We defend freedom of artistic expression, but forget to add the art

The desire to shock is known to most writers. If you are any good you monitor it for your life
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The Independent Online

So who does that leave? The Sikhs are upset; the Muslims are upset; the Christians are upset; and now the Jews are upset. That liberals are upset goes without saying. Liberals are always upset.

So who does that leave? The Sikhs are upset; the Muslims are upset; the Christians are upset; and now the Jews are upset. That liberals are upset goes without saying. Liberals are always upset.

Now I must add my name to the list. I, too, and not just as one or more of the above, am upset. My partner is upset that Prince Harry wore a Nazi uniform to a fancy dress party. I'm upset - as how could I not be? - that she's upset. I'm also upset because I don't feel the offence quite as she does, and it's upsetting not to be as one with your partner in matters of offence. I think I can imagine circumstances in which I would wear a Nazi uniform. In the chorus line of The Producers, say. Or as Chaplin in The Great Dictator. Or just seizing an opportunity to ridicule that which can never be ridiculed enough.

So was that what Harry was doing - ridiculing a loathsome episode in German history? The German Embassy seems to have thought so, and is reported as saying that Harry's actions typify the narrow view of Germany predominant in Britain. So that's the Germans upset.

Among the questions which have been upsetting me about Harry, over and above, or should that be under and beneath, my imagining doing as he did, are these: how far, in matters that are sensitive, should a person's behaviour be circumscribed by his position; is the wearing of a Nazi uniform, at a carnivalised event, the exercise of one's right to freedom of expression, and if it isn't, why isn't it; and did Harry have a clue what he was doing anyway; half the country's youth never having heard of Auschwitz, the other half never having heard of Hitler, and however many that leaves presumably thinking the swastika is a tattoo that happens to be favoured by skinheads, of the same order of offensiveness as L.O.V.E. on your knuckles, and MOM and DAD around your navel?

Into the serene pool of our liberal assumption of the universal right to freedom of expression, anyway, have recently dropped troubling issues of intention, appropriateness, context and consequence. It is of course illogical to trumpet a freedom, and then circumscribe it. You can't be free to offend most people. That this has exposed liberals to a contradiction goes without saying.

Liberals are always exposed to contradiction. It has been one of the intellectual scandals of our time that the very people most vociferous in the name of freedom exercise some of the greatest tyrannies. They might not ban a book, and they might not demonstrate to close a theatre, but there is a closing of the mind, a condemnation by group disapproval or silence, that can be just as damaging to a free society. And under political correctness, with all its mirthless shibboleths and prohibitions, we do not live in a free society.

Which is not to equalise all offences perpetrated by those who hold themselves offended. Nothing excuses sending writers into hiding or issuing death threats to television executives. These are dangerous times when religious groups, believers in the peaceful message of their several redeemers, adopt violence in pursuance of their faith.

There are inconsistencies in everyone's position. A little honesty all round wouldn't go astray. A little honesty, in particular, when it comes to the giving of offence - that part of the process we tend to skip over in our passion to remind the takers of offence of their responsibility. Allow me, since it is the offence which art gives that has been paramount in all our discussions in recent months, to put it this way: there is an aesthetics no less than a morality of offence. Matters of artistic integrity are also at stake.

Jerry Springer - the Opera was no good. Funny for five minutes, it grew unfunny once one got the trick of it. It was repetitive. It was poor satire - cloth-eared when it came to seizing the essentials of a Jerry Springer show, lazy in the opportunities it missed both to plumb the despair and reach for the sublimity, facile in its assaults on our respectabilities.

Was it wrong of the BBC to show it? On moral grounds, no. It was every bit as simple-mindedly didactic as the belief systems of those who protested against it. On artistic grounds the BBC was right to show it, too. By telly standards it was a masterwork. Yes it failed, but most of what we see could never have succeeded.

All this would be neither here nor there in any other climate. But with the giving and taking of offence at the centre of our thinking, we have to ask whether we are applauding the giving of it for no other reason than that it intends to give it, and let the aesthetics of the giving go hang. In our concern for freedom of artistic expression, are we forgetting the art?

The desire to shock is known to most writers. If you are any good you monitor it for your life. I am not describing self-censorship; I am describing the adjudications you make between a true creative impulse and a false one. Not always easy, but you learn to recognise the false in the end, whatever its blandishments. Hurting only for the joy of hurting hurts you finally. You feel it at your heart. The ignominy of bad faith. The shame of stalled invention.

After hitting on the sublimely funny idea of enshrining the word fuck in an oratorio, I'm surprised the writers of Jerry Springer - the Opera didn't realise the responsibility they then bore to lift it beyond the merely would-be naughty - an aesthetic, and therefore, for artists, the highest consideration. That they settled for reiteration of the founding gag might be because they were swept up before they were ready into the too eagerly receptive arms of the National Theatre, or it might be because we have so fetishised the giving of offence that we do not care in what form it is given.

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