On the Ethics of "My" Art

Recently, many members of the Deaf community have brought forward significant criticism of the videos I produce. Specifically, they have alleged that:

  1. My ASL is very unskilled
  2. Asking for monetary support on Patreon constitutes exploitation of Deaf culture
  3. Using ASL in my art is offensive, disenfranchising cultural appropriation

After reading dozens of articles and hundreds of comments on this controversy over the last two weeks, I would like to share my thoughts on these allegations, present the broader issues at hand as I understand them, and share what I plan to do.

So what exactly am I doing? Is it “ASL”?

Like most languages, American Sign Language has a complex origin, but emerged primarily among Deaf populations of the northeastern United States in the early 19th Century. ASL was protected within these populations during many decades of oralism, an education method trumpeted by Alexander Graham Bell in the late 19th Century that emphasized assimilating deaf individuals into the Hearing) world and suppressing their use of ASL, often through physical punishment. Oralism lasted into the mid-20th Century, but thankfully has been eradicated from mainstream deaf education in the United States, thanks to the growing recognition among the Hearing world that ASL is a unique language and Deaf culture is a distinct minority group.

(Correction: After posting, a couple of commenters pointed out that unfortunately oralism does in fact persist quite strongly, such as at the Clarke School in Massachusetts and the Central Institute for the Deaf in Missouri. Furthermore, oralism is still most Hearing parents' first choice for their deaf children.)

When I was introduced to ASL in college, I got the impression that the battle to legitimize ASL had largely been won. The “Deaf President Now” movement had successfully established the first Deaf president of Gallaudet University in 1988. Marlee Matlin had won an Oscar a couple of years prior. A generation later, ASL had joined the ranks of Greek, Italian, French, and a dozen other languages in Texas Tech’s Foreign Languages department. ASL seemed to have developed in its particular culture, but as languages always tend to, was spreading quickly into the world at large, taking on a life of its own as it mixed with other cultures. Among many other things, my 3 years of ASL classes exposed me to Keith Wann’s and Allyson Townsend’s YouTube videos, where they performed songs in ASL. These ‘songsigning’ performances captivated me like few art forms had before.

I’ve always been fascinated by the visualization of sound, by synesthesia, by the fuzzy boundaries between the senses and media that we often consider distinct. Songsigning struck me as a superbly distinct art form, situated smack dab at my aesthetic sweet spot.

Technically, songsigning involved the translation of words and the interpretation of concepts from one language to another, much as one might translate an opera from Russian into Italian. But it also required the interpretation of musical elements into body movements, and musical and lyrical emotions into facial expressions. An artist could then “layer” these visual interpretations onto the original aural work. Adding these rich visual dimensions to a song struck me as a highly novel “synesthetic” experience — seeing and hearing the music all at once — a whole greater than the sum of the parts, astoundingly engaging and emotionally compelling.

Songsigning resonated with me in a way no art form ever had before. I’d played piano as a kid, but it always felt forced. I’d acted a little in high school, but wasn’t particularly good at that either. I’d taken dance lessons in college, but I moved awkwardly. Songsigning was something that “clicked” for me, where these three forms of expression came together into something I did effortlessly well, and that a lot of folks seemed to dig.

I practiced ASL off and on over the years, mostly through my songsigning videos. But like any language, it takes a LOT of practice to become fluent. Right now I am not fluent in ASL, but I can communicate with someone who knows ASL or the constructed languages similar to it, like Signed English. Translation for performance is very different from real-time communication, though. In my videos I’ve always strived to translate the English lyrics of each song into the grammar and vocabulary of ASL to the best of my ability. To prepare for my Poland performance, I met regularly with an ASL Interpreter here in Austin to practice and improve my ASL accuracy, and I’ve continued to work with him during these last few months. I have always endeavored to perform American Sign Language as best I understand it.

I have used the term “ASL song” to describe my videos for a couple of reasons. First, because I have always strived to share ASL as a language distinct from English. That’s why I have always included my subjective interpretation (called a “gloss”) with the captions to every video. Second, because when I started publishing my videos, “ASL song” simply seemed to be the accepted YouTube shorthand for “music video where a performer uses sign language of some kind.” The term stuck, and helped keep things consistent for searchability on the greater Internet. Most places I looked, “ASL” was used conventionally like “opera” or “jazz” in describing a style of expression that was seemingly homogeneous to the newcomer, but given to rich complexity on further exploration.

This whole line of reasoning went unquestioned until now.

