A Skinny Take: The art of censorship

Blog by R.J. Gallagher | 08 Oct 2009
  • The art of censorship

Sounding like something from Orwell, the Obscene Publications Unit have asserted their authority once again. Last week an exhibition set to feature a photo of a naked Brooke Shields, aged 10, was pre-censored by the Metropolitan Police – in an act of near déjà vu – after officers read an indignant article in the Daily Mail about the picture.

The furor raises the age old question about the relationship between art and censorship – especially in a society that champions democratic ideals: does censorship have a place? And if it does, who should decide what is censored? Should the Police have the power to walk into an art gallery and have any picture removed if they perceive it as ‘obscene’? What constitutes ‘obscene’ anyway? And whose definition of ‘obscene’ is adhered to?

The list of questions could go on and on, but for answers we don’t have to look much further than recent history. Censorship has over the decades evolved, regressed and morphed into various incarnations that in any given era has reflected the popular fears, prejudices, and morality of the ‘moral majority’ who respond and react to whatever is the perceived ‘threat’ of the day – whether that be Hitler’s ‘degenerate art’ or the homophobic censorship of D.H. Lawrence during the early part of the twentieth century – today’s threat, apparently, is the hoard of paedophiles lurking in the dark corners of every art gallery.

The police response to the Shields photograph, titled ‘Spiritual America’ itself yields many answers. One Scotland Yard source described the removal of the image as “common sense” because it could be viewed as “sexually provocative,” whilst a spokeswoman for a child protection agency told the Daily Mail, quite amazingly, that she believed the picture would cause “every paedophile in the land” to head to the exhibition. Be afraid, be very afraid.

But the police, and the above mentioned spokeswoman miss the point – and this is not to suggest that the image isn’t problematic, because it is – they are up in arms for the wrong reasons. The photograph in question is a photograph that was taken of a 10 year old girl posing naked, wearing lots of makeup. It is troubling because it depicts with immediacy and urgency the way in which over recent decades the sexualisation of young girls has accelerated. It asks questions of this and it encourages the viewer to think about these issues – it does exactly what a work of art is supposed to do: it forces people to think and reflect. It is problematic because of what it represents, not because of what it is. Suppressing it does nobody any good.

The Obscene Publications Unit do not share this view. When the Saatchi gallery was censored in 2001 for curating an exhibition of photographs by Tierney Gearon – which included photographs of her children (in some instances nude) – it became brazenly obvious that The Met were simply responding to the lingering climate of paedophobia, perpetuated by the likes of the Daily Mail, that has in recent years led to everything from lynch-mobs to modern day witch hunts; and in extreme cases paediatricians being attacked by blood thirsty morons who can’t make the distinction between a child medical specialist and a child abuser.

Across the Atlantic the same hysteria plagues society: one American couple were recently placed on the Sex Offenders register and had their children removed for one month because they took photographs of their young children during bath time and tried to get them developed at Walmart. The case was later thrown out and the couple are now suing; but the damage has been done.

“The law is a dreary thing,” said D.H. Lawrence, “and its judgements have nothing to do with life.” The tragedy is that he was right. The law should defend freedom, shelter art, and encourage openness and debate about controversial issues – reflecting the complexity of life itself – but instead, like this latest debacle has illustrated yet again, it far too often tramples, restricts and stifles the freedoms it was ironically founded to protect. It seems quite obvious that the Obscene Publications Unit need to spend more time reading Lawrence, and less time reading the Daily Mail.

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