’ve given me a prompt to write about freedom of creation in more depth and with better / more thorough citations. Evil, evil, instigator. I LIKE IT! Now, off to the Caves of Creation…

    ** “I’m a filker and I’m OK / I sing my simple songs all day”… (FILK: the folk music of Science Fiction and Fantasy fandom – and which includes in lyric form the basic recipe for gunpowder, if you know to look for it among the Fish …[BygEvylGryn])

  24. I have nominated you for The No Strings Attached Lovely Blog Award. You are young and bright and write brilliantly. ;)
    If someone does not accept awards, well it still stands even if you cannot fulfill the requirements because this is a no strings attached nomination; only fulfill the award if you have time and are inspired.

  25. Some interesting thoughts! I find it scary that words you write can be used against you but then there are situations where i’m only to happy that this is the case. For instance Thickes Blurred line song, whilst its not going to put him in court (and can’t really be classed as writing), it’s still lead to his whole character being judged and deemed, in most cases, unpleasant.

  26. I definitely do NOT think that lyrics should be able to be used against someone in a court of law. “Write What You Know” can really go only so far. As a songwriter, I’ve stretched the truth a million times before (though admittedly I don’t tend to write about violence), and it makes no sense to assume other writers haven’t stretched the truth in some way. Sometimes it’s just for the benefit of a better story.

    And in regards to John Green, using the argument that “he isn’t a teenage girl” makes no sense either. J.K. Rowling certainly wasn’t a teenage boy wizard when she started writing Harry Potter. Gender in this case is irrelevant. The Fault In Our Stars isn’t making light of kids with terminal illnesses. And for all the times you laugh, you cry a whole lot more.

    Thank you for the very interesting post!

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