Saturday, January 12, 2019

Behind Closed Doors: The Limits To Freedom of Expression

Thomas Couture’s 1873 contemplation The Thorny Path, aka the courtesans’s carriers.

A review of the new book The Thorny Path: Pornography in Twentieth Century Britain by Jamie Stoops, from McGill-Queens University Press.

“The thorny path bears some of the sweetest flowers in life, and when with naked feet we walk upon a flinty soil, we often find diamonds.” – Elizabeth Prentiss, 1843.

“The pornographer’s path is thorny and there may yet be some unforeseen hitch, but you will see we have not been idle.” – Special Operations, British Intelligence, 1943.
Tastes in good taste and bad come and go like shifting weather patterns. Except that it is psychological weather, maybe even metaphysical meteorology. Cole Porter hit the proverbial nail on the social head in his satirical song, “Anything Goes," in 1934. “Times have changed. ... / In olden days, a glimpse of stocking / was looked on as something shocking. / But now, God knows, / anything goes. / Good authors too who once knew better words. / Now only use four-letter words / Writing prose. / Anything goes. ... / If bare limbs you like, / if Mae West you like, / or me undressed you like / why, nobody will oppose. / Anything goes.”

The mention of authors was pertinent indeed, since this was only six years after D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover went on trial for obscenity, and only twelve years after James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses suffered a similar fate in 1922.  History has since redeemed both works of course, and we are still left to wonder how works of art of such subtle insight into the human condition could ever have been considered pornographic in the first place. Nobody knows.

The fascinating new book from McGill-Queens University Press, The Thorny Path by Jamie Stoops, is one that can legitimately be called a seriously scholarly study of smut. A high-minded book, true, yet also an utterly accessible tome about a supposedly low-minded subject, by a serious academic who has made a career out of wondering where the acceptable edges of social behaviour might be located, it reminds us all that “obscenity” is not only in the eye of the beholder but also mostly in the mind of the thinker.

Thus it explores and examines our shared and private assumptions about a theme that some people can’t admit (even to themselves) being intrigued by: the depiction of sexual activities explicitly designed to explicitly arouse the observer. Who wants this material (almost everybody it seems), who makes the material (more than you might expect it seems) and who wants to control or extinguish this particular form of free self expression (well, that would be churches and governments mostly): these are the cornerstones of this book.

Unlike those mentioned novels, of course, The Thorny Path explores works that were knowingly, even tauntingly and rebelliously, created explicitly for the explicit market, and how that industry evolved, shifted and became ever more sophisticated and business like as the century progressed.

It happens to focus on the British industry devoted to the manufacture of desire in the twentieth century, and its observations do relate specifically to that culture’s laws and customs, however it could just as easily be applied to the larger context of international norms of depiction, up to and including even those culture which forbid all images whatsoever as subversive (idolatry) regardless of their subject matter. Therefore one might consider the paradoxes inherent in the fact that one culture’s depiction of a tree with hanging fruit might be just as scandalous as another culture’s depiction of a burlesque queen with tassels.

I’ve always wanted to write an art book, review or essay about transgression in art history, and in visual culture in general, a history of what is known as limit works: art (or literary) pieces that intentionally push the boundaries of what is acceptable, or perhaps even what is expressible. Gaze: The History of Glamour in Art, was what I imagined calling it, offering up the slippery concept of glamour itself as a grandiose meaning template or every shifting emblem of that which was once forbidden and is now commonplace. The human gaze, our desire to look at or watch others doing which we ourselves might like to do: such is the common element we share.

While this is not that essay of mine, it does provide an opportunity to consider some of the salient issues embedded in the rather lofty designation of what makes (or made) certain images pornographic and therefore obscene, while other images, even those liberally chock full to bursting of nude bodies writhing in this or that carnal activity, were considered great works of art and lauded in the so-called cultural canon of lofty ideals.

For some reason, while pondering the issues of the history of pornography (at least in its Western version in the first half of the twentieth century) I’ve also been haunted recently by a great quote from the American novelist Walker Percy, who once observed (in Love Among the Ruins) that “God, if you recall, did not warn his people about dirty books, he warned them against high places.”

He also accidentally asked a query elsewhere which at the heart of this present study: what becomes of lust denied or dreams deferred?
Question (The Great Problematic): Will the ultimate liberation of the erotic from its dialectical relationship with Christianity result in
(a) The freeing of the erotic spirit so that man- and womankind will make love and not war?
Or (b) The trivialization of the erotic by its demotion to yet another technique and need-satisfaction of the organism, toward the end that the demoniac spirit of the autonomous self, disappointed in all other sectors of life and in ordinary intercourse with others, is now disappointed even in the erotic, its last and best hope, and so erupts in violence – and in that very violence which is commensurate with the orgiastic violence in the best days of the old erotic age – i.e., war? (Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos)
Between 1900 and 1945, Britain and its nearly global empire experienced significant technological and social changes that forever altered its media and entertainment landscape. One aspect of British culture that dramatically underwent these social changes most emphatically was that of pornography. While illegal and socially reviled, the pornography trade adapted and flourished during this period in ways both clever and uncanny. In The Thorny Path Jamie Stoops situates changes within the pornography trade in the context of an increasingly transnational world.

