Maverick publisher Felix Dennis died last month, aged 67. He was famous for publishing magazines as diverse as Kung-Fu Monthly, PC World magazine, Viz, Bizarre, Loaded… and a cartoon of Rupert Bear shagging an unconscious granny.
Rupert’s erection was just one of the sights presented to readers of Oz Magazine No.28 in May 1970, the first magazine Dennis published. Titled ‘The School Kids Issue’, issue 28 had been created by twenty secondary school children, who had eagerly taken up an offer to guest edit the counter-cultural magazine. Rupert’s outsized member was a remix of the work of Robert Crumb by a 15 year old boy named Vivian Berger, but it was the publishers who were legally responsible for the images.
The violation of the clean-cut bear (who would usually appear with his checked trousers properly buttoned-up on in the pages of the Daily Express) was too much for the Obscene Publications Squad. Felix Dennis was arrested along with his co-publishers Richard Neville and Jim Anderson, and charged with obscenity and the archaic offence of ‘conspiracy to corrupt public morals’. Their trial was one of the defining moments for free speech in the UK. John Lennon, Yoko Ono and John Peel were among those who spoke out in favour of the accused. The three were initially convicted of obscenity, but acquitted when their case was appealed the following year.
That was more than four decades ago. In twenty-first century Britain the state spends far less time prosecuting obscenity cases. Is this because we live in more permissive times, or because artists are less radical and risqué than they once were? Both of these explanations may be true, but there is a third reason too: The privatization of our public spaces, and with it, the privatization of censorship.
Privatisation of censorship is not limited to the online space. Nervous galleries chasing audience attendance figures have become extremely risk averse. Last month, The Mall Galleries removed Lena McCall’s painting Ms Ruby May, Standing’ from an exhibition curated by the Society of Womens Artists. In a statement, the gallery said it had “a responsibility to its trustees and to the children and vulnerable adults who use its galleries and learning centre. After a number of complaints regarding the depiction of the subject and taking account of its location en route for children to our learning centre, we requested the painting was removed.”
Here we see the privatisation of censorship in action. Removing artwork because of ‘complaints’ places the power of censorship in the hands of those who are most likely to be offended. In such cases, did anyone stop to consider the damage that is caused by denying people, including children visiting the gallery, the chance to see art that involves alternative or challenging depictions of the body? The mainstream media is notorious for denying women’s sexuality or presenting women in submissive roles (this is especially true in ostensibly ‘safe’ stories, such as those produced by Disney). In acquiescing to the prurient and the prudent, the Mall Galleries may actually be enabling unhealthy sexual attitudes to remain unchallenged.
The future looks no better. In years to come, our free expression will be policed not by the legal officers at Instagram or Facebook, but by algorithms that patrol the internet. As image recognition technology improves, it will be increasingly easy for internet companies to outsource image censorship to sophisticated computer code. Google already uses such technology to administer what appears on its search indexes, and which websites receive its advertising revenue. The radical literary magazine Guernica found itself cut-off from its Ad Words revenue (a significant funding stream) because a special article on ‘Early Sexual Experiences’ was tagged as child pornography by the Google systems. At least in the days of Felix Dennis and Oz Magazine, a human judge and jury would be asked to decide whether something was art or pornography, before a magazine article was censored.
It is unfortunate that the images that test the limits of free expression are very often purile or grotesque. An elaborate Rupert Bear knob-joke does not feel like a grand advance in culture that we should take to the barricades to defend. Nevertheless, we must push back at the censorship of any kind of art, however benign or technical it may seem. If artists do not resist, they will limit themselves to socially acceptable subjects… and free expression within such narrow limits is no kind of free expression at all. Censorship is at its most insidious when it inspires self-censorship. Artists are internalising the constraints that are placed upon them by reactionaries and by computer algorithms. What innovations in art, culture and fashion are we suppressing? What photographs of the human body are never taken? What statements about human sexuality are being left unsaid?
Robert Sharp is an author and blogger living in London. During the day he campaigns on free expression for English PEN. He is a former director of digital design agency Fifty Nine Productions.