Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Forbidden: The Strange History of Censorship

Photo by Valentin Kopalov.

“All the desires we try to suffocate will drown in our soul and poison it. The only way to get rid of a temptation is give in to it.”– Oscar Wilde
Several friends of mine on Facebook have recently been ensnared in their corporate policies around censorship and the enforcement of so-called “community standards.” The irony here is that in two specific cases, one of a charming freelance model and the other of a roguish lover of freelance models, both posted images that contained . . . wait for it . . . nipples, or more accurately, female nipples. For this they were punished, if that is the right word, by being forbidden to post, share or even comment on anything for a varying duration. All because of something everyone in both genders has?

Yet another irony is the fact that the roguish fellow was more fond of posting images of various male hunks in different degrees of undress, with almost always a not-so-subtle emphasis on their admittedly admirable chest muscles, and yes, an abundance of nipples . . . but male nipples. And those were never in doubt or questioned at all, yet when he posted one of a female model, even one that was totally elegant and in good taste, boom. And this also unfolded in a virtual world where the social media network had no objections whatsoever to spreading Russian lies, right-wing extremist propaganda, racist hate content and misogynistic tripe. How paradoxical.

Recently I penned an essay called Behind Closed Doors: The Limits to Freedom of Expression, which, while ostensibly being a review of a fascinating book on the history of pornography in Britain in the first part of the 20th century called The Thorny Path, was also a parallel exploration of what makes people so afraid of something supposedly prurient that they want or need to prevent its consumption, period. The key here is that some powers that be are not content to merely curtail or control their own personal consumption of supposedly forbidden materials or activities but also insist on preventing anyone else anywhere from doing so as well.

Now, that’s what I call a pervasive degree of fear. But what causes it, I wondered, And in this context I am now reminded of a lecture course I delivered here in Vancouver at the University of British Columbia last year called Not Allowed: The Human History of Censorship. At first I thought, well, who is going to want to sign up for such a provocatively titled lecture series? (It was aimed at adults, by the way.) But to my surprise, it was the most highly attended of many courses I’ve delivered there over recent years. Why, I wondered again.

As a fine example of this conundrum, some admittedly risqué portraits of Vox Serene are often considered specialized works of fetish art, whereas the admittedly glamorous Fritz Jansen image is a staunch couture staple of trussing within a classical item of corset lingerie. The vagaries of unconscious projection seem to abound in between these two realms.

Vox Serene, photographed by Jim Hagen (left); Photo by Fritz Jansen (right).

Yet another parallel sequence of events, these having to do with a kind of community-standard enforcement procedure over the social media sharing network ironically called (because it is never, of course, face to face but rather only a virtually filtered attitude commodity) Facebook:  several of my contacts were being ostracized (as in blocked in punishment) for posting material, usually visual in content, that was deemed too “dangerous” to share. Just as with my lecture course, it was surely not only a sense of the prurient that drew these curious students, but some core human value being studied: an appetite for some dish as well as the commitment to control its consumption. People just seem to want what is not on the menu they are most often offered.

When I was reviewing that history of pornography so charmingly titled The Thorny Path, for instance, I was perpetually faced with the odd challenge of defining, or least characterizing, what the word actually means (or maybe what it meant at different periods of our history). It occurred to me that in actuality, something is pornographic to a large degree because it is in fact censored, or at least is thought to require censorship and control.

But paradoxically, some viewers might be unsettled by the second bound image, even though it’s the same art model and it’s equally voluntary. Which brings me to reflect on the whole notion of capital-C control, not just on the relatively aimless diversions of Facebook (which I’m always prepared to be distracted by) and which caused several of my contacts to be temporarily banished to the digital wilderness in which they lost touch with their fellow wanderers, but also why control via censorship has been so pernicious a trend throughout our sentient human history.

Very few readers, apart from religious zealots, perhaps, would interpret the glamorous image of posed femininity which opens this essay to be pornographic in any customary sense of the word. It could even be a fashion photo, or a lingerie ad, but it’s not: it’s a figure study by an artist featuring an art model. There’s a sense of confident sensuality embodied in it, of course, and clearly the model seems to enjoy the fact that we enjoy looking at her. Look to your heart’s content, her image seems to whisper. And isn’t that at the heart of what is an essential ingredient in the pleasure of celebrating elegance, beauty, and even desire: the heart’s content?

