Violent responses

There are few artists who are violently sought after. Art rarely provokes revolution or even much controversy. When was the last time a book caused riot? Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, back in 1989, was the last major uproar. Its release and distribution was a huge political event, which proved that literature (and culture in general) could still provoke a response, even a dangerous and life-threatening one. The reaction showed that people cared, that literature could attack and critique, that it needed to be shouted about, that it needed (from the perspective of a minority of Islamic leaders) to be suppressed.

Since then, it seems as though free speech reigns largely uncontested, and now anyone can read or write anything. We barely bat an eyelid if a book is released which contains formerly radical elements. Sympathetic paedophiles have long found their way into literary portrayal, so where else is there to go? Chris Morris’s mockumentary Four Lions portrayed sympathetic terrorists and this failed to cause a response. In the build-up to its release, there was discussion about the potential reactions to such a comedic portrayal of terrorists’ attempts to attack a London Marathon event, but the film itself has gone largely unnoticed. Do we now just accept any interpretation of “culture?” Is this the triumph of free speech? Or is it the waning of resistance and reaction, of affective response and activism?

In fact, literature does cause controversy. Protesting still goes on, but it is more insidious. Literature is ‘challenged’ regularly. Issues surrounding The Catcher in the Rye recurs again and again; a book that I (and many others) read as a teenager in school, and which certainly did no irrevocable harm. On the contrary, it opened the gates of literature and of a more complex way of understanding one’s place in the world and one’s values. For many people, however, these books do still provoke disgust and anger. The American Library Association (ALA) is an incredible source of information on these issues.

It tells us that even in 2009, books were challenged for having homosexual content, or issues from a religious viewpoint (for example in the Twilight series). There are places all over America where parents try to prevent Twilight being taught in schools. The ALA also provides information on the authors of colour who are challenged (a high proportion, as one, sadly, might expect). Apart from Banned Books Week, there seems to be no other publicity or activity about the challenges and bans that take place.

Freedom of speech is a complex issue, and one that often complicates left/right political distinctions. The title of Nat Hentoff’s book Free Speech for Me – But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other encapsulates this idea. In the case of Rushdie, it is hard to know where to stand. If one supports free speech, is one allowing the sort of Islamophobia that leads to racist attacks today? Or does the book help people to understand this complexity? This video, a debate on BBC’s weekly political panel show Question Time, just after Rushdie was knighted, helps us to consider such complexity.

One artist (filmmaker) who is still under fire is Werner Herzog. As I was reading about his new film – Cave of Forgotten Dreams – I was alerted to a video of him being shot at. His nonchalance suggests that this extremity of reaction is what artists should expect.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is released Spring 2011.