Friday, October 10, 2014

Censorship Today

I grew up in the censorship days. Mary Whitehouse strode the seventies like some cultural domestos, bleaching out any life from our culture. Then in the 80s we had Mike Read with his queasiness about the lyrics of "Relax" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (if only he'd shown the same queasiness about the behaviour of some of his fellow DJs....) and in the 90s Tipper Gore's PMRC and its attempts to ban Giger's poster for the Dead Kennedys, and the insistence on Parental Advisory stickers on LPs... and then there was that bizarre period of the first Gulf war where you could watch the soldiers on the TV news every night but Bomb the Bass was no longer allowable to be mentioned and Massive Attack had to lose the second word of their name. I would slip into my local record shop when nobody was looking and likely a teenager looking for jazz mags would say "have you got the new NWA LP?" which the shopkeeper would knowingly slip in brown paper bag from behind the counter.

This I felt was a war that for freedom of speech that bit by bit we were winning - that in a liberal democracy (despite our Tory leaders) history was on our side. Censorship was surely like a curtain in a Girly show, once it had revealed what was behind it, there was no pulling back the drape. Besides, there was a sea change in our behaviours - from what was public to what was private. The home VHS meant that whether it was a dirty film shipped illicitly from Amsterdam or an art house movie, it could be watched in private behind closed doors. Britain had always been behind America - we weren't a country at home with "Emmanuels" never mind "Deep Throats" - far more likely to titter at "Confessions of a Window Cleaner". Britains abroad might enthusiastically sunbathe topless, but the Brits behaving badly in Marbella and Magaluf was still to come. The Only Was is Essex, Big Brother and the like were a long way off, even if the working class male pinned Sam Fox's page three picture to the garage door instead of the artfully posed Pirelli calendars that adorned such places elsewhere in the world.

I was surprised to find out that Channel 4, that institution of cultural licentiousness (Michael Grade styled as "pornographer in chief" by the less frisky tabloids) was an invention of Thatcher's first term, the drive for free markets making her turn a blind eye (not for the first or last time) to what those markets might unleash. Indeed, its public-private nature meant Channel 4 was indeed taxpayer funded. Art or porn? Well, the private sector would come up with topless weather girls and the  Daily Sport, making art house movies a different kind of subversion.

In the anything goes of the internet - everything is "available" - whether pornography or bomb making instructions, meaning that for the first time limits on free speech or laws on censorship had to be drafted that saw people convicted for possession of images as well as the making of them. Yet there has always been a good reason why things in art are judged differently than things in life. Otherwise Sophie Hannah's bringing back to life of Hercule Poirot would see her banged up for the "murders" in her novels, rather than applauded for resurrecting Christie's inscrutable Belgian. Art is allowed to make things up, to say unpalatable truths, to be gristly in its depiction, to titillate, to terrify, to entertain through whatever means, to show what is beautiful and what is ugly, to illuminate not only our dreams but our nightmares. It was realism that scared the censors - whether a divorce in a Noel Coward play banned by the Lord Chancellor or a sex scene in a D.H. Lawrence novel that a judge might not want his servants to read. The innocent Alice in Lewis Carroll wasn't seen as a proxy for his interest in young girls, nor (until much later) was T.S. Eliot's anti-semitism much challenged even as they were opening the gates on Auschwitz.

So what a country or culture censors is not just (or mostly) about the what is banned but about the why? There's a strange move - coming from America, but heading our way - which insists almost on everyone's right to be offended, and for that offence to be listened to. Some of this, very unfortunately, is coming from the left, from oppressed groups, who see an opportunity to lift oppression through some kind of censorship. For people of my age and older it seems hard to reconcile a reduction in the language we use as being anything other than an oppression in itself; yet acknowledging that its better world that ethnic origin, for instance, is no longer turned into an everyday slang. What is more worrying is when what spills over from wanting mere good manners on a public forum such as Twitter or Facebook to demonstrations against particular artistic depictions. I grew up in an age when  I expected - even wanted - art to offend. Now we seem to have the worst of both worlds, an insouciance about commercial depictions of sex and violence, with ad agencies happy to push the envelope around what is acceptable, and a worry that anything in art that "triggers" a response from the audience is therefore an offence.

