Friday, 11 July 2014

You shouldn't be allowed to see what it is yet!

So this was in the local rag recently:

The 'anger', it turns out, is entirely felt by one man who feels so strongly about it that he wishes to remain anonymous, presumably worried that the region's roving bands of violent paedophile cartoonists will visit vengeance upon him.

He feels very deeply that the complete works of Rolf Harris should be withdrawn from the public domain:
I can understand books being written about people who committed horrific crimes, but this is something he has written himself…I think it’s disgusting this sort of offensive material is on show for anyone to see.
So, to sum up: he's quite happy for anyone to see and read books about 'horrific crimes' but thinks that  books like A Pet For You: Animal Hospital with Rolf Harris, Can You Tell What It Is Yet? and Rolf On Art: My Approach from First Steps to Finished Paintings are 'offensive'. They also found an 'outraged' user who did give his name and felt that The Best of Rolf CD should be banned too. The council isn't withdrawing the books for adults or the CD, but is taking away a book for children by Harris, as though there's something inherently paedophilic and contagious in the book, which completely baffles me. It's way beyond logic and rationality.

Why am I bothered? Because I came into the office at 7 a.m. this morning to do a live radio interview on the BBC's WM station with this chap and the presenter, and I spent yesterday thinking about how I feel. Sadly, our defender of public morality either didn't wake up or thought better of making a public stand: he didn't answer, and then switched off, his phone. We were going to talk about censorship, the nature of offence, the history of book-banning and whether art and artists can and should be treated distinctly.

Rather than let good material go to waste, you can have my take on the Filthy Books Furore. I guess that you won't be surprised that I'm against censoring books by bad people. I tend to believe that reading Rolf's book on art won't make you a bad person, it'll make you a bad artist. His books aren't offensive: he is. There's a difference. If you don't want Rolf to make 6p in royalties, don't take out his book.

I'd probably yank biographies of Savile and Harris from the shelves on the grounds that they're out of date, but keep the autobiographies. I strongly believe that a society that wants to understand itself shouldn't sweep material under the carpet but examine it. Savile's autobiography was astonishingly candid: perhaps closer reading would have caught him while he yet lived.

I just don't think that art should be judged by the standards of the artist's morality. Rolf's art was always bad art, whatever we did or didn't know about him. Caravaggio was a murderer: should we take his paintings down? The case I know most about is one I was going to mention on air because it's directly relevant to the BBC. Eric Gill was a talent sculptor, typographer and artist - one of the most fascinating characters of the twentieth-century. You've seen his work millions of times, because he designed Gill Sans, a beautiful typeface:

As well as typography, he carved the astonishing Prospero and Ariel figures on the BBC's Broadcasting House, and the Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral:

Eric Gill: Ariel Between Wisdom and Gaiety
I tell my Media Ethics students about Eric Gill. I show them the artwork. Then I tell them about his sex life. He had affairs with his sisters (usually no reaction). He had sex with his daughters (some disquiet). He had sex with his dog (utter horror: I usually tease them for their moral hierarchies by observing that it's probably less cruel to have sex with an animal than to kill it, and ask what they had for lunch).

Does this catalogue of horrors mean that Gill's artwork is tainted? I don't think it does. Gill painted and sculpted eroticised images of his daughters and sister Gladys. Knowing this adds a degree of horror, but if I'd never know who the models were, or what their relationship was, I don't think anything intrinsic in the artwork would have communicated abuse or taboo. In many ways, knowing the background to some of the art makes it more complex and intense. I wouldn't hide them away because I don't think there's a magical connection between an artist's morality and his or her work. There are exceptions: I do think Graham Ovenden's art was explicitly paedophilic and don't believe his exquisite technique entitles him to a free pass.

Jimmy Savile recorded a series of road safety adverts, like this one:

Should this be banned? I think not. The message is unaffected by what we now know about Savile. In its time and context, it was perfectly reasonable, and retrospective horror about what Savile was up to in other situations doesn't taint the purpose and content of this text.

Books and pictures don't commit crimes. Writers, artists and photographers do. I agree with the ban on paedophilic photography and film because it requires the abuse of real people in its production. I agree with the ban on the circulation of such material because it stimulates the further abuse of real people. I disagree with the ban on fictional representations of illegal acts however. I don't think the imagination can be legislated against, however vile the products of that imagination are. I don't think fiction creates real victims. I think we should ban the execution of actual crimes, not potential ones.

