Art and Polarity

Tim and I are knee-deep in creating a bunch of podcasts to cover us through an upcoming hiatus.  So this week’s transcript is a bit behind.  As soon as it’s ready, I’ll post it straightaway. 

In the meantime, here’s a post I wrote for Steven Pressfield’s site ( in the “What it Takes” column I share with Callie Oettinger. As each day passes, the importance of judging human behavior for the artist becomes more and more critical.  The artist is responsible for communicating, defending, and propagating his/her most treasured values. It’s why we have the deep need and desire to create stories…to impart deep truth.

The other day I overheard this conversation:

Man #1: “I ran into Frank Smith (not his real name) at the beach yesterday…”

Man #2: “Isn’t that the guy who cheated on his wife, got a DWI, and said all of those nasty things about Jill’s daughter in law?”

Man #1: “…Well…yes…but I try not to judge.”

I run into this “I don’t judge” stuff a lot and it infuriates me on many levels. But as this is a blog about what it takes to create art, I’ll just address why this “moral position” is at best hypocritical and at worst a force as undermining and dark as Resistance.

If you want to create art, you need to make judgments about human behavior and take a side. How well you convey and support your point of view is a measure of your skill. On-the-nose judgments in art, like that hilarious statue of the founder of Faber College in Animal House with the epitaph “Knowledge is Good” are funny because they are so generic.

The epitaph tells the viewer that the setting of the story is a College founded by an idiot. What is really wonderful about that scene is that it appears in the opening credits, giving the viewer no doubts about the tenor of the art to come.

The scene in Woody Allen’s Manhattan where the Woody character is having cocktail conversation at the Museum of Modern Art is another one of my favorites…

Guest #1: “Has anybody read that Nazis are gonna march in New Jersey, you know?”

Woody character: “We should go there, get some guys together. Get some bricks and baseball bats and explain things to ‘em.”

Guest #2: “There was this devastating satirical piece on that in the Times.”

Woody character: “Well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks get right to the point.”

Guest #2: “But biting satire is better that physical force.”

Woody character: “No, physical force is better with Nazis. It’s hard to satirize a guy with shiny boots.”

Today’s “let’s all get along, not judge or challenge anyone” groupthink also reminds me of a major scene sequence in Milos Forman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Jack Nicholson portrays R.P. McMurphy, a good time Charlie with authority figure issues. He’s playing crazy at a maximum-security insane asylum to get out of a work detail jail sentence. Years ago, they sentenced petty criminals to hard labor. I remember as a kid being in the backseat driving South and watching chain gangs cutting overgrown brush on the median of I95—Donn Pearce must have seen them too. He wrote Cool Hand Luke.

McMurphy’s Moriarty is Nurse Ratched, the head nurse in the asylum. Louise Fletcher played this role so brilliantly—all ice and pursed lips—she had difficulty finding work after winning the Oscar for it.

Polar Opposites: Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched and Jack Nicholson as R.P. McMurphy.

One afternoon, during an interminable group therapy session, McMurphy requests that the guys be allowed to watch the World Series that evening. Knowing that the last thing the other men would want to do is stand up and challenge the way she rules her kingdom, Ratched sees an opportunity to put McMurphy in his place.

She’ll put the request up to a vote.

McMurphy sticks his hand up to vote “yea” assuming that his fellow patients will come to the same conclusion that he has.  By simply raising their arms, together the men can let this lady know that denying a simple pleasure like watching a ball game to a bunch of lunatics is absurd.

Which one of you nuts has any guts?

The needy fuser Cheswick is the only other one who has the courage to challenge Nurse Ratched’s command. Meeting adjourned. The men are then shuttled into the shower room for their evening cleaning. McMurphy is out of his mind with anger.

If you’re a writer, this scene is a perfect example of a set-up that dramatically portrays a character’s inner change.  How does Ken Kesey pay it off?

From the first moment McMurphy lays eyes on Ratched, the reader/viewer knows he judges her as rotten to the core. McMurphy is not afraid to judge. His problem is that he acts on his judgments too quickly. That’s what got him in the clink in the first place.

In the nuthouse, though, he is forced to keep the judgment to himself. He’s supposed to be crazy! And to McMurphy, only crazy people don’t judge, so he shouldn’t either.

But when the evidence of Ratched’s evil is incontrovertible to him, he can’t help himself but act. He’s the novel’s protagonist. He’s the hero. If he doesn’t act on his judgments, there’s no story.

Kesey could have made any number of choices with this scene. He could have had McMurphy act selfishly, like a child, and physically attack a guard or an inmate or himself. Something the character has a reputation for doing earlier in his life.

