Censorship

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
30th May 2008

Tagged: art censorship pornography

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This week felt like a return to the 60's. Censorship was the issue. There was a cause celebre: some highly respected creative genius pushing the boundaries of social tolerance. The intelligentsia were rushing to the barricades—all chanting the same mantra. There were endless repeats of unflattering images of police actions. The politicians and other community leaders were caught expressing popular but indefensible sound bites.

That is how the so-called “debate” about censorship was played out forty years ago—and nothing has changed. It was a silly debate then, it is no better now. Most of it is political posturing—forcing the issue by making others appear degenerate or ridiculous. It makes the perpetrators victims and the censored famous and wealthy. It never takes long before the usual litany of words get trotted out: Philistines, Nazis, moralizers and wowsers on one side and sleaze, decadence, corrupting the innocence of youth on the other.

Censorship is a very dangerous and undesirable blunt instrument. We can never be certain of the truth if people in power censor communication. Christians concern for the truth means we have to tolerate dreadfully painful and untrue things being said about our Lord and Saviour. Our opponents trade upon this tolerance in a way that they dare not with other groups.

This time around the censorship debate is different in one respect. This time all sides agree that there is something absolutely wrong—paedophilia. That was not agreed upon in the 60's and 70's. Back then a group of French atheistic intellectuals even argued for the decrimalization of paedophilia. Then most of society thought it unthinkable and so did not discuss it as a possibility. Now everybody knows it is more than possible and nobody is seriously arguing for it—though some people want to lower the age of consent.

The last thirty years have revealed the devastating consequence of tolerating the abuse of children. They have left nobody in real doubt that there is such a thing as evil. All now agree that society must protect itself and its most vulnerable members. Paedophiles are often predators using the open honesty of the community to reach their victims. Families, friends, schools, churches, scouts and other organizations that are built and operate on trust have had to change in order to protect the innocent.

But in a multi-cultural society there is very little agreement about morality. It is the creative community that has license to explore the nature of the human condition. But they have no central philosophy or ethics by which to conclude anything is right or wrong—good for humanity or bad for society. Their only commitment is to their own self-interested freedom. They want our protection to say whatever they like without bearing responsibility for its consequences.

The impact of any one creative work is usually too small to measure. Nobody can be shown to be significantly degenerated by one work of art. It is the cumulative effect that changes society's values. Highbrow culture has a trickle down affect on society. People do not wear what models display on the catwalk but everybody's clothing is altered as a result of the fashion show. Similarly, today's art film results in the raunch culture of tomorrow's TV and magazines. Richard Neville, one of our leading fighters against censorship in the 60's was appalled at the movies in the 90's. He wrote of “freedoms vulgarised”, of his anger at “freedom corrupted”, of movie critics being “desensitised by the lashings of violence” and of “corrupting society as a whole”.

So how do we discriminate between “art” and pornography? The problem is usually posed in the impossible question—“where do you draw the line?” There is no answer. There is a thing called pornography and there is a thing called art. You can recognise the difference when the two extremes are put side by side, but there is no clear dividing line between the two. Beautiful art can be pornographic and pornography can be artistically beautiful.

The value of most visual representations lies in the context in which it is shown. The medical textbook and the art gallery are very different to the home computer and the “adult” movie house. The same image in the art gallery could be unacceptable on an office computer. A crucifix in a museum can be an important and challenging work of art but the same statue in the front of a Church can be idolatrous and corrupting. In the computer age we cannot control where any work will be shown.

Art is more than self-expression. When we place it in galleries for other people to see, or use a controversial photo to advertise an exhibition, it is a social activity. And its value lies in its impact on the viewer. One of the fundamentally weakest arguments against censorship is that art never harms anybody. If it can do no harm it can do no good either. If it can do no harm it cannot enhance, ennoble or help anybody. This argument is like the stupidity of the claim that advertising (e.g. for tobacco, or alcohol) does not affect consumer behaviour. If the argument were vaguely true nobody would spend any money on advertising.

Viewers differ. As the scripture says: “To the pure all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure” (Titus 2:15). The viewer brings their innocence and their corruption to any work of art. It is hard to blame the artist for other people's corruption. And yet the artist should know of our common corruption for there is no temptation that is not common to man (1 Corinthians 10:13). The intelligentsia should know the failure and weakness of humanity.

Churches should have done better in protecting children in their care because Christians teach the universality of sin. We, of all people, oppose the humanistic idealism of trusting in the goodness of humanity. It was to our credit that we thought paedophilia was an unthinkable taboo that nobody would break. But we were shown to be seriously wrong in that estimation. We should have been as vigilant in our auditing of relationships, as we have had to be with auditing accounts. Our credibility has taken a great blow.

But the artistic community would gain greater credibility if they took more responsibility for the consequences of their work. They would be more believable in their moral outrage if they unleashed it on some subject like pornography, prostitution and paedophilia than in defending their right to offend the historical norms of society. Artistic photographs of nude 13 year olds in the context of today's struggle with paedophilia and sexualization of children, is at the very least socially insensitive if not culpably irresponsible. The Bible says God made everything beautiful in its time—this is not the time.