Leading Article: Culture of sleaze

Click to follow
THIS week the courts have been dealing with two cases brought under the Obscene Publications Act. The first concerned the Swedish 'death metal' group Dismember, whose latest record was seized by Customs last October. One track celebrates the sadistic murder of a 'whore' skinned alive for the pleasure of the experience. Magistrates at Great Yarmouth ordered the return of the albums because they had been given no evidence that they would deprave or corrupt. The second case - an appeal that is continuing - involves a seized novel, Lord Horror, an anti- Semitic fantasy of extreme violence.

Those who have advocated the relaxation of censorship laws over the past quarter century have usually done so on the ground that works of serious literary or social importance were being suppressed and that adults were being treated like children. It is hard now to believe that novels as serious in intent and as innocuous as Lady Chatterley's Lover were banned along with the cheerful (albeit sexist) bawdy of Henry Miller, or that Nabokov's elegant satire, Lolita, was the subject of legal action.

Critics claimed that liberty for the high- minded would soon degenerate into licence for the hustler. The market-place would be flooded by deliberately perverse, offensive and exploitative material. Magazines on open display on the top shelves of local newsagents suggest that the critics had a point. These publications are not quite as extreme as those lawfully on sale abroad, in that they do not depict penetration or ejaculation. But they contain explicit photographs of female genitalia and crude tales of sexual encounters. At best, such stuff insults and degrades women. At worst, it encourages men to think of them as sex objects. Hence the growing demand for censorship from some feminist groups that would generally describe themselves as radical.

Similarly, the albums released in this country by some Afro-American rap groups and white American heavy metal bands revel in foul-mouthed tales of gang rape and sexual violence, or include diatribes of hate and violence against women, gays, Jews, Asians and the police. The record division of Time- Warner has come under criticism from the Republican Party for releasing the rap artist Ice-T's inflammatory song, 'Cop Killer'.

It is important to disentangle a number of different threads. Most contemporary test cases do not involve work of any particular merit. (Lord Horror might prove to be an exception. Its authors claim seriousness of intent and say, further, that they do not share the views expressed by their characters.) As yet there is almost no unambiguous evidence to indicate that violent pornography or sexually brutal lyrics, although obnoxious and insulting, provoke consumers to outrageous acts. Finally, racist or anti-Semitic calls are already covered by incitement and public order legislation. The Obscene Publications Act is the wrong statute to invoke.

Those who advocate a return to harsher censorship should recognise that they are doing so primarily because they do not like the culture of commercial sleaze that has emerged. Similarly, those who seek greater freedom of expression should realise that they are, by and large, defending the right to publish filth, not works of art. The battle to publish art, which should not be fought again, was won a generation ago.