Censoring the body

January 31, 2008

Both these publications belong to a series based on a very elastic - some would say sloppy - interpretation of what "censorship" is. The titles are misleading. Edward Lucie-Smith's contribution is not about social or psychological inhibitions concerning exposure of the human body, but about its representation in the visual arts. Julian Petley's is not about "bad language", but about freedom of and access to the media.

Lucie-Smith has written a lucid, elegant, well-manicured essay, taking us smoothly from Palaeolithic times down to the present, via Praxiteles, Rubens and Picasso. He keeps well within the conventional "history of art" boundaries, which themselves impose their own restrictions on the subject. If you were half-expecting a discussion of striptease as an art form, you will be disappointed.

Part of Lucie-Smith's problem is that, within the "history of art" boundaries, Kenneth Clark's classic The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form is such a hard act to follow. It seems to have inhibited Lucie-Smith from even mentioning some of the basic distinctions, such as that between nakedness and nudity. (Eve was naked in the Garden of Eden, but in Western art she becomes a nude.)

Another part of the problem is that, as Clark saw, if you want to delve into the rationale of artistic representations of the human body, censorship is actually an irrelevance most of the time. Lucie-Smith does his best to make out a case for its relevance, but only by stretching that notion to cover everything from obscenity laws to drawing-room disapproval. (But, oddly, there is no mention of Ruskin.) He closes with the provocative observation that political correctness "is, after all, just a euphemism for censorship".

If that is so, then Petley has produced a model exercise in self-censorship. Its unblemished correctness shines forth on every page. Petley starts off by reminding us that more than 1,000 journalists have been killed in the past ten years while engaged in news-gathering work.

They have died, the implication is, in the noble cause of keeping us well informed. On that sombre note, he embarks on a harrowing tale in which the bright spots (Milton's Areopagitica, the First Amendment of the US Constitution, Article 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights) tend to be overshadowed by horrors (the Roman Catholic Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the grisly work of the Lord Chamberlain's office, Hitler's burning of the books). The biggest villains of all turn out to be the press barons and the "huge, global, cross-media oligopolies", because they have perverted the hallowed doctrine of freedom of speech to serve their own repressive ends. Rupert Murdoch - predictably - finds himself in the dock, arraigned on a variety of charges.

Petley's text is amply padded with quotations, which are worth the space when they quote original documents in the history of the subject, but less so - in such a short book - when they simply reproduce modern opinions of which Petley happens to approve.

Interesting questions are raised en route, but only fleetingly. Would Milton have approved the kind of press freedom that is taken for granted today? Did not John Stuart Mill's conception of freedom of expression "rest on a notion of truth so absolute as now to be problematic"? (The "now" is a giveaway.) But Petley chickens out of the harder problems, which concern the conflict between the claims of secular liberties and fundamentalist religious convictions. He champions "a concept of freedom of expression appropriate to democratic societies in the media age". Democracy - correctly - comes first. It is no coincidence that the death of Socrates does not feature among his historical landmarks.

Censoring the Body

By Edward Lucie-Smith
Berg
100pp
£9.99
ISBN 9781905422531
Published 1 September 2007

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