Art and the case for the offence

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“It’s rather lost its sting as an insult, hasn’t it?” We were wandering around the National Portrait Gallery’s new show Brilliant Women; the epithet in question was “bluestocking”. To me it has, certainly; in fact I’d be flattered to be compared to some of these scholarly, witty, well-dressed women. Far from being dour swots, the Blues (as they were first known) emerged from the heart of fashionable Georgian society in the 1750s, through the smart salons Elizabeth Montagu, Frances Boscawen, Elizabeth Carter and others.

Their portraits show the Blues in a group (“The Nine Living Muses”) or as self-confident society women decked out in lace, plumes and ribbons among their books. No dowdy legwear here; in fact the original blue stockings belonged to a man – impoverished botanist Benjamin Stillingfleet, who couldn’t afford the black silk stockings that were de rigueur as evening dress at the literary parties. But it was too good a jibe to be missed, and soon Bluestockings were being roundly (if rather respectfully) lampooned by writers and cartoonists. Decades later, writers as various as Hazlitt and Byron were still pouring scorn, cautiously – Byron asked his publisher to put out his squib “The Blues” anonymously, otherwise “I shall have all the old women in London about my ears – since it sneers at the solace of their antient Spinisterstry”.

Perhaps the longevity of an insult is a measure of the durability of its target. The original Blues now look like heroines, and the male naysayers look like blinkered stick-in-the-muds. But still I’m almost sad to think that the heat has gone out of the “bluestocking” label: we should relish a good insult, as part of a good intellectual quarrel, and cherish its place in our cultural life.

Insults, and the concept of offence, are of vital importance to a free culture. Artists and thinkers must be at liberty to annoy and to challenge, to rub convention up the wrong way. Almost every interesting cultural move one can think of has offended someone (the term “impressionist”, of course, was a sneer). “What is freedom of expression?” Salman Rushdie once asked (rhetorically). “Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” In countries with multiple offence laws on the statute books – as in Turkey, where such laws were used in 2006 against Nobel prizewinner Orhan Pamuk – just about any public comment can be criminalised. But the offence that is uppermost in our minds today is usually religious in its basis. While violence or discrimination on religious grounds is obviously repugnant, and quite rightly against the law, actual blasphemy has become an outdated concept in the western world. The last successful prosecution in the US was in 1928, when one Charles Lee Smith put a sign in his shop window in Little Rock, Arkansas, that read “Evolution is true. The Bible is a lie. God is a ghost,” and promptly found himself in jail. But in repealing New York’s blasphemy laws in 1952, the US Supreme Court enshrined the right to offend when it declared the concept of blasphemy to be an “unconstitutional prior restraint on freedom of speech”. Rushdie’s point exactly.

All this makes it incredible that the UK’s own antiquated blasphemy laws technically remained in force until last week, when the House of Lords voted to repeal them. The laws are in themselves discriminatory – they offer protection only to the Church of England. No one cares about “God is a ghost”-type statements these days – yet where blasphemy laws in western countries persist, it is artists and writers who fall foul of them. It suggests a desperation on the part of outraged convention that homosexual Dutch writer Gerard Reve, for example, was prosecuted under an obscure blasphemy law in the Netherlands in 1966, and that in the UK in 1977 the decency campaigner Mary Whitehouse successfully took the editor of Gay News to court over a poem by James Kirkup. And only last year a group called Christian Voice tried to sue the BBC for blasphemy over Jerry Springer: The Opera.

A novel, a poem, a musical – hardly the stuff to make any self-respecting religion or government tremble for its existence. Yet it’s a surprisingly durable tradition: Russia sent Dostoevsky to Siberia for offending the Orthodox Church; the Soviet Union did the same to countless writers and thinkers, for offending against its own orthodoxy; and in the “free” Russia of 2005, a Moscow artist and curator faced a criminal prosecution – for ridiculing the Orthodox Church. Plus ça change ...

Prosecuting artists is ridiculous. It is only likely to encourage them: it shows that they’re doing something interesting. In Poland’s first-ever case of offending religious sensibilities, in 2003, the judge added to the fine he imposed on Gdansk artist Danuta Nieznalska a six-month foreign travel ban – because her legal notoriety might increase demand for her work in international art circles. No offence intended, though.

Jan Dalley is the FT’s arts editor
jan.dalley@ft.com

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