There's a bit in the West Wing where one of the staffers makes the point that he doesn't really know whether a particular piece of art is offensive or not, but he certainly knows that he shouldn't be the one making the judgement on that. History is full of banned works, and "bans" are rarely permanent (or if they are maybe the art has disappeared). The artistic establishment is often the first barrier to new art - and acts as a censor in terms of style and sensibility if not always in terms of taste. I cannot remember the last time I saw a show in a gallery which took a potshot at the commercial world for instance; there's not much biting of the hand that feeds going on these days.

But its in the wider context of anti-terror legislation, government cut backs and much else where art has to try even harder to be against the grain. We've a history of mainstream culture slamming the door on even its favoured sons and daughters: whether its the ending of Fatty Arbuckle's career or the aftermath of Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction. You'll look long and hard to find anything offensive in contemporary poetry, beyond the usual shoutyness at a slam, and there's even an annoyingly predictable benign liberalism about much contemporary art which though politically I might agree with, is disturbing in its singularity of the vision (or even the "version"). You could say that liberal art currently acts as an allowed and allowable safety valve against the mainstream. Oh, look, that nice Carol Ann Duffy is complaining about books being banned in prisons; oh, there's that sensible looking Ian McEwan writing a book mildly criticising Tony Blair. Art as visceral as "The Lonesome Death of Hatty Carroll" or "Piss Christ" is rarely to be found. Its why those of us in the west who immediately responded to Pussy Riot weren't bandwagon jumping, but recognising that it is universal, uninformed power such as exists in amorphous bodies like state and church which is the hardest to pillory through art. Pussy Riot were the canary in the coalmine of Putin's contemporary Russia, we felt. (And as an add-on, as gesture art goes, it was great).  There seemed genuine shock from certain quarters that "much loved" Hilary Mantel could write a story called "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher." Of course in this internet age of thought-crime, had Thatcher still been alive, and had it have been someone with, say a Muslim name, writing this on an alt.lit. blog then he or she would probably answering police enquiries.

There's a history of authoritarian crackdown on contemporary art and yet we are seeing two things at present. Individual or community offence is being mobilised against art that doesn't agree with a particular line or point of view; and on the other hand a lumbering state apparatus which in the name of wars on terror and God knows what else, is quick to say a quick word in the ear of the sponsors. The BBC went from being scared to air a documentary about Jimmy Saville's child abuse offences, to wiping any re-broadcast of any Radio 1 DJ's "Top of the Pops" appearances once they'd had a conviction. I wonder to what extent you can write people out of history? Will in 50 years time there be a cult of Saville? One hopes not, but just as there were books published in the past which in retrospect (and probably at the time) have dubious references, they did exist, and tell us much more about that time than an airbrushed version of the same. If you want to see what the 70s was really like then an old episode of "Minder" with all its casual sexism and racism would probably be a better place to start than the airbrushed history books. (And part of that airbrushing works the other way. The joy of the recent film "Pride" was in the linkage it made between miners and the gay community both being equally victims of police state tactics under Thatcher. If we forget that there was racism in the 70s, then do we also forget that there was also "Rock Against Racism?" )

As a writer and creative you write what you want and need to write, but is there also a point where you self censor? On the odd occasion I've stuck my head above the parapet on social media it has been to defend free speech. Its hard though - because if you just say something when some idiot wears an anti-police t-shirt that is clearly offensive (but supporting their right to wear it), it appears you are on the side of the idiots. Yet it seems that social media (this blog included) gives people so much more access to writers, actors, musicians, that there is no longer the mystique there once was. And its not just mystique. One writes often from a persona, and that persona isn't always the nicest person in the room or the world. Yet as a person (as a writer), yes, I'm thin-skinned, I want to be liked. Art sometimes seems a strange thing to go the wall for compared with politics or other rights, but I think if we fail to understand the dynamics that see art being criticised we will miss them in the wider society.

Art remains our barometer, and as my grandad used to say, the glass is rising.

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