It is at the heart of the issue of control and censorship, to be sure: the notion that someone who prevails over standards of good and bad taste might have the power to prevent you from declaring that life is a party, that we are animals with vivid imaginations, that reality is never quite enough for us. We tend to want an enhancement, an embellishment, a psychological dream romp, and yes, maybe even the occasional fetish for this or that. And who would want to deprive us of our innocent dream worlds, our fantasy flights, our harmless personal compulsions? Who, indeed?

Titian, Venus of Urbino (1538).

For some strange reason which I have yet to fathom, nudity in “art” is perfectly okie-dokie, as long as it involves females cavorting in the medium of oil paint. But as soon as the camera was invented in about 1840, the depiction of practically the identical poses and artful presentations of idealized feminine beauty were suddenly deemed to be obscene and pornographic. It’s as if the documentary aspect of sheer actuality was simply too much for the self-appointed arbiters of good taste to take.
The same reader or viewer may, of course, observe the same lovely model in a different set of circumstances, however, and feel that the image has traversed some imaginary border (the border of acceptable images) and crossed over into a territory of a titillation so profound that it unsettles the composure and commence a ripple, a frisson, a tremor, a shiver up and down the spine. That, of course, is precisely the motive of any and all racy stories, images, films, books and sculptures: to transport us above and beyond the quotidian world of tedious work and planning for a future which, by its very nature, never arrives.

But it’s not merely a question of content at all and is rather much more deeply embedded in context. Things change due to the circumstances in which an image is encountered -- for example, our knowing that the model was tied and trussed of her own free will to explore some edge of self-expression (or selflessness) with her photographer, or that the facial expression that might have been contextualized as pain was in reality an extremity of pleasure to the point of self-annihilation.

Strangely enough, demonstrations of extreme joy or rapture in our culture are almost more frowned upon than those of violent coercion. But why?

Censorship has followed the free expressions of men and women like a shadow throughout history. In ancient societies it was considered a legitimate instrument for regulating the moral and political life of the population. The term "censor" can be traced to the office of censor established in Rome in 443 B.C.E. In Rome, as in the ancient Greek communities, seeking the ideal of good governance included shaping the character of the people. Hence censorship was regarded (originally) as an honourable task, a vocation of protection.

Femina Carnale, photographed by Mikey McMichaels.

We can easily explore the strange evolution of censorship throughout all the arts and culture fields in history: visual, literary, theatrical, cinematic, and political. Perhaps the first act of censorship was the ancient Greek condemnation of the philosopher Socrates, and maybe the most recent could be the fatwas against author Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses. In between, it seems that we have long been told by the powers that be just what we can read or watch. We will ask the simple questions: why are certain things not allowed? And, who gets to decide on our behalf what is good or bad for us?

Perhaps the internet age is an ideal time to re-examine human nature, our virtues and vices, in light of how much we have changed over time since the original emblemata books of the medieval age, and perhaps even more importantly, how much we haven’t really changed at all.

First developed in the 16th century, emblems consist of three parts: a symbolic picture (pictura) with a motto or title (inscriptio) and an explanatory poem or epigram (subscriptio). Emblem books proved popular for more than two hundred years and thousands were published across Europe. The purpose of the emblem is to indirectly convey moral, political or religious values in forms that need to be decoded by the viewer. The pictura often juxtapose ordinary objects in an enigmatic way so as to offer a reader the intellectual challenge of attempting to divine all the allegorical meanings. In this way, emblem books typified the extraordinary Renaissance and Baroque aesthetic in which objects were thought to contain hidden meanings and concealed links between apparently dissimilar objects. Emblem books exercised an enormous influence on literature and the visual arts, and therefore they have long attracted the attention of scholars interested in painting, decorative arts, literature, illustrated books, iconography, symbolism, theories of representation, social and cultural history. 

Ironically, but not surprisingly, perhaps, our basic situation remains the same as it was in the 16th century, even though it has been enhanced by highly sophisticated tools which enable us to imagine that we are all one global culture (or village) interconnected and immediately interfaced through devices which now control us as much as we use them. Facebook: do we really know who our fellow passengers are on board this big floating cultural steamship we call the digital world?

Vox Serene by Joel Macdonald (left); Vox Serene by Brad Willard (right).

Is it not similar to the metaphor used by Katherine Anne Porter in her parody of 1933 Europe, Ship of Fools? The digital networking platform itself, and especially when it censors its users exchanges of either information or images, conjures up the same motif: the digital ship of fools on which we are all willing or unwilling passengers. This seems to me to be the case because the Facebook format, the LinkedIn phenomenon, and indeed the entire internet, the whole social media network and even our whole digital age itself, seductively implies that we are in charge, in command, and intimately involved in the folly of “steering” this gigantic cyber-ship.