Instead, for the first time (and the perfect time) Kesey has his character act beyond himself. He changes his behavior. McMurphy sees that these men have it within themselves to judge Ratched as a tyrant. If he can make them understand how important it is to make a judgment and to act on that judgment—even if it puts them in harm’s way—he will help them. And helping them will help him bring down tyranny. He’ll win.

McMurphy, already known as a consummate hustler, challenges all of the men to take a bet. He puts all of his money on his succeeding. He will pick up a thousand pound marble bathroom vanity, throw it through the barred window, walk to a nearby bar with his buddy Cheswick, wet his whistle and watch Mickey Mantle play in the World Series…Who wants some of this action?

He’s so convincing that only the most cynical among them take his bet.

Playing McMurphy as only he could play him, Jack Nicholson grabs the edges of the vanity, squats and surges into the plumbing. He turns blue from effort.  He commits to the action, gives it his best shot. When he’s drenched with sweat, spent and defeated, he walks out of the room.  But not before turning to the stunned assemblage and saying:

“At least I tried.”

As a child in the 60s and 70s, I was raised on stories like this. (I wish we had more of them today) And they’ve had a profound influence. This is why art is so important.

These stories taught me that to passively disengage for fear of reprisal is cowardly. Making a judgment, taking a stand and then acting against an injustice or acting to support excellence is the stuff of the everyman hero.

And yes, not saying anything, not “judging” the horrible or honorable behavior of other people is acting too. As deliberate an act as getting overly excited about an idea and shouting in a business meeting.

If you don’t call people on their shit, you’re placing yourself above them, as if their actions are so inconsequential to you that they need not be considered. You’re above it all, some kind of Ayn Randian ubermensch behaving only out of self-interest. The same goes for not giving a standing ovation for great work because others remain seated. If you admire a work, let the artist know. They can use all the attaboys they can get. It’s hell in that writer’s room or studio.

Despite the initially convincing argument that to “not judge” is an expression of empathy—who knows, if I faced those same circumstances maybe I’d do something like that too? —It’s not. It’s an excuse for not standing up for what’s right.

Not saying something is uncaring. Not saying something means that you do not want to put your ass on the line and take the risk that you’ll be shunned for your opinion. It has everything to do with you. Nothing to do with the other person.

I’m aware that the world is not black and white. There are shades of gray between the two poles of every value. On the spectrum of “Truth and Deceit,” telling a white lie when your cousin asks if she looks good in her bathing suit is not the same as running a billion dollar Ponzi scheme. I get it.

And yes, most of the time, keeping our big mouths shut is the right thing to do. We’re all guilty of misdemeanors and don’t need Earnest Ernies pointing out our shortcomings. And when we do confront someone about their actions, we need to do it with tact and care. That’s empathy.

But this “non-judgment, I toe the middle line” attitude is dangerous. There is no middle line.  Not judging is a judgment.  And it pushes people away from each other—I best not make a mistake and judge anyone or no one will like me…best to keep quiet and be agreeable—instead of bringing them together—I thought I was the only one who thought Animal House was genius…

The man I overheard who doesn’t “judge” the adulterous, alcoholic driving, rumor-monger sends a message to the world that destructive actions are excusable. It is what it is… There is no right and wrong. Nonsense.

But it is his passive aggressive dressing down of the other guy for “judging” someone guilty of antisocial behavior that is even worse. It masks his cowardice as virtue. And to not judge whether something is right or wrong is the furthest thing from a virtue.

You must choose a position in this world on innumerable moral questions and stand by your judgments. Woody Allen made this point in six lines of dialogue. Ken Kesey riffed on it for an entire novel. It’s important.

If you are an aspiring artist and you wish to avoid “judgments,” you’ll find that you have nothing to say.

16 comments on “Art and Polarity

  1. michael777stephen says:

    As Taleb writes in Antifragile:

    “If you see a fraud, and don’t say ‘fraud,’ you are a fraud.”

  2. joetye says:

    This essay could not be more relevant given today’s headlines. Thanks Shawn.

  3. Beth says:

    I will take you at your word and make a judgment. Again.

    I LOVE this site and it has been the best thing that ever happened to my writing. Beyond grateful.

    However, we know enough about Woody Allen to NOT use him as a positive example in an article about not keeping our mouths shut.

    So I won’t.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Beth
      I totally respect your POV. Using examples that raise hackles was a deliberate choice to incite reader reactions. Editing out anything controversial would dilute my intention for the article so I’ve deliberately chosen not to take your note.
      All the best and thank you for taking a stand. The point is to make a judgement and live by it. Which you wholeheartedly do and I applaud. But to edit others judgements that you find offensive is a slippery slope.