Recently, I’ve come to see it as grossly naive and insensitive, enabled by my own privileged position. ASL is not a language like Greek, Italian, or French. As one Deaf commenter put it: “ASL is WAY more than just a language, it's a way of life, a way of learning and understanding for the people who have no other way to communicate fluently, it's a Deaf persons identity, and one they're fiercely proud of.” My unacknowledged privilege as a Hearing person allowed me to believe otherwise, but the Deaf community largely seemed to ignore or accept my videos as long as I wasn’t claiming any position of authority in ASL. This changed when I re-launched on Patreon.

My position on whether to ask for money to create my videos has a mixed history. Following the viral explosion of “Party in the USA” in late 2009, I chose NOT to monetize my YouTube channel. I didn’t believe in making money by throwing ads in front of my videos, largely because I hated seeing ads on other YouTube videos. I didn’t want ads disrupting someone’s enjoyment of my art. Besides, it was a hobby for me then, and as a college student I had lot more time and resources available to support production activities, so the lack of compensation was not an issue.

When I returned to songsigning this past this summer, the situation had changed. I was working a full-time job and volunteering for a couple of organizations. Time and resources were scarcer. So I knew that I wanted to produce art that sustained itself. I also wanted my videos to be high-quality, with good lighting, sound, and editing, because I believe songsigning has been underserved in this regard (webcams and lamps just don’t cut it, people). Over the course of creating my videos I generally tried to improve the production quality of each one. I believe that is something that sets me apart from most songsigners. When I considered how to support this level of production quality, the most cost effective solution I found was to pay a professional production studio. Tiny Courage, a local Austin studio, offered me a great deal.

Additionally, I sincerely believe an artist should value the time they put into producing their art, so I factored in a living-wage hourly rate for any time I spent on glossing, practicing, community management, and other activities peripheral to production.

But how would I fund all this? Asking for support directly from the community enjoying my creations was the obvious choice. I still believe that depending on advertising revenue is a terrible way for artists to support themselves and their creations. The ad-centric monetization of artistic activity on the Internet is a dangerous trend that fortunately seems to be slowing. Thanks to platforms like Patreon that had developed and matured in the interim years, I found I could much more easily go the crowd-funding route than I could have before. All the pieces seemed to be falling into place for me to produce entertaining art that supported itself. I was excited.

Here’s where privilege comes in again.

Among the recent feedback sent to me was an article from Elise Whitworth, a Deaf woman and former journalist and advocate for ASL literacy. In her article, Elise responds to the recent viral “sign along” video by Paul Sirimarco & Tina Cleveland. The couple got over a million views in a week, went on the Today Show, and (much like yours truly in 2009), found a large fan base overnight, insatiably hungry for more of this joyfully novel entertainment. Encouraged by their newfound audience’s support, Paul & Tina launched a Kickstarter campaign requesting funds to create a series of ASL tutorials and “sign along” videos. Almost immediately, the couple received strong criticism for this campaign from the Deaf community.

As Elise puts, Paul & Tina misstepped when “they decided to keep the limelight on themselves – instead, they should have looked up Deaf and hard of hearing entertainers who are trying to do this for a living, and turned the spotlight onto them, saying ‘you think we’re good, look at the BEST.’ They could have started a series of videos of themselves learning from Deaf and hard of hearing entertainers, performing together…. the possibilities are endless.” Elise’s position was reinforced and cited many times by Deaf commenters on Paul & Tina’s Facebook posts. Allegedly, Paul & Tina responded initially by attempting to delete “negative” posts on their social pages and block the users who posted them, though they eventually cancelled their Kickstarter project, citing the critical response they received. As they put it, “Although we know and the people who truly know us know our intentions are spreading awareness of ASL and hoping to bring Deaf and hearing communities together, while being our crazy, fun, in-love passionate selves, the last thing we want to cause is people having negative feelings towards it.”

For many of Paul & Tina’s Hearing fans, it was tough to see why the couple's actions could be a problem. I spent several hours reading through the complex debates in response to their announcement. As I understand it, even though Tina was certified as an ASL interpreter (by the state though, versus by the more intensive and nationally recognized Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf), many members of the Deaf community saw these actions by her (a Hearing person with no Deaf relatives) and her husband (who is also Hearing, has no Deaf relatives, and is not an Interpreter) as flagrant exploitation of their overnight popularity in the Hearing world for financial gain that did not explicitly benefit the Deaf community, to which they largely owed that fame by using ASL. They objected to Paul & Tina, whom they considered unskilled outsiders, implicitly taking any authoritative stance in the realm of ASL, and most definitely to them taking any compensation for it.

