Just what do you make of the raid by police on the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney and confiscation of 21 photographs immediately prior to the opening of an exhibition by Bill Henson? Or the stated intention to bring obscenity charges against, presumably, the artist and gallery?
When the State starts brandishing the arts censorship cudgel my standard reaction is reflexive and unequivocal condemnation. I say “standard”, because there are some cases that challenge the validity of a black and white stance on censorship. Freedom of artistic expression is vital to any society that calls itself democratic - except, I’d argue, where that freedom erodes democratic principles and/or the founding laws that uphold them.
In snuff movies, for example, the lives of those who involuntarily “star” in them are extinguished - who but a fellow psychopath would march under placards of protest in defence of a director who claimed artistic license to murder? In my own rhetorical interests, this example is about as extreme as it gets. However, while I have not heard of any recent defence of snuff movies as “art”, the historical precedent exists in literature.
I refer to the works of the Marquis De Sade. Sade is said to have pushed the boundaries of hedonistic libertarianism to torturing and killing prostitutes for sexual gratification, and to have drawn on this experience in his pornographic writings.
I can’t verify this - I have not read any of his surviving stuff. I suppose I am not sufficiently interested to chase it up. Interesting, though, that the French State of the 18th and 19th centuries appears to have been more tolerant of sexually confrontational cultural artefacts than contemporary Australia, isn’t it? (Sade’s son appears to have judged papa’s efforts too depraved to entrust to posterity, however - apparently he burned all his father’s unpublished manuscripts after he died).
Whatever its moral standing, Sade’s work is evidently philosophically substantial, since he has been seen as a precursor of surrealism, nihilism and Freudian psychoanalysis. Scholarly heavyweights including Simone de Beauvoir have written on him, and some leading feminists have - astonishingly - defended him! Indeed, Angela Carter sees him as “a ‘moral pornographer’ who creates spaces for women”!! Sisters for De Sade! Never have understood the thinking of literary critics, but there you go. It must be true - Wikipedia told me so.
Even with extreme works of sadistic erotica such as Sade’s, then, which in its day (and beyond) stretched the generally accepted bounds of morality to the limit, we have credible writers, artists and critics building upon it, defending it, validating it as at least worthy of debate.
Closer to the Henson furore, I vividly recall an argument years ago with a female friend educated in literature and literary criticism to post-grad level, whose intelligence and opinion I respected, who insisted that Nabokov’s brilliant novel Lolita should be banned. She saw it as legitimising pedophilia through its first-person narrator pedophile character, Humbert Humbert.
I do not wish to get sidetracked into a considered defence of Lolita here, or why I rate it as one of the great novels of the last century (that I have read, anyway). Suffice it to say that my reading was other than hers. In essence, I argued on the simple basis that art should be judged on its own terms, and that the clay of the artist should be the stuff of human experience, unrestricted.
I was taken aback when my friend informed me that she had been molested as a child and raped as an adult. I maintained my anti-censorship stance, but I had an uncomfortable sense at the time that the firmness of my conviction was shaken. My friend’s emotional truth was clouding her judgment of Lolita, I reasoned. I stuck to my position, but the edges of my black and white view had blurred grey.
Which brings me back to the Henson case. Why do I not recoil aghast from this latest State affront to freedom of artistic expression? Because the great media-appointed scourge of our time has been invoked - pedophilia!
Decent citizens rail en masse at a whiff of suspicion that a pedophile is in their vicinity. In this atmosphere of vigilante righteousness, deferring to evidence on whether a witch is really a witch before joining the mob in burning her exposes you to the charge of heresy. Choose your words pretty damned carefully, or you run the risk of being chucked on the bonfire with the evil one! So, why all this hysteria?