Actually, it is more likely that we are all under the influence of forces far beyond our control and in fact may only be wallowing in the illusion of freedom which is the business card, or even the engraved invitation, to that big global party known as the information age. But its mythos of free exchanges are illusory and managed by unseen, usually robotic, censors.

Censorship is the suppression of free speech, public communication or other information which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, politically incorrect or inconvenient as determined by governments, media outlets, authorities or other groups or institutions.

Consider, then, the subtle distinction between censorship and prohibition, between prevention and security, between freedom of expression and control. As always, it's best to begin with basics. Noun: prohibition; 1. the action of forbidding something, especially by law; a law or regulation forbidding something; plural noun: prohibitions. How many creative friends have you had, or even contacts known only online, who have been temporarily banned or blocked on Facebook for sharing images which contravened their nebulous “community standards”? Whose community, and what standards?

Diegio Velasquez, Venus at her Mirror (1849-51).

Perhaps what we now need is a similar system of digital emblems, an updated version of the medieval motif of the emblem which used to provide a moral lesson or ethical dilemma in the form of a visual image coupled with a text that elucidated its message. Another important question is overall censorship of the arts in general and visual art in particular. As we move further into an almost totally virtual world, we will be encountering questions relating to freedom of expression and censorship more and more often in our cultural interactions. There will also be more and more interferences in our ability to communicate what we choose to discuss, and especially, what we choose to show. The official meaning of the word "impudence" is an intriguing one, especially when applied to a visual artist who makes charmingly innocent and mildly erotic images: it means to show no shame for rude behaviour and even to flaunt it.

We’re all in a big electronic boat sailing off towards the edge of the world, and we naturally assume our fellow digital passengers are who they claim to be. Isn’t it time we found a way to check their actual passports and boat ticket stubs before we gleefully signed up to networks bearing their names on our voyage? We need to be vigilant about which freedoms we allow the group to monitor and control, especially in the digital and virtual worlds on our doorstep. The current ascendancy of a bizarre caricature such as Donald Trump, a master manipulator of social media platforms and bender of truths digitally, is a clear indication of the dangers of the triumph of information over knowledge. We need to at least be in command of our imaginations.

Now more than ever, we might need the classical emblem format as an aesthetic compass of sorts, not to keep us on the straight and narrow the way medieval emblems did, but rather to simply maintain some semblance of wakefulness on this surreal journey. Are we not in danger of really becoming a digital ship of fools sailing blindly towards a new kind of political correctness, one which is actually worse that the one from which we imagined we had been liberated by the social media platforms we so readily embraced? Welcome to the new Middle Ages.

In 399 B.C.E., the Greek philosopher Socrates defied attempts by the state to censor his philosophical teachings and was sentenced to death by drinking hemlock. Socrates' student, Plato, advocated censorship in his Republic, which opposed the existence of democracy. In contrast to Plato, Greek playwright Euripides (480-406 B.C.E.) defended the true liberty of freeborn men, including the right to speak freely. In 1766, Sweden became the first country to abolish censorship by law.

Vox Serene, photographed by James McAlice.

The rationale for censorship has been different for various types of information censored: moral censorship is the removal of materials that are obscene or otherwise considered morally questionable. Pornography, for example, is often censored under this rationale, especially child pornography, which is illegal and censored in most jurisdictions in the world. Moral censorship in the United States grew out of anti-obscenity movements in the years after the Civil War. Efforts to thwart obscene materials in some instances became federal law, and even more so in the form of stricter state laws. Private organizations were formed to target those who produced and traded obscene materials and worked to send violators to prison in numbers.

Censorship of libraries is by no means a recent practice. On the contrary, libraries have been the targets of censorship since ancient times. History is littered with facts of destroyed library collections, and libraries themselves have far too often become flaming pyres. As early as 221 B.C.E., the deliberate burning of a library was recorded in China.

Although the destruction by fire of 400,000 rolls in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in 47 B.C.E. was by all accounts accidental, the burning of the entire collection of the University of Oxford library in 1683 was on direct orders from the king. And as Heinrich Heine ominously pointed out in 1821, "Where books are burned, in the end people will burn."

Censorship has been criticized throughout history for being unfair and hindering progress. In a 1997 essay on internet censorship, social commentator Michael Landier claims that censorship is counterproductive as it prevents the censored topic from being discussed. Landier expands his argument by claiming that those who impose it must consider what they censor to be true, as individuals believing themselves to be correct would welcome the opportunity to disprove those with opposing views.