“We do not need people to teach more people to love ASL,” as one commenter put it. “That is not what us Deaf people want. What we need from people to is [sic] to learn that ASL is a real language, and to take it more seriously. Many native signers, including myself, have advanced degrees in ASL linguistics, grammar, structure and have attended countless hours of training and worked very hard to learn how to teach ASL, to understand ASL as a language, and we work very hard. There are ASL experts who are very talented teachers and work very hard to share our language with hearing people. We don't need people to learn ASL by watching gimmicky videos in YouTube with unclear and inaccurate signing. All it does is to make people think ASL is pretty and cool like some kind of party trick.”

Having often been encouraged by my Hearing friends to show off my ASL at parties, that last bit was a gut punch. I had never seen what I considered “my art” this way, again largely thanks to my privilege as a Hearing person uninvolved with the Deaf community.

And I’m not alone. Too often reading through these Facebook discussions I saw callous responses from Hearing commenters. They claimed that ASL does not “belong” to the Deaf community, that as a language it is inherently something to be shared. They defended Paul & Tina with arguments along the lines of, “Look at all the people who are learning about sign language because of Paul & Tina” or “These videos make so many people happy!” The huge problem with these sorts of ends-justify-means arguments is not so much the validity of the arguments themselves, but who is making them — Hearing individuals outside the Deaf community.

The issues at stake here are in many ways a subset of a larger problem of cultural appropriation by entertainers in the United States. Professor Susan Scafidi, who literally wrote the book on this issue, defines cultural appropriation as “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission. … most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways.” Sound familiar?

A young woman named Aaliyah Jihad explores several examples of cultural appropriation from contemporary pop culture in her recent TEDx talk. Among others, she cites Madonna’s appropriation of ‘vogueing’ from Latin-American culture, Macklemore’s appropriation of hip-hop from African-American culture, and Miley Cyrus’ infamous appropriation of twerking and "hood" motifs from the same. According to Aaliyah, these acts of appropriation implicitly marginalize the minority culture from which they are appropriated, because they generally receive greater exposure, acceptance and even celebration in the dominant culture. She cautions that, largely due to ignorance and lack of attribution they often become associated with the dominant culture, destroying their potency as minority cultural identifiers.

In many ways, cultural appropriation is a subtle and insidious variant of racism. The equivalent of racism in Hearing / Deaf relations is called audism — the privileging of those who can hear over those who can’t. Audism has historically manifested as the outright suppression of Deaf culture by Hearing culture. Oralism is perhaps the most egregious example, but while explicitly oralist practices are far less common today, subtler forms of audism persist. Deaf continue to face hiring discrimination, despite the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Saturday Night Live flagrantly mocked ASL in their parody of Michael Bloomberg’s interpreter. Audist terms like “hearing impaired” and even "deaf & dumb" are still used far too often in the Hearing world, usually without the slightest awareness that these terms are offensive. Identifying and rooting out audism and cultural appropriation, whatever forms they might take, is an ongoing and difficult struggle.

Here’s the pivotal question:

Is the pursuit of monetarily-supported ASL songsigning by Hearing people like Paul & Tina or myself an example of audist cultural appropriation?

The thing is, that’s not for us (in the sense of me, Paul & Tina, and our largely Hearing fan bases) to decide, because we’re in the position of privilege. We’re members of the dominant culture. Whether an act of cultural appropriation in the entertainment space is okay is for the members of the appropriated culture, not the appropriating culture, to say. This is especially important in cases where the appropriating culture is very dominant, because the playing field is not level. There are 1000 Hearing people for every Deaf person in the United States. What those from the dominant culture say often has a disproportionate affect. This is the fundamental injustice: those who are hurt the most by an act of marginalization are the least likely to be heard.

It’s worth noting briefly that from the comments I’ve read, the Deaf community seems to disagree somewhat on this issue. Most feel that unless one is CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) or Deaf or NERDA (Not Even Related to Deaf Adults but part of the Deaf community), one shouldn’t do songsigning as entertainment and ask for monetary support. Others feel that songsigners who become famous and ask for monetary support can do so only if they maintain a significant ongoing association with the Deaf community, raise awareness, and advocate for Deaf culture as their driving purpose. And finally, a few others seem to have no qualms with monetarily-supported songsigning, but they seem to be the minority. Far and away though, most commenters agree that some degree of injustice is going on in the cases of myself and Paul & Tina.

