Keeping Art Safe is a Dangerous Endeavor
Last week, the School Board in Wilson County, Tennessee voted 3-1 to remove Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The ruling was subsequently reversed and the book – about an autistic teen investigating the death of a neighbor’s dog – was placed back onto the school curriculum, which had initially voted to remove it for prevalent usage of the word “fuck.” According to the American Library Association, sexually explicit content and offensive language received the most challenges (as per their Office for Intellectual Freedom, a challenge is defined as a formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness[i]) from 2000 to 2009 with 1,577 and 1,291 challenges, respectively. There were only 619 challenges reported for violence.
As someone with moderate tendencies, I fall to the extreme side of the censorship debate in that I advocate fiercely for no censorship whatsoever as it pertains to art. Even my conservative father was staunchly supportive of freedom of expression (not surprisingly he was a Frank Zappa fan), and perhaps this was something that he passed down to me. As I reviewed the ALA’s data, one number in particular stood out to me with regard to their list of the most challenged books: 989 complaints for were filed against books purported to be “unsuited to age group.” While the latter list does include E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, some of the other books which were challenged for their age-appropriateness include (since 2001): The Cather in the Rye, The Chocolate War, Of Mice and Men, The Color Purple, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Hunger Games, The Bluest Eye, It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual health (this was just hilarious) and, my favorite, My Mom’s Having a Baby! A Kids Month-by-Month Guide to Pregnancy[ii].
It is also worth noting that To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings all received complaints for “racism,” despite the fact that racism is hardly glorified in those books.
On the topic of age appropriateness – the same thrust beyond pulling Haddon’s book off the shelf – an issue of censorship in a more tightly defined context is raised. While very few people still advocate for the outright banning of books anymore, making overtures to restrict access because material is not “age appropriate” is a slippery slope. It has long been my contention that age-appropriateness is not a universal parameter and it is not the place of a school board or governing body to make the determination of what is appropriate for people under the age of eighteen for the simple fact that once content is restricted, a door is opened that cannot be closed. Literature is certainly not the only art form that faces the threat of censorship; people my age will remember Tipper Gore’s (who, along with Susan Baker, co-founded the Parents Music Resource Center) fight to place rating labels on music. Gore claimed that her intent was never to censor music but to make it “safe” for younger listeners.
Making art, in any form, “safe” is censorship because art is not safe. “Art is not safe,” though a quote I wish I could take credit for, is actually attributable (at least in this reference) to Rob Zombie, who told it to an actor who was uncomfortable with a scene he was shooting for “The Devil’s Rejects.” Those who set out to make art “safe” often do so under the proclamation that their right to organize and protest is protected by the constitution while forgetting that they have an indelible right not to consume art they find offensive. Take Srdan Spasojevic’s controversial 2010 film, A Serbian Film, for example.
If you’ve not seen A Serbian Film but follow horror-related news, you’ve certainly heard of it. Horror, particularly the French Extremist Movement, has pushed the envelope of what some might call “taste” in recent years. Films like Julian Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s Inside (2007), Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008), and Alexandra Aja’s High Tension (2003) sought to combine realism in the form of brutal violence with strong psychological overtones. The result was a series of very violent, very disturbing, and very polarizing films. Each one of these films faced harsh criticism and the pressure to edit portions of the film. A Serbian Film has been banned (at one point or currently) in seven countries, and Netflix refuses to carry it.
A Serbian Film includes highly offensive material of a highly sexualized nature and anyone who has viewed the film could easily guess that much of what is depicted was met with an inflammatory reaction, yet Spasojevic has ardently defended his film as having serious political and social undertones; whether or not you agree with his over-the-top approach, the film most certainly does. It is an allegory for exploitation and the tendency for the film studios to sell the public the idea of victims as heroes in order to evoke a manufactured sympathy, something Spasojevic has called “the real pornography” and the “cinematic fascism of political correctness.” While some people would do well not to watch this film as it would most certainly offend their sensibilities, what benefit exists in censoring a film like this?
Though A Serbian Film is an extreme example of the dictum that art is not safe, restricting its availability is done at the peril of he or she who makes the restriction. Simply, the tendency to ban a film like this is not unlike the desire for parents to remove Haddon’s book from a school curriculum: it is a matter of taste.
To be clear, I am not advocating that hardcore pornography or violent films be given to children with a pat on the back and an “enjoy.” I am advocating for common sense, the use of abstract thought and subjective consideration. The type of art which is made available should be, in a way, relative to a particular age group. A Serbian Film is not going to harm a man in his mid-thirties like myself anymore than reading the word “fuck” is going to harm a fifteen year old. Harm, not offend, is the key word.
Would A Serbian Film harm a 12-year-old? Probably. A film like that is for an adult with an established view of what is and is not healthy sexual activity, and because it is meant to disgust rather than titillate, it simply is not intended for a child with little or no concept of what is healthy sexual behavior. Will reading the word “fuck” harm that same 12-year-old? Probably not.
“Fuck,” like “cock,” or “cunt” is only a word. Those words might offend you, but they will not harm a teenager any more than they are harming you as you read them. Are they nice words to say? Should a 12-year-old shout words like that? No, but when we restrict access to things like that, we make them taboo and we make them attractive. When “sex” is treated like a dirty word or when masturbation is treated like a perverse concept, we are only making them more alluring. Allowing children to explore concepts like sex, foul language and racism is no different than allowing adults to view subversive films: it is a process of self-education.
The issue with regulating things like this – pulling books out of a curriculum – is that no one is being kept safe. What is happening is that we are amending the availability of art to meet one person’s (or a group of people’s) particular tastes and sensibilities. Because, after all, someone will ultimately be left responsible to determine what is age-appropriate and what is safe. There are people like that, of course, and they have titles such as “Minister of Propaganda.”
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