Thursday, June 05, 2008

The "dangerous territory" of legislating aesthetics

For those unaware, David Hockney has taken another swipe at the Government, this time over its plans to criminalise drawings or computer-generated images of naked children. Of course there are many great works that contain naked adults and naked children together, and this is where it gets into what Hockney has called 'dangerous territory', because the Government says that this new law will not criminalise 'genuine' works of art.

Hockney is certainly right about it being 'dangerous territory' for the Government, because, by implication it is suggesting that imagery that includes children and is created from someone's head can only be 'art' if the Government and the law says it is. That is a deeply worrying state of affairs. It is not of course unprecedented for the state to dictate upon what has, and what has not got, aesthetic value. Nor is it unprecedented for a state to criminalise where it decides the aesthetic is subversive or deviant. The Soviet Union did it for decades after all (we abhorred it then though).

The problem with this latest law proposal is not just that it seeks to legislate upon what art is, but it also tries to draw black and white distinction within the grey area between the subjectivity of the viewer and the intent or point by the artist. Someone that, for example, was sexually abused and ends up an artist, may want to produce a work that uses aesthetics to tell the viewer of the horror of such things. Under these laws the artist and the work would be criminalised. At the same time, it is down to the viewer to decide upon how they view the work. A very small minority may get off on it, but most would not, and this poses another question, besides 'what is art?' that is 'what is pornography?'

The best illustration of how this question works comes, bizarrely, from the space bum sitcom, Red Dwarf. Kryton, the domestic cleaning mechanoid, has just become human thanks to a DNA re-sequencer. He becomes confused as to why his penis suddenly goes from being relatively small and decidedly floppy, to errr.... well let's just say he stood to attention shall we. Lister asks him what he was thinking of at the time. Kryton tells Lister that he was flicking through an electrical appliance catalogue and found a section on "super deluxe vacuum cleaners and suddenly [his] underpant elastic was catapulted across the medical bay".*

So, was Kryton looking at porn? If he was then was it his reaction that added that quality? This is the fundamental problem with criminalising the creation of imagery that is essentially inanimate and then deciding upon its aesthetic value. The great works of 'genuine' art that will apparently be exempt, will, I'm sure, equally arouse someone that finds imagery of naked children sexually arousing. So does that make it pornographic and therefore illegal? The intent or reaction of the viewer is surely also as fundamental as understanding the driving force behind why someone has created the image in the first place? Thus arbitrarily banning imagery is actually an attack on art itself because it ignores the many shades of grey and the contradiction between the image itself, and the subjective intent of the artist and their audience.

There are also practical problems. Take for example Hentai. For the uninitiated, that is basically Japanese anime style cartoons that are basically hardcore porn, sometimes involving the most surreal thing known as 'tentacle rape' whereby strange monsters with, you've guessed it, tentacles force themselves upon a character, however I digress. The thing with Japanese stuff is that the girls invariably look like sweet and innocent kids, this is true even in the non-porn stuff. Who decides, in relation to such things, what is, and what is not a child. If you have a character in Hentai who is clearly stated to be an adult, but they wear knee high white socks, a hockey skirt and what looks like a school shirt, and has no pubic hair**, will it be decided that they are a child even if the story (yes they do have stories) makes clear they are not?

It seems to me that Hockney has hit the nail on the head about this latest proposal. By criminalising human-created imagery, the Government is seeking to impose a state-ordained view of what is and what is not art which is both dangerous politically but also philosophically contradictory in practice. The bigger worry is that it is on a subject that is so sensitive any argument against such moves get met by accusations that one doesn't care about the safety of children, is soft on paedophiles, or worse still, probably is one.
* The infamous Double Polaroid moment in Red Dwarf.
** Public hair is banned in contemporary Hentai for matters of "decency".


Anonymous said...

And this is the same state that says the killing of real life fit and healthy 24 week old children is legal.

Great post by the way Dizzy.

Anonymous said...

Great post, I suspect that with all legislation of this type it is devised by people without an ounce of common sense between them but rather a room full of dirty mac wearers and Mary Whitehouses.

Not a sheep said...

Your final point is the key one - "The bigger worry is that it is on a subject that is so sensitive any argument against such moves get met by accusations that one doesn't care about the safety of children, is soft on paedophiles, or worse still, probably is one."

This is the main way that "the left" close down argument on many issues: you used not to be able to discuss immigration without being called a racist, it is hard to express concerns about the effects of cottaging on HIV rates without being called a homophobe, it is hard to ask whether there should be equality of anonymity for alleged rapists and their accusers without being called a misogynist.

Anonymous said...

Daft question - but I though that the oft quoted reason for child porn being so horrific,and treated severely by the courts - was the abuse of the victim!

if its a computer/drawing, then there is no victim, no damage - surely this truly is the invention of "thought crime"

John M Ward said...

I didn't follow all of the article (not my area of expertise) but I immediately noticed the anime character illustrated. I am currently writing a novel that is to be illustrated (sparsely!) in something like the anime style, so am obviously concerned if there are going to be over-strict regulations on what can and cannot be included.

As it happens, my work will not let my child-heroines be literally "naked" (i.e. unprotected and vulnerable), and my story will be suitable for more-or-less all ages.

I suppose I am worried about the old "thin end of the wedge" style of legislation, of which we have seen so much in this country over the last decade in particular.

I do not want to spend all this effort now if there is any realistic possibility of this idea being extended to the point where minors cannot be depicted at all, or possibly even being featured in stories. It might seem far-fetched to think this could ever happen, but recent years' experience should warn us of what could very well happen, inch by inch...

Anonymous said...

I shall have a book, I mean, VHS burning* this weekend of my Manga videos, some of which are probably going to be illegal soon.

*that is a metaphorical vhs burning, as burning plastic video tapes probably breaches various enviromental laws.

Dave said...

Good post Dizzy! Well argued.
It's another thought crime dreamed up by this hateful government

Anonymous said...

Good post - thoroughly agree - just slightly concerned that the Japanese have banned public hair - does that mean they're now all walking around bald.