There is more than one way to burn a book

Writing at Spiked, Tom Slater says “In 2014 forcing artists to be politically obedient was all the rage.”

If the Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC), the 1980s think-of-the-children outfit for whom we have to thank for ‘Parental Advisory’ stickers, was about today it would be a trendy, feminist-hued political organisation chaired by Jessica Valenti. The patronising and angst-ridden logic of old conservatives has become mainstream, leftish and ‘radical’.

But there is something about 2014’s cultural moralists that sets them apart. Because while the Mary Whitehouses of the past shouted ‘ban this filth’, the Mary Whitehouses of today want to take culture and shape it for their own purposes. They don’t bother with outright censorship – that’s still, just about, a dirty word. They want to straighten culture’s act up. They want to nag it and finger-wag it into a nice, socially acceptable form. They want to stake their flag in the savage world of culture and give the natives a lesson in piety. This was not the year of the cultural censor. This was the year of the cultural colonialist

This new trend stems from a wider culture of philistinism. The logic of arts funding applications seems to have permeated cultural life. Art is no longer judged on its own terms. Instead it is an artist’s social responsibility, the pertinence of their work to the political and cultural concerns of the day, that matters.  It’s what the novelist Howard Jacobson warned of in 2005, when, in the wake of 9/11, he was perturbed by the shallow art that was celebrated for, in some way, ‘dealing with’ the ‘war on terror’. ‘We are in a new dark age of the imagination’, he wrote. ‘Either we refuse the idea of art altogether… or we confer integrity on it from outside, allowing it to be art only by virtue of the pre-determined importance of the subject matter, or the acceptability of its attitudes. This is a species of censorship to which we have all acceded.’

In 2014, the philistinism Jacobson warned of has gone a step further. Not only is socially irresponsible work ‘bad’ – apparently it’s dangerous. Fueled by a growing contempt for the audience – a refusal to believe in their ability to grapple with nuanced, subversive or even exploitative subject matter – these cultural colonialists have decided to weaponise culture. If all people are blank slates, if we are so easily programmed by the ‘messages’ we receive, then someone should at least make sure we are getting the right kind of messages, or so the logic goes.

While the cultural colonialists may insist that what they are calling for is simply better art – for art that is free from tired, easy stereotypes and sexist myths – the opposite is true. Art needs freedom to flourish. It’s a space in which mindless fantasies can be indulged, or moral ambiguities prodded and explored, sometimes for no clear reason. Art, as Oscar Wilde famously said, is ‘quite useless’. The moment you try to make it useful, to hector it, straitjacket it and put it to work, its potency withers.

This is something great artists have always recognised. For the 1979 edition of his dystopian, anti-censorship classic, Fahrenheit 451, the late, great Ray Bradbury offered an instructive anecdote:

About two years ago, a letter arrived from a solemn young lady telling me how much she enjoyed reading my experiment in space mythology, The Martian Chronicles. But, she added, wouldn’t it be a good idea, this late in time, to rewrite the book inserting more women’s characters and roles… The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist / Unitarian / Irish / Italian / Octogenarian / Zen Buddhist / Zionist / Seventh-day Adventist / Women’s Lib / Republican / Mattachine / Four Square Gospel, feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse… The real world is the playing ground for each and every group, to make or unmake laws. But the tip of the nose of my book or stories or poems is where their rights end and my territorial imperatives begin, run and rule.’

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