This is a world we today take for granted, the so-called global village, especially in the digital and internet age, but which at the dawn of the last century was seismic and threatening its power to link disparate ideas to widely distributed locales. Via the ever more sophisticated publication mechanism of magazines and pulp fiction, those who traded in pornography circled the globe, journeying from Britain to its colonies, from colonial holdings to continental Europe, from Europe to North America. Everywhere.

In the process, pornographers and their customers (a special breed to be sure) developed new vocabularies and norms with which to negotiate and exchange their trade in the imaginary realm of hidden desire. Based on extensive archival research, this book grounds questions of transnationalism and heteronormativity in the day-to-day lives of low-level pornographers and consumers.  Stoops's focus on street-level interactions within the trade is balanced with an analysis of state policies, legal regulations, and debates about obscenity, illustrating the interplay between enforcers of mainstream moral standards and those who represented deviant sexual practices.

Raising questions of what scholars today are allowed to call queerness and sexual normativity, The Thorny Path links these issues to contemporary conversations about pornography, obscenity, and sexuality. It offers a timely historical context for current and vibrant debates surrounding marginalized sexualities, gender roles, and pornography in a time of rapid technological and social change. This is even more obviously so because the changes in 1900 desire-technics (cheaply printed books and magazines) are even more accelerated and nearly hysterical in the post 2000 desire-technics of the Internet (copies without an original), a medium so amorphous and decentralized that prohibitions on its edges are all but impossible. I often call today’s landscape the domain of cyber-kitsch.

Olympia, 1865, by Edouard Manet.


As a matter of fact, all pornography, if examined closely enough, bears striking resemblances to the classical tenets of both kitsch and camp, albeit unintentionally. Thomas Couture’s 1873 painting of a symbolic universal prostitute for instance, scared the pants off of viewers, pun intended, who were  confronted by its wildly abandoned plunge into eroto-kitsch. Manet’s contemplative naughty girl in his 1865 Olympia repose was similar reviled, though now considered a masterpiece of early impressionism.

The ironic thing about the Manet of course is that even today, a classically painted image of a nude is often not only accepted but a mechanically produced photographic image of nude, even one in the selfsame pose, is still considered vile and pernicious. Largely because, I suspect, it is a more realistic document, and therefore even more tantalizing.

The funny thing about my calling pornography kitsch is not that it suggests bad taste necessarily (as kitsch often does) but rather alludes to the original meaning and lasting impressions of historical kitsch: the cheap imitation. In this case, the cheap imitation of actual lust in a diluted and repetitive format which eventually is bound to bore even the most avid consumer (unless that is, the aesthetic quality is of the very highest order)

Marc Dennis, The End of the World, 2013, oil on linen.

Perhaps the ultimate “limit work,” was Gustave Courbet’s provocative Origin of the World, 1866, depicted above in Marc Dennis's painting, being contemplated by a museum viewer who largely makes it reprintable. Yes, the painting stunned museum visitors by actually depicting in a straightforward manner, female genitalia, but without any trace of the necessary kitsch aspects that would have rendered it pornographic. In light of these two works in particular, Manet and Courbet, all now in the canon of western art history (and therefore more conceptually palatable) it is instructive to situate some of the supposedly intentionally prurient imagery so seriously studied by the industrious Mr. Stoops.

Pornography has existed throughout recorded history and has adapted to each new medium or technological means of production and distribution, and that surely is the danger to society as examined by Stoops: the fact that rather than being one of a kind objects of personal dreaming, the images were able to be printed, copied, reproduced, photographed, filmed and sent rapidly around the planet in the 20th Century. On top of that there still existed the traditional means of literary contemplations of the erotic, books, stories pongs, songs and so on, which continued apace and parallel to the visual domains.

By unknown photographer.
This early century image of a daydreaming lass for instance, was considered automatically more nefarious than any pagan painting, since it was a “real” doing something in real time. This was so even if we had no idea what it was she was supposed to be “doing.” It was still too actual.