Lack of consensus aside, the complexity of this controversy only clarified how wrong I was to hold a simplistic understanding of ASL as “just another language.” It is not, as I first thought, part of a relatively level artistic playing field like Italian opera or Russian ballet. A wide range of people from a wide range of cultures can learn to perform opera or ballet and a wide range of people from a wide range of cultures can appreciate these art forms purely for their aesthetic qualities. No one from Italy seems to get upset that Josh Groban (an American, with mixed northern and eastern European ancestry) occasional sings beautifully in Italian and gets paid for it, even though he does not teach Italian or explicitly draw attention to Italian cultural struggles. But perhaps that’s because American culture really cannot be said to “dominate” Italian culture any more. As this entire controversy has informed me, Hearing culture does continue to dominate Deaf culture in most of the US, and especially on the Internet.

So what am I going to do?

This whole situation has prompted to me to dive deep into my own biases, privilege, and motivations. I have questioned everything, down to my fundamental reasons for doing songsigning at all. Recall from earlier that I began songsigning purely because of the unique aesthetics and expressiveness it unlocked for me. This in turn was rooted in my prior and deeper love for the visualization of music, and it has always been the driving force behind my creations. If I’m being true to myself as an artist, that is where my passion lives. I realize now that I made the mistake of pursuing the first art form that worked well for me, and not sufficiently questioning the consequences of that pursuit for far too long.

As I understand it, there are a few options available to me.

  1. In order to continue asking for crowd-funding, I would need to get way better at ASL. This would entail years of intensive interpreter training and a complete change in my life, becoming as much a part of the Deaf community as necessary to identify as a NERDA. Only then could I produce the videos as a side project of a professional interpreting career.

  2. Cease asking for crowd-funding, clear stating that my videos are not ASL, that I am not Deaf, that I have no authority or association with Deaf culture whatsoever, and am merely producing the videos as a hobby, much like I did at the beginning.

  3. Cease production of any kind related to sign language, as so many of the Deaf community have asked that I do.

Option 1 is not just impractical, but unethical. In college I seriously considered becoming a certified interpreter, and decided that was simply not what I wanted to do as a professional career. I stand by that decision. I do not see my Patreon activity as a profession. I consider it art supported by patronage.

More importantly, Deaf culture does not need me in order to succeed. Deaf culture advocates like Rosa Lee Timm, Keith Wann, Sean Forbes, and Austin Andrews are producing content that entertains and informs. They grew up in the Deaf world. I will never have that kind of experience. Learn from them.

Option 2 is impractical and misaligned with my artistic intent. To continue producing sign language videos on the side, for free, at the standard of quality I believe they deserve, is simply not feasible anymore given my life circumstances. Furthermore, I got back into songsigning was because I saw renewed demand for the art I had been creating, wanted to produce that art sustainably, and desired to evolve my creativity in a fundamental sense. I believe it’s time to continue exploring art forms that might be better for me than this one.

So, after mulling over this issue for the better part of two weeks, I have decided that I cannot in good conscience continue to produce songsigning videos.

In detail, this means the following:

  1. Before the end of the month, I will suspend or cancel my Patreon account.

  2. My YouTube videos and Facebook page will remain online. I will add a disclaimer to all of them describing my background and linking to this essay.

  3. I will add links to Deaf and CODA songsigning videos in all video descriptions and feature a playlist of them on my YouTube channel, to encourage awareness as Elise recommends.

  4. I will do my best to redirect any future press inquiries about me or my songsigning videos to this essay, and inform anyone on this topic to the best of my ability when it comes up in conversation.

Some of you will be disappointed by my choice. I understand. But please trust me that I have given this a significant amount of thought, and this is my final decision.

Thanks one last time to all of you who have supported and encouraged me over the years. I don’t believe these revelations invalidate the love and appreciation you have expressed.

If you would like to continue following me as I explore this ever more uncertain future of ours, I am on Twitter at @storrence.

Thank you very much for reading all this.




Deaf Disempowerment and Today's Interpreter http://www.streetleverage.com/2012/12/deaf-disempowerment-and-todays-interpreter/

The Burden of Privilege, by M. Richard Horrellschmitz http://theaslproject.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/the-burden-of-privilege/

Songs for Hands, by Anabel Maler http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.13.19.1/mto.13.19.1.maler.php


You can also discuss this post on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/captainvalor/posts/10152455938556359

A version of this essay was originally posted on Patreon: http://www.patreon.com/creation?alert=2&hid=977254