The last couple of years have seen a worrying surge in criminal prosecutions involving literature, whether over the offensiveness of the writing itself, or the belief that the fictional ideas expressed amount to planning notes for future real-life action - an approach that gives lie to not only a misunderstanding of art, but an apparent ignorance that art even exists.
The latter was evident in the prosecution of "lyrical terrorist" Samina Malik, who wrote poetry expressing violent Islamic fundamentalism, and more recently of Manchester schoolboys Ross McKnight and Matthew Swift, who wrote fantasies about a Columbine-style attack on their school. Both these cases were presented as planning exercises by the prosecution, despite there being no physical evidence of the means to carry out an operation and a distinct literary bent to the written evidence.
Harder to defend but perhaps more relevant to this blog is Darren Walker's story "Girls (Scream) Aloud" a violent, misogynist piece of pornographic writing about the pop group Girls Aloud posted to a specialist slash fiction website, which saw him prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act. Despite its frankly repulsive content, it actually isn't that far from "Girls (Scream) Aloud" to the violent celebrity fantasies in JG Ballard's "The Atrocity Exhibition" and "Crash". There are obvious differences in execution and content (not to mention quality), but it is difficult to deny Walker's claim that he similarly intended his work to be satire. The ambiguity of intent rears its head time and time again in censorship prosecutions, and gives lie to the difficulty of reducing art to objective legal terms and definitions.
In an intelligent opinion piece in Saturday's Guardian David Edgar asserts that it isn't actually a failure of logic - whether confusing fiction and reality, or attempting to bend artistic ambiguity into a black and white legal framework - that drives these prosecutions, rather an attitude that doesn't attach any importance to art, to the point of it being acceptable to ban or prosecute over a piece of work if there is the mere possibility of it being harmful. It's not an angle I've considered before, but does make sense in a country that has regularly banned art in the past on a seemingly ad-hoc basis for cheap political gain.
We can take hope from the fact that none of the three cases outlined above resulted in a successful conviction; but that the prosecutions went ahead on such spurious evidence reveals not only a disregard of whether it was right or wrong to do so, but an uncaring attitude to the effect it will have on the lives of the defendants, now tarred for life as terrorists, weirdos and perverts. Not surprising that a hostile attitude to art should extend to the artists themselves, but forgive me if I find the mentality behind it much more frightening than anything the defendants themselves produced.