Philosophising about the 'S'-word: Watch… and learn
Are we free to find something beautiful or does our subconcious (or anything else) dictate our tastes and judgements? (See: To which extent do we command our choices?) During the Third Reich, the Nazis described virtually all modern art as “degenerate art” (entartete Kunst): the Expressionists, the Jazz musicians, all those artists that had been acclaimed by the critics during the Weimar period (1920s) were suddenly censored and pointed at as threats and enemies of Germany. So they either escaped death by going into exile, or ended up starving or getting killed in Action T4 or in concentration camps if they were Jews or gay. All that, because of making some art that displeased the authorities.
In the sixth episode of (what could be called the best teen drama TV series ever) My So-Called Life (ABC), Angela Chase (the main character) has a new English professor, Mr. Racine (who by the way is cool and lets his pupils call him Vic). Mr. Racine made the kids write for the Liberty Lit. (the school magazine) and gave them the following instructions:
MR. RACINE: Whatever you feel like saying, write it down instead. What you never told anyone. What you never even told yourself. And don’t fear exposure. No one is to put his or her name down. This will be completely anonymous.
One teenage girl (aged 15) wrote the following text, entitled “Haiku for Him”: “His lips taste my juicy sweetness. My legs tangle with his. We become one being. A burning furnace in the cold cement basement of love.” As the texts are anonymous, everyone suspects the cheekiest girl in the class, who actually wishes she had written it. Vic Racine sends all the texts to Angela’s parents, who own a small printing shop. Angela’s mother is appalled when she finds the so-called haiku. She decides not to publish it and to talk about it with the professor himself. She sees him in his class:
PATTY: Mr. Racine?… We spoke earlier. I’m… Angela’s mother.
MR. RACINE: Ah yeah… yeah… Hi!
MR. RACINE: And I met your… hum… husband the other day.
PATTY: Right. What I wanted to talk about was hum…
MR. RACINE: He’s a lucky man.
PATTY: Thank you. Hum… My husband and I read the stuff that the kids wrote.
MR. RACINE: I hope it didn’t give him a heart attack.
MR. RACINE: Oh you know, he seems a little… fragile.
PATTY: Actually, it isn’t my husband who had the problem.
MR. RACINE: Really.
PATTY: I just think that… (sigh) There’s this one piece in particular… that… I… I just don’t feel comfortable printing.
MR. RACINE: Oh! You are afraid that Angela wrote it.
PATTY: This has nothing to do with… whether Angela wrote it.
MR. RACINE: So! This is just censorship for censorship sake.
MR. RACINE: Okay. Hand them over. No, I’ll hum… type them myself and I’ll have them Xeroxed.
PATTY: These are children! We are adults! This is not censorship. This is… guiding adolescents who need… guidance.
MR. RACINE: That was a very reasonable opinion. And very clearly stated. Unfortunately, it is total manure.
PATTY: Excuse me?
MR. RACINE: It’s horse manure. I sense you’re angry. Are you angry?
MR. RACINE: Yes, I sensed that.
PATTY: Why is it… manure?
MR. RACINE: Good question. It is manure because this should be about giving students a voice. Its not about having their thoughts edited. (sigh) If these kids aren’t afraid to put their hearts on the page… why should we be afraid of them?
PATTY: You should really teach full time.
MR. RACINE: We have a difference of opinion. Fine…. But do you think you should be in the position of deciding because you have a… printing press and I don’t?
PATTY: You expect me to answer that?
MR. RACINE: Yes.
PATTY: No. I don’t.
MR. RACINE: Neither do I.
PATTY: So… Did Angela write it?
Mr. Racine wins and all of the articles are published, including “Haïku for Him”. The latter is on every lip at school and the school principal ends up hearing from it: he decides to confiscate all copies and to dismiss Vic Racine. It looks like he did not even try to find the beauty in the text, because its erotism was a stain that could not be tolerated. People at 15 have already reached the age of sexual consent, what reason would we have to forbid them to write or read or talk about sex at home or at school?
In October 2010, Paris City Hall banned teenagers from Larry Clark exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. In his photographs, Larry Clark showed teenagers making love or exploring their bodies, taking drugs and all sorts of things that the Mairie de Paris did not find worthy of being shown to under 18s. This decision caused them to come under fire from all sides, even from the French human rights league that described it as “backward and reactionary”. Can teenagers appreciate Larry Clark’s art at all? Are they unable to find it beautiful or inspiring? What do they actually risk when confronted to an erotic piece of art?
When it comes to art, sex appears to be like the red nose on Rudolph’s face (you know, the reindeer). It is the first thing people notice. Would a 500-page novel contain half a page about a very hot love scene, that half-page would last in the reader’s mind longer than the other 499. Just like that little self-declared haiku hidden somewhere in the student magazine.
Should we ban minors from the works of Georges Bataille, the Marquis de Sade or Hans Bellmer, because of the ease with which sex is presented? And conversely, does sex stop being obscene when framed and exposed in a nice gallery? Does pornography become art when its author is seen as an intellectual (and not as a pervert, although both conditions are not mutual exclusive) or when its purpose deviates from sensual pleasure? Or is pornography some art that we can or should censor (assuming that censoring art is unacceptable, and that showing pornography is unaccepted). It is hard to say who can better tell the difference between pornography and art, but by the time we find out, should we just allow pornography at school?
“Good question”, would say Racine, who just questioned everything. Vic Racine only appeared in this sixth episode of My So-Called Life and said “Good question” exactly nine times.
A STUDENT: So, why you here? You the new substitute?
RACINE: Why am I here? Yes, good question.
RACINE: Finish the chapter and the next ten poems tonight.
JORDAN CATALANO (Jared Leto): What? Are you crazy?
RACINE: Yeah, good question.
And it goes like that seven other times (sometimes, he even says “good question” to a question that he asked himself). “Question everything”, the morals that have been dyed into your brains, your habitus, the topics that are out of question, even question your thoughts and real own opinions. School is the dream place for a permanent tabula rasa, for people receive at school a flow of new information every minute and have the opportunity to train themselves to questioning each piece of it. The one that comdemned censorship of all sorts was John Stuart Mill:
“Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral?” (On Liberty, 1859)