      1. Beth says:

        Thank you for your reply…

        I grew up in an environment in which abuses of various kinds were covered up/blamed on the victims; and so any positive mention of Woody Allen w/o disclaimers feels like more of the same.

        I am, however, in favor of free speech so I support your right to mention him. I appreciate the freedom to comment without deletion as well. Censorship sucks. 🙂

        1. Charlotte says:

          Thank you for taking a stand, Beth. I, for one, am tired of the Wood Allen exemption. It seems like certain artists and geniuses get endless passes for their behavior because “their art, oh their art!” Which, to paraphrase this blog post, is bullshit.

          You stood up and pointed out that judgement was needed and lacking here. Just as suggested 🙂 And you aren’t the only one who though so.

          1. Larry says:

            I don’t think that judgement was lacking in Shawn’s post. Shawn isn’t saying “don’t judge Woody Allen.” He’s saying make judgements, live by them, but don’t edit out controversy. I wouldn’t stay in the same room with Roman Polansky or Mel Gibson, but the conversation would be impoverished if I couldn’t refer to Chinatown or Braveheart as great storytelling.

  4. Joy Sikorski says:

    Dear Mr. Coyne,

    I couldn’t agree with you more.

    And I also want to take this moment to personally thank you for what your life-changing book has done for a book project I am working on with my co-writer, Michael Silversher.

    The Story Gird has changed our lives as writers and finally given us a road map that makes it much easier to grasp the rhythm, balance, pacing, theme threads, character arcs, sub-plots, etc. for our big historical fiction project. Utilizing your clearly defined concepts we have finally “seen” our story in a cinematic light that allows us to mine our words with greatly enhanced authenticity .

    Many many thanks for what you do to make this world a better place.

    Joy Sikorski
    The Judah and Tamar Trilogy

  5. Great article. This resonates with me. Probably too much. Balance is difficult.

    I’m tired of hearing how judgment shows ignorance unless you happen to be judging a Christian white male republican… in which case it’s common sense to judge, pity and hate them within the groupthink of the non-judgemental crowd. The hypocrisy makes me hurl.

    Free speech and non-judgmental love! *some exceptions may apply. 😉

    Btw, if Tim ever decides to abandon his post as guinea-pig writer, I’ll take his place. Along with several thousand others.

  6. Larry says:

    Whenever I hear someone talk about the desirability of being non-judgmental, I remember Mark Antony’s cry; “Oh, Judgment! Thou art fled to brutish beasts, and men have lost their reason.”

  7. Larry says:

    Shawn, in a more Story related question, the examples you give show _characters_ making and acting upon value judgments. Are there examples of the authorial voice making judgments independent of any that the characters make? Ones that aren’t heavy-handed?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Larry,
      Well fiction is a means by which a writer can express himself or herself with a wonderful alibi…that his/her characters are speaking and judging and not really representative of his/her own povs. So it’s hard to come up with an answer about an authorial voice making judgments independent of the characters unless of course we’re discussing unreliable first person narration created by the author…something akin to LOLITA or HEART OF DARKNESS or CATCHER IN THE RYE. The author’s thoughts and opinions and judgements are naturally expressed by their creations. The writer can fitz around the question all they like, but the judgments came from their own internal space and no one else’s…regardless of masks provided by characters. Nonfiction obviously is a horse of a different color and the author must lay out his/her ideas clearly from his/her point of view directly.

  8. Tina M Goodman says:

    A comment on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I think sports (esp. soccer, football, hockey) often promote violence. There is fighting on the field, in the stands, and at home where men kick their televisions sets and beat their wives. Inmates at an insane asylum may have difficulty dealing with the stimulation of a world series event, or whatever that game was. Perhaps the nurse could have come up with a compromise? I also think that McMurphy didn’t fully understand the circumstances he found himself in. Psychiatric facilities promote calmness and order for a reason.

    1. Hi Tina. So does the education system. It promotes calmness, order, and conformity which can be counter-productive to creativity and, as Shawn has pointed out, can even be very dangerous.

  9. jembradl says:

    Woody Allen is the king of “don’t judge.” He has managed to remain a darling of Hollywood despite being a pedophile and abuser by using this tactic. Interesting how when this is pointed out to you by a commenter unafraid to take a stand and make a judgement, Mr. Coyne, you accuse the commenter of entering a slippery slope of covering up someone else’s judgement. Um, no. You are the one doing the covering up if you are arguing “don’t judge Woody Allen.”

    1. Larry says:

      I don’t think that Shawn is saying “don’t judge Woody Allen.” He’s saying make judgements, live by them, but don’t edit out controversy. I wouldn’t stay in the same room with Roman Polansky or Mel Gibson, but the conversation would be impoverished if I couldn’t refer to Chinatown or Braveheart as great storytelling.

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