Francisco Goya, La maja desnuda (Naked Maja), c. 1797–1800.

Censorship is often used to impose moral values on society, as in the censorship of material considered obscene. English novelist E. M. Forster was a staunch opponent of censoring material on the grounds that it was obscene or immoral, raising the issue of moral subjectivity and the constant changing of moral values. When the novel Lady Chatterley's Lover was put on trial in 1960 , Forster wrote: ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a literary work of importance . . . I do not think that it could be held obscene, but am in a difficulty here, for the reason that I have never been able to follow the legal definition of obscenity. The law tells me that obscenity may deprave and corrupt, but as far as I know, it offers no definition of depravity or corruption.”

Therein lies our dilemma: without an adequate grasp of the relativity of our unsettling, we end up giving over our liberties to whoever happens to be the most vociferous in their condemnations. Internet censorship, such that practiced by Facebook, is control or suppression of the publishing or accessing of information on the internet. It may be carried out by governments or by private organizations either at the behest of the government or on their own initiative. Individuals and organizations may engage in self-censorship on their own or due to intimidation and fear.
The issues associated with internet censorship are similar to those for offline censorship of more traditional media. One difference is that national borders are more permeable online: residents of a country that bans certain information can find it on websites hosted outside the country. Thus censors must work to prevent access to information even though they lack physical or legal control over the websites themselves. This in turn requires the use of technical censorship methods that are unique to the internet, such as site blocking and content filtering.

Unless the censor has total control over all internet-connected computers, as in North Korea or Cuba, total censorship of information is very difficult or impossible to achieve due to the underlying distributed technology of the internet. Pseudonymity and data havens (such as Freenet) protect free speech using technologies that guarantee material cannot be removed and prevents the identification of authors. Technologically savvy users can often find ways to access blocked content. Nevertheless, blocking remains an effective means of limiting access to sensitive information for most users when censors, such as those in China, are able to devote significant resources to building and maintaining a comprehensive censorship system.

The rising usage of social media in many nations has led to the emergence of citizens organizing protests through social media, sometimes called "Twitter revolutions." The most notable of these social media-led protests were Arab Spring uprisings, starting in 2010. In response to the use of social media in these protests, the Tunisian government began a hack of its citizens' Facebook accounts, and reports arose of accounts being deleted. Social media sites such as Facebook are known to self-censor posts containing things such as nudity and hate speech.

Femina Carnale photographed by Shawn Collie

Whether in ancient Rome or in the modern United States, censorship has existed in every society at every age. Art that challenges the strongly held beliefs of any society  – whether those be political, ideological, religious, or otherwise – causes offense and creates pressure for censorship. At the same time, almost every society has found value in the existence of visual art. What limitations on censorship should be made for the sake of artist value, or more broadly freedom of expression? "Artistic merit" and "offensiveness" are nebulous concepts lacking in objectivity, shifting with the tastes of society at any given time.

Yet the value of art to society, both positive and negative, cannot be doubted. In modern American society, with its heterogeneous tastes, the tension between the two concepts becomes especially vivid. Given the divergent and unpredictable tastes of society, destroying a work permanently removes it from future generations, and considering censorship's dreadful history, the decision to censor is one appropriately made with caution. But neither can it be said that a work should never be censored, for art can and does cause offense, and even a society as diverse as ours will find consensus at the extremes. Rather, striking the appropriate balance calls ultimately for good judgment.

In making this judgment, what is the appropriate role of the law and the courts? Those who think of the law as purely objective will desire the courts to either forbid all governmental interference with art, or to themselves abstain from interfering with political decisions on art. But these approaches place legal purity above reality, and make the impossible attempt to divorce law from its social context. The problem of relativism that inheres in the balance between artistic merit and offensiveness in fact exists in every legal controversy.

The necessary public respect for our courts is unlikely to be undermined by a cautious display of good judgment, even if the judgment is inherently subjective and involves art causing offense to elements of our society. In closing, anyone who thinks that artistic nudes, even if somewhat suggestive such as those exemplified by charming models such as Vox Serene, Femina Carnale and many others, are somehow offensive, should have their head examined.

For me, the author of one of the scariest books on repression ever written said it best: "Freedom to write, freedom to publish, freedom of speech: all are still being fought for in many countries in the world. Their martyrs are numerous. With so many so willing to die in its name, why have citizens in many western countries been willing to surrender their hard-won freedoms with barely more than a squeak? Usually it’s fear. And fear can come in many forms.” (Margaret Atwood)

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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