A good, if a little vague, article by Maureen Freely in Saturday’s Guardian brings together two recent news stories in an examination of our changing attitudes to children, art and sexual offences: the arrest of Roman Polanski for a 1977 assault on a minor (on which Steve Lopez writes convincingly, and approvingly, in the LA Times) and the removal of an artwork by Richard Prince from the Tate’s new Pop Life exhibition.
The artwork in question is a reproduction of a 1975 fashion photo of a nude, oiled and heavily made-up 10-year-old Brooke Shields – the same child who appeared naked on celluloid at 12 in Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby (available on Amazon), and at 15 in a TV jeans ad with the strapline: “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” (Christopher Turner has a good history of the piece in the same newspaper.)
There’s no question as to the artistic merit of the piece: Prince’s appropriation is a direct questioning of sensuality versus sexuality, of the morality of art and the placing of responsibility for interpretation (Its title, “Spiritual America”, refers to an Alfred Stieglitz photograph of a gelded horse, referencing the breakdown of discussion of sexuality in society). Does the offence, the implicit lust, reside with the artwork, or the viewer? The Metropolitan Police are clear on the issue, or at least, on their opinion of the issue.
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Publishers and internet users can breathe a sigh of relief today, as Newcastle Crown Court formally returned a not guilty verdict to the charges we first discussed back in December.
Darryn Walker, a civil servant, lost his job when the short story he posted online, Girls (Scream) Aloud, was seized upon by the utterly unaccountable Internet Watch Foundation. Worse, the prosecution offered no evidence when it came to trial. The case threatened to severely curtail freedom of speech online and off, with Sky News calling it one of the most significant [obscenity trials] since the trial over DH Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”
The media still hasn’t got a real handle on it, however, with the BBC continuing to get the basic details wrong (it’s neither 12 pages long, or a blog). They also report that “As soon as he was aware of the upset and fuss that had been created, [Mr Walker] took steps himself to take the article off the website” – ignorant of the fact that it’s very much still online (and still NSFW – although far worse can be found in your local bookshop or even on this website).
Worse, there seems little impetus to question why this case was brought in the first place, or the ramifications of a “a report from a consultant psychiatrist [that] said it was “baseless” to suggest that reading such material could turn other people into sexual predators” (BBC, again) – a finding that, taken seriously, should have very real consequences for Britain’s outmoded and outlandish obscenity laws.
We hope that this result will lead to some inquiry into the role of the Internet Watch Foundation before it arbitrarily blocks or criminalises more legal material, but we’re not holding our breath. The government’s recent Digital Britain report stated that “The IWF’s work remains invaluable to every part of the value chain in the UK’s Internet industry” (Page 202, Final Report) – a weasel statement that conflates what’s good for the industry (desperately trying to stave off government interference with opaque self-regulation) with what’s good for citizens. This case could be used to better define the role of the IWF, rather than just calling for its funding to be increased, which is the Digital Britain report’s conclusion. We’ll keep watching.
Not words you really expect to find in the same sentence. Girls Aloud, Britain’s best girl-pop combo in absolutely yonks, are definitely flirty and really a little bit dirty, but obscene? No. But they have been dragged into the debate in a most unpleasant fashion.
Britain’s 1959 and 1964 Obscene Publications Acts are still very much in force, and still based on the 1st Baron Coleridge’s 1868 definition of that which “tends to deprave and corrupt,” although they are, thankfully, rarely enforced. The last time the Act was used in anger was in the banning of David Britton’s Lord Horror in 1991 – still rather recent, although this was later, finally, overturned. (The full story can be found here, and our good friend Supervert recently published an excellent introduction to Britton’s fascinating oeuvre.)
Darryn Walker, 35, a civil servant, appeared at Newcastle Crown Court on 22 October, charged with offences under the OPA. He was charged and a trial date was set for March 16th 2009. According to the papers, a story written by Walker, Girls (Scream) Aloud, was found online by the Internet Watch Foundation and reported to the police. Yes, the same IWF that last week unilaterally banned (and then un-banned) a large number of Britons from Wikipedia.
The work in question, posted on an international site, is apparently still available online – indeed, it’s even on Digg – although we definitely don’t recommend it. It’s difficult to know where it first appeared – that link goes to a repository of Alt.sex.stories, registered in New Jersey, and therefore beyond the jurisdiction of the British Police, but “prosecution has been able to go ahead because the alleged author was identified as a UK citizen living in Britain“.
It should be pointed out that while the case has been widely reported, none of the newspapers involved has checked out the story itself (being neither 12 pages long, nor on a blog, as reported) and all prefixing their statements about the content with “allegedly”. The original even includes a disclaimer:
Author’s note: the named celebrities in this piece are fictionalised representations of themselves. I do not condone in the real world any of the acts described in this work.
The media is calling the case “one of the most significant since the Lady Chatterly case”, although they’re also taking quotes from people who say “As far as I’m aware there hasn’t been an obscenity prosecution concerning the written word since the 1970s, so this is very unusual,” ignoring both the Britton Case and the 1984 prosecution of Gay’s The Word. Suffice to say, there seems little interest in the British media in investigating a case with deeply serious consequences for literature, free speech and the internet.
If you do read the story, you’ll find it’s pretty gross and distasteful, but contains significantly less sex than most fan porn, and no more violence than de Sade or even our own The Torture Garden – if rather less literary merit. But surely that’s not enough to warrant prosecution.
The case reminds us of a less celebrated and certainly less prosecuted episode from one of our favourite novelists: Dennis Cooper (above). An extended passage in his 1997 novel Guide featured the drugging and rape of a thinly-fictionalised Alex James from Blur (‘Alex’ from ‘Smear’ in the book). Those who’ve read Cooper’s work will know that it too contains scenes far more sexual and violent than anything in Girls (Scream) Aloud – and Cooper has been published by Grove Press, Canongate, Carroll & Graf, Serpent’s Tail and been nominated for and awarded numerous literary prizes.
By all accounts, James was actually quite flattered by the homage, going so far as to set up an interview with Cooper, although he pulled out at the last minute. Somehow, it seems unlikely that Darryn Walker will meet with the same reception.
It will be very interesting to see the result of this case, which, if the prosecution is to be successful, will have to show that the material is not only “likely to deprave and corrupt” but also widely available. In the age of the internet, the latter is perhaps more significant: anything published electronically is now available to everyone, and there is much worse than Mr Walker’s story out there. Like all these cases, the decision will have more to do with the sensibilities of judge and jury than any sound legal or moral basis, but the real questions are why 50 year-old legislation is still the basis of Britain’s naive attempts to censor the internet, and why an unaccountable British charity is deciding what literature is acceptable.