The Shock of the Not So New

By Julius, Anthony Robert | New Statesman (1996), December 19, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Shock of the Not So New


Julius, Anthony Robert, New Statesman (1996)


Despite appearances, 1997 was a good year for artistic freedom, argues Anthony Julius, but a rotten year for art

It has been a good year for artistic freedom. No work of art has been banned - not, at any rate, for anything other than a limited time and in limited places. The one work that received this treatment David Cronenberg's Crash - had the effect of making the censors look ridiculous, none more so than Mr John Bull of Westminster Council who (of course) had not himself seen the film.

There have been informal suppressions and some pressure on galleries, publishers and record companies to withdraw pictures, books, records and ads. It would be odd if there were no such activity. It would also be evidence of a very low level of artistic enterprise. But in the main, this pressure has been resisted without the need for any special heroism. The scandal caused by art this year has not been complicated by scandalous suppression. There have been four such scandals: a film, a picture, a book, and an album.

Crash, a film version of the J G Ballard novel published 25 years ago, generated a controversy which had a manufactured, rather silly, quality. Still, it demonstrated once again the need to distinguish between an art work's opponents and its critics. While the former merely strive to suppress the work, the latter engage with it, meeting its challenges with interpretations which are also judgments. In this case the film's opponents tried to persuade us that it eroticised road accidents and would provoke copy-cat violence. There was a comic implausibility about this argument which almost guaranteed that the film would eventually be screened.

The picture was Marcus Harvey's portrait Myra, shown in the Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy. Composed of prints made from the cast of a child's palm in black, white and shades of grey paint, it reproduces the well-known police photo, expressionless, menacing in its impassivity. The picture is a double shock. First, because portraiture is inevitably a celebration of its subject, and what is there to be celebrated in Hindley's life? Second, and more painfully, because, given the subject's crime, getting any child to help in creating her image seems a violation. Taken together, the picture horrifies in its subordinating of "Myra's" victims to their tormentor. It's as if they were being compelled to praise her. Myra Hindley and Ian Brady murdered childhood, not just children. For Hindley's image to be constructed out of a child's palm-prints is to enlist her victims in the creation of her image.

The book was A M Homes' The End of Alice, a novel about paedophilia, written from a paedophile's perspective. Though it asks to be related to Nabokov's Lolita, it suffers by the comparison. It is repulsive in its identification with its subject. A convicted child molester describes his life in prison and his correspondence with a young woman who is seeking to seduce a younger boy. The great humanist declaration - nothing human is alien to me - becomes in this novelist's hands the more questionable affirmation: the cruelly inhuman is embraced by me.

The album was by the Prodigy and featured the single "Smack My Bitch Up". On 10 December a group of MPs signed an early day motion calling on the Prodigy's record company to withdraw an advertisement featuring the single's title. A few days earlier the album had been pulled from the shelves of two of America's largest retailers. Lisa Jardine, implying that misogyny is more readily tolerated than anti-Semitism, commented of the ads for the album, that "no one would defend posters saying 'Punch a Jew Tomorrow', would they?" Another academic demanded that the record company be prosecuted for inciting violence against women.

Every one of these works reaches out to disturb its audience while also reaching back to connect with earlier art works. Indeed, each is most offensive when most intertextual.

The film relates back to a novel. …

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