A month ago Western Australian Opera opted to withdraw performances of Carmen at the Opera House in Sydney because they feared that the setting of Georges Bizet’s opera in a cigarette factory might clash with the opera company’s sponsorship by an Australian public health agency committed to the reduction of smoking. This action was roundly condemned by state premiers, by the prime minister, and by leading figures in Australia’s cultural life. They all argued that such censorship of the arts was both absurd and reprehensible. One of the leaders of Australia’s tough anti-smoking campaign, Professor Mike Daube, made the case for artistic freedom succinctly by saying: “We don’t stop the theatre from running Macbeth because it promotes killing kings.”
When Mick Jagger sings Stray Cat Blues, we all know that the song alludes to heterosexual sex and possibly group sex with under age girls.
I can see that you’re fifteen years old
No I don’t want your ID
I can see that you’re so far from home
But it’s no hanging matter
It’s no capital crime
In some versions of the song the girl is 13 and not 15, although even at 15 such behavior would in most jurisdictions be criminal. The song’s eroticism is powerful and certainly louche in its disregard for the law. It faces us with similar concerns to those raised by Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, published in 1955. In that novel the capacity of the child to sexually manipulate the adult is explored with considerable subtlety and artistic depth.
Murder, rape, lust, psychosis, desire untrammeled by ethical or moral considerations, are all explored by artists when they evoke real human experiences and invite us to travel virtually through the fictions they create. It is intrinsically difficult to be a human being, saddled with limitless desire, confined by vital social constraints, heir to numerous physical and social limitations, and threatened with certain annihilation by time itself. This is perhaps why artistic creation is of such high value by enabling us perpetually to explore and experience the meaning, possibilities, and boundaries of our intellectual, sensual, and emotional lives.
Different artistic forms grab at us in different ways through music, sound, photography, painting, sculpture, ceramics and drama, whether on stages or screens. All of these forms are pregnant with works, which are troubling to public moralists and authorities alike. Yet we cannot live without the capacity that the arts have to express the inexpressible, to present and represent our own doleful, exuberant, exciting, and troubled thoughts and experiences, to us in ways that help us to think more widely or deeply about our predicament. Art is, quite simply, necessary in the interrogation and contemplation of our interior lives and the lives we live with others.
It is perhaps because of the role that art has in roaming through the fields of our singular and autonomous consciousness that artistic production always presents the authorities with unfathomable meanings and unpredictable consequences. It is from these that the desire for censorship arises in many different kinds of state and in many different kinds of society.
Whether it is D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, the issue always is the manner in which the artwork in question challenges indubitable truths (whatever they are), which the authorities (regardless of who they are), wish to defend in the face of radical doubt and shifting experiences.
At times authority itself is in dispute, as in 1914 when Diego Velázquez’s, The toilet of Venus, was slashed with a meat cleaver by the suffragette Mary Richardson. This was both a political stunt designed to draw attention to the arrest and imprisonment of Emmeline Pankhurst, and also to attack the venerable tradition of the female nude in the European artistic canon, and protest the role of the male gaze in the objectification of women. Mary Richardson’s motives were as far as I’m concerned impeccable, her causes admirable, but surely not ones that negate the beauty or erotic charge of the ‘Rokeby Venus’.
Contradictions of this sort emerged recently at the Vaults in Waterloo when demonstrators compelled the closure of a live art installation sponsored by London’s Barbican Centre, Exhibit B, which explored nineteenth and early twentieth century human zoos and ethnographic displays that showed black Africans as objects of scientific curiosity. The intention of the white South African artist, Brett Bailey, and of the black actors and artists who hoped to participate in the installation, was to explore the way in which European eugenic reveries and racial hierarchies were intrinsic to the ambitions and brutal dehumanizing realities of Europe’s colonial empires in Africa.
The protestors who closed down the gallery and compelled the cancellation of Brett Bailey’s installation claimed that the artwork in question was illegitimate because it was conceived and presented by a white artist, and because it depicted the objectification of black people as the passive victims of white power structures. In short the artwork was charged with perpetuating the very processes of racial dehumanization it purported to attack, all for the edification of a metropolitan elite of prosperous white culture vultures. So, charges of race and class privilege were arraigned against the Barbican and the artist in a populist campaign against the art establishment.
The whiteness of the artist was held to be important because he could not have experienced the oppression of black people, although, of course, the relation of white people to the oppression and dehumanization of black people was indeed at the heart of the exhibition, which Brett Bailey as a white South African would know something about. Similarly, the successful pacification of subject peoples and races in Africa inflicted by the terror and brutality of colonial administrations also lay at the heart of the exhibition and of Brett Bailey’s artistic intention.
The protestors could not challenge the truth or veracity of the artwork, but only its origin, its class content, its formal qualities, and its failure to depict black people as active agents of their own heroic emancipation. Now, there have been many examples of where black people have not been pacified by their oppressors and have indeed participated in their own emancipation, but this has in truth not been a universal or abiding aspect of the colonial experience in Africa – artistic integrity regarding the experience of black Africans of both the Victorian and Edwardian eras – would not permit overwhelming or exclusive focus upon resistance. Of course, there was resistance, but it was resolutely crushed by military means and by the implementation of racial hierarchies and the processes in which black people were dehumanized in exactly the manner depicted in Brett Bailey’s installation.
The protestors denounced the work as “racism disguised as art” because it did not gel with their own agenda of promoting black activism against racism in the here and now. It was a work conceived by a white man that dwelt upon the presentation of black people in the colonial era as the passive victims of white men and racist ideologies.
In this regard the outlook and attitude of the protestors is reminiscent of the work of Andrei Zhdanov who thought that the proper role of art, indeed as the only role of art, was the promotion of the interests of the Soviet and international working class. For Zhdanov the origin of the artist and the political and social content of the artwork were inseparable from the struggle for socialist construction. Art was to serve exclusively the tasks of the political struggle of the oppressed. In his speech at the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934 Zhdanov noted that Joseph Stalin had called Soviet writers “engineers of the human soul” and went on to spell out the strictly political criteria by which literary works were to be judged. All art was to depict the present from the standpoint of the future reality, which was in the process of being created.
In a similar vein many on the contemporary left wish to judge artworks by whether or not they have the ‘correct’ political orientation, and whether they are produced by people with the ‘appropriate’ experience, or with an ‘acceptable’ political outlook or intention. So it is thought by many that only black people, or women, or homosexuals, or workers, are uniquely equipped to produce artworks that deal with the specific social experiences of the communities or groups from which they come. Similarly, many argue that artworks should focus upon the role which people with particular racial, gender, or cultural identities have in the development of their own self-emancipation.
The fact that such prejudices defy the entire development of art within bourgeois society is regarded as a badge of honour by our latterday Zhdanovs. The bitter truth is that direct experience of oppression or discrimination confers no particular capacity or insight that is not available to gifted artists regardless of their position within the class or racial hierarchies of capitalist society. What is more, whether the experiences that artists present us with are deeply shocking, potentially reactionary, or simply banal, has no bearing whatever on their origin, on their political outlook, or on their capacity to make us think differently about what may have been familiar or unquestioned.
Art is the area in which the unexaminable can be examined, where the inexpressible can be expressed, where the unsayable can be said. It is necessary for the health and wellbeing of public discourse and private reflection. Consequently, our opposition to the censorship of artworks whether by state agencies or radical protestors should be absolute.