Secondly, a blanket ban on the discussion or representation of illegal acts prevents understanding them. Book Ban Man explicitly says he's happy for people to read about 'horrific crimes'. He clearly doesn't think that reading about murder or sexual violence leads to more murder or sexual violence - so why does he think that a criminal's thoughts on felt-tip line drawing is 'offensive'? Though if he feels that no books by criminals should be allowed on the shelves, I'm tempted to agree: let's rid public libraries of the complete works of Jeffrey Archer!

Let's talk about Nabokov. Lolita is one of the vilest books I've ever read. As you probably know, it's an exploration of a much older man's sexual obsession with a very young girl. I do actually think that it's paedophilic, and that fascination with young girls pervades much of Nabokov's work. I still wouldn't ban Lolita nor do I think even great literature, let alone Rolf Harris's books should be totemised as magical objects with the power to turn ordinary people into slavering perverted beasts. Texts are framed and contextualised in particular ways: while I find Lolita creepy and unpleasant, I don't think it's an advert for an act society has deemed beyond the Pale. Additionally, texts don't exist in a vacuum. They aren't magic: readers create texts by reading from their own unique perspectives. I'm sure a determined paedophile could manage to turn Lolita into simplistic one-handed entertainment, and perhaps even Rolf on Art, but the problem is with the reader: s/he's the paedophile, not the book. S/he still would be even if the book had never been read. There's only a social and legal problem if the reader commissions or commits a paedophilic act.

Away from the sphere of illegal acts, I'm generally against censorship of other material. Too many texts have been banned because some politician or campaigner sees temporary, local advantage in it. I'm sure Evelyn Waugh had Ulysses in mind when he lampooned the government in the first chapter of Vile Bodies, in which poor Adam has his autobiographical manuscript confiscated by customs.

Oscar Wilde, Radclyffe Hall, Joyce, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harry Potter…all have been subject to bans for offending someone (well-meaning liberals don't like To Kill… being used in classrooms because it uses authentic but now-offensive racial epithets, while evangelists in the US condemn Rowling for promoting witchcraft). Social mores are complex and fluid: banning texts often seems very silly in a short space of time. It really bothers me that those with the loudest voices or cultural capital get to decide what gets banned. This isn't mature, democratic debate. It's the morality of the lynch mob.

It's impossible to ban books or anything else anyway. The Spycatcher case established that national boundaries had become meaningless: the book was banned in the UK but published overseas, and a judge ruled that as overseas publication had put any sensitive material in the public domain, British publication may as well go ahead. And this is before the internet, of course. Despite the spirited efforts of every government, material can't be buried for long. If all the libraries removed Rolf Harris's books from the shelves, anyone determined to learn how to draw anthropomorphic kangaroos could locate a copy on the web in seconds.

No, physical interdiction and legal intervention aren't any good when we're talking about ideas. I'm perfectly happy to ban the circulation of material depicting illegal acts, but it's far more important to discuss why we have taboos, and educate people so that they either don't feel or don't act on desires we collectively and calmly decide are damaging.

So anyway, that's what I'd have said in my 2 and a half minutes on local radio. And then the local paper would have led a violent mob to my front door.

Oh, and a final word of advice to libraries and readers. Don't buy books because they're (ghost)-written by celebrities. Buy books on the basis of quality.


Nadadur Kannan said...

Thank you for this interesting blog post (or interview...) You've pointed to some interesting issues here. I agree with you: banning works of art (broadly defined) is counter-productive. Silencing something because we do not agree with it, will not help. Historically, works have been banned for various reasons (by the Church, government, etc.) Decades or centuries later, we've accepted these works (at least most of them, I'd say) and the contexts within which they were created as 'history'. I sometimes think that that's what would happen to contemporary works as well.

Your arguments made me think of this: as an artist myself, I believe that an artist embodies the art. I wonder how you think the question of embodiment would play out within your arguments.

dyddgu said...

Your post reminded me of a couple of things. One, my first year second term essay titles about TS Eliot, one of which was (broadly) 'Was Eliot an Anti-Semite, and should we keep on reading his work?' (I think I answered something else, but hey). Second, the long arguments my boss at the college library had with a Jewish reader, because we had Mein Kampf on the shelves for the history set texts. Boss's view was that such things should indeed be open on the shelves and read as much as possible, because (to her) it was obvious rambling incoherent nutjobbery, and people should have a chance to find out for themselves that it was bonkers - or indeed, understand why it (whatever 'banned' text) held such sway...