By David Waywell
It can’t be easy wielding a jackhammer for ISIS. Imagine the work involved in reducing some ancient statue to rubble so that no piece looks like an idolatrous nose, earlobe, or nipple. Even now, the guys with the Brian Blessed beards are working their way through the ancient city of Palmyra, smashing anything they deem offensive to their ultra-modern form of Wahhabism. How many nostrils can you see in a grain of sand? The answer is more than you might imagine. The work of a cultural vandal only really ends once you’ve reduced everything to the atomic scale.
It’s not just ISIS who are currently so overworked, of course. Here in the UK, the Metropolitan Police are seeking to destroy vintage photographs found in the collection of convicted paedophile and artist Graham Ovenden. Forty of the photographs are by the 19th-century French poet and writer Pierre Louys, whose work with a camera was thematically one with his career as sensualist pursing classical notions of eroticism along with everyday values of obscenity. Sold by Sotheby’s in the 1970s and having been in the public domain for at least 50 years, the photographs have now been deemed obscene by District Judge Elizabeth Roscoe and will be destroyed within a month.
‘I am no judge of art or artistic merit,’ said Judge Roscoe. ‘I am assessing the images upon the basis of the recognised standards of propriety that exist today.’
Now, perhaps you miss the significance of this bold statement but it’s pretty exciting if you enjoy sticking scissors through Old Masters. Finally, in a court of law, it has been accepted that modern morality can be applied retrospectively to cultural artefacts that have previously been considered legal. And what’s more: we get to destroy them! So let’s roll up our sleeves and draw straws to see which lucky vandal gets to string detonation chord around the neck of Michelangelo’s David, that seventeen foot marble obscenity attempting to draw in the objectifying gaze.
Because, lest you ignored the other big news of the week, by the standards of propriety that exist today, we’ve finally agreed that gazing is also wrong. Specifically, it’s the male gaze but we knew that already. Thankfully, Playboy, the vile organisation who made billions idealising the female form, has now agreed to stop pandering to the least worst motives of their largely male audience. In these enlightened times, readers no longer need to objectify the soft-focus nudes laughing and frolicking in fountains or on the beach. Not when we have the internet, revenge porn, and every manner of intimate cavity filmed in high resolution 4k video.
Now, some would say that there are many things wrong about the above equivalences and I would agree because, really, I’m not making the equivalences as much as highlighting the significance of Judge Roscoe’s ruling. Imagine how liberating it would be if we were finally rid of the notion that art of the past can only be judged according to the morality prevailing on the day it was produced. The back catalogue of Playboy would form only the foundation of our immense pyre.
We might also add the anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, the criminal product of grave robbing in the fifteenth century. How about the letters and journals of Lord Byron, in which the twisted pervert/national treasure detailed his journeys through the Levant in which he drops some pretty large hints about his pederasty with young boys? How about Manet’s Olympia, a horrible example of an artist glamorising prostitution and, while we’re about it, what about Pretty Woman with a spell in clink for Richard Gere? What about the Manneken Pis in Brussels, wrong on so many levels? What about Nabokov’s Lolita, possibly more shocking today than when it was published in 1955? What, indeed, should be done about any newspaper from the 1980s which detailed in non-judgemental terms the relationship between Rolling Stone Bill Wyman and Mandy Smith, a relationship that began when she was 13 (he was 47) and, she later said, turned sexual at 14 (or, for him, a lusty 48)?
Yet it’s not just in the area of obscenity or taste that this wide-ranging ruling might apply. Nor is it the first time that such an argument has been made. Just last year, no less a figure of jurisprudence than Prince William floated the idea that every piece of ivory in the Royal Collection should be destroyed. As Brian Sewell responded, the idea was laudable but incredibly naive.
Could we countenance destroying the ivory furniture of 18th century India bought by George III? […] Imagine chucking all those Chinese fans onto the bonfire, followed by ivory silhouettes on black glass, fine English furniture inlaid with ivory and all the pretty playthings made by Faberge.
Or perhaps we should and give District Judge Elizabeth Roscoe the gratitude of a long puzzled nation. She has finally provided some solid footing in the legal quagmire where lesser souls have previously refused to tread. Oh, there might be a few naysayers who point that she was criticised last year for threatening to have the leader of the Mormon Church arrested if he didn’t travel to the UK to defend his religious beliefs. However, her latest ruling will surely stand more scrutiny than that. Judge Roscoe is back on form, zipping them in from the back of the court. Even better, she might well have solved the whole problem with the Middle East. Instead of bombing ISIS, the British government should give them contract work. This ruling could mean that we suddenly have a lot of legally questionable culture and not enough jackhammers to deal with it.
Now race you to the Elgin Marbles… Loser brushes up!