And, similarly, the portrait of a music hall performer known as Boots Mallory, 1931, though a relatively tame and quaint image, still had psychic edges, so to speak, whose photographic realism, as opposed to oil paint, drove people nuts if they were overly fixated on classical decorum and traditional decency. Though harmless, poor Bootsy was deemed reprehensibly disturbing to the social order. And yet, as Stoops’s chronicle demonstrates so lavishly, she and many others of her sisterhood were veritable stars in the underground world of collector’s items relegated to the dimly lit world of the forbidden.

Thus the author takes us all on a wild and informative guided tour of this parallel universe apparently so adverse to the tastes of public guardians of good manners. His tour proceeds through the zones of “Discreet and Careful,” looking at pornography producers, distributors and consumers, from 100-1945; with stops along the way that recognize the essential nature of the capitalist system, such as “An Enormous Business To Be Done.” inaugurating the “transnational” trade of an early global village mentality, and the pleas to “Let the Picture Tell its Own Story,” via a careful analysis of what makes up the actual basis for pornographic “content.”

Especially entertaining is a study of the nature of the business from the perspective of artists and artist models and the demographics of taste hierarchies. He examines the popular press’s response to and depiction of the trade, “No Public Damage, but a Matter More for Pity” and the social order’s attempts at either regulation or elimination, “No Background of Moral Standard” through the creation of “vice societies” (a kind of prohibition of the mind rather than of alcohol) and anti-pornography societies.

Boots Mallory, 1931.
He eventually arrives at a cogent exploration of the true crux of the matter: regulating normative behaviours and eliminating “deviance” via the State, in a somewhat mind-opening revelation of the core intolerance for difference and freedom at the heart of all censorship efforts. Some of these efforts have proven to be not only ineffectual of course but also downright hilarious. Such as the 1943 by British intelligence operatives’ attempt to develop and plan to create and distribute pornographic leaflets over territories occupied by the Japanese military.

These leaflets would depict a Japanese “profiteer” drinking and fornicating with several women, while accompanying texts would urge Japanese soldiers to surrender rather than to die for such an unworthy superiour officer. Such a leaflet might seem simple enough to produce, the author points out ironically, but the intelligence operatives laboured for over six months before developing anything like a successful prototype and imagery. They struggled to locate a photographer, a model and other personnel necessary for production, attempting to “simulate” a pornographic set of images lurid enough to have the right impact combination of erotic and sordid.

The well-meaning operatives descended further into unintentional comedy as a result of their reluctance to stage actual straightforward intercourse scenes, instead pursuing the far more difficult (and silly) strategy of cutting and pasting heads onto existing scenes. All the while, unnamed operatives kept up a steady stream of reports to head office about how difficult their propaganda task (to simulate pornography) was.

Meanwhile, during the same year that the intelligence agents embarked on their seeming Herculean tasks of producing one single simple and straightforward image, two retired adagio dances names Irene England and Charles Domec-Carre began producing and selling pornography out of their London flat, a practice they carried on successfully for the next fifteen years. There’s a lesson here, though I’m not sure exactly what it is, and this book examines the ins and outs of what makes our definitions of decadence so absurd.

In the four decades leading up to these propaganda efforts, still hordes of other erstwhile artisans, all of whom has considerably fewer resources at their disposal than the British government, easily produced and sold pornography out of their sops or homes, or through the mail. As Stoops astutely puts it, “The fact that the Special Operations Branch found their task so daunting was based on the fact that they apparently did not consider consulting with people active in the pornography trade proper itself, suggesting that the operatives conceptualized pornography as a self-evident and easily reproducible object rather than as a complex genre requiring the insights of experts familiar with its standards and tropes.

The charming Miss England, unknown (or anonymous) photographer.
Basically, the spy agency wanted to make use of pornography for propaganda purposes but were too timid, afraid, moral, scared or just plain dumb to engage in making it themselves. They could simulate using it, but were unable to produce it effectively, since, gosh, that would have made them pornographers themselves.

Even more easily, effortlessly, efficiently and effectively, and this was the most salient and revealing fact about this fascinating espionage story, they could also, probably for a few meager British pounds, have hired the perfectly named Irene England to come into their offices and willingly pose for the leaflets herself. Good old Irene would have done a bang-up job in about twenty minutes, saving the government a whole year of embarrassment. If only the agents hadn’t been too embarrassed to ask her for her expert and professional help.

The Thorny Path does a highly informative and surprisingly entertaining job of demonstrating that this industry of private desires and public consumption has three distinct and integral parts to it: the makers or producers of porn, the collectors or consumers of porn and of course the censors and controllers of porn. If the presumably average person didn’t what to read or view such salacious and titillating products, well, there would be no industry of workers toiling to supply them, and of course no armies of guardians trying to stem their tide. That really tells us all we need to know about the irony of this horny path.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book was Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. He is currently trying to complete a book on the life and work of Yoko Ono.

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