Helene Guldberg reports on the strange case of Robert Mapplethorpe, the chemist, the policeman, and the university vice-chancellor
When West Midlands Police confiscated a book from the library stock of the University of Central England (UCE) in Birmingham, it raised anew fears about the state encroaching on publishing and academic freedoms. Mapplethorpe, a book containing photographs by the late Robert Mapplethorpe, has been referred to the Crown Prosecution Service for a decision on whether it should be destroyed under the terms of the Obscene Publications Act.
But who is the CPS to decide whether the images contained in a book are too 'obscene' for other adults to see? The problem with the term 'obscene' is that it is so malleable and open to subjective interpretation; one person's filth is another's erotica and yet another's subject of ridicule. Yet the authorities have decided that there is a higher arbiter on this matter. By law a publication can be deemed 'obscene' if the police and courts say that it will have the effect of tending 'to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it'.
Dr Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the UCE, does not feel too comfortable discussing his views on the law in question. He told me he 'may be constrained by legal considerations from commenting too deeply on this issue!' But he will state 'the obvious fact that it would be surprising if a law formulated in 1959 still serves society well in 1998. If we think only of sexual issues it is interesting that a photograph of a sexual act may be illegal even when the act itself is legal'.
Mapplethorpe's work, with its focus on homoerotic imagery, has always been controversial. But the book in question has been in the public domain in this country since 1992. It can be found in libraries and book shops around the country. So how could it now suddenly be deemed in danger of 'depraving and corrupting' the minds of young adults at one university?
It started last year when a student at the university, in the course of preparing a piece of work entitled 'Fine Art versus Pornography', took a film containing photographs of images in the book to a local chemist to be developed. Putting questions of copyright to one side, the only charge the student expected to arise was the bill for the prints. But as Bernard Naylor, a university librarian, points out, 'Julia Somerville could have told [the student] about the unwisdom of sending camera shots depicting certain areas of naked human flesh (however juvenile) for developing'.
The chemist took responsibility for much more than developing the photographs. He appointed himself censor, scrutinising the content and then forwarding the negatives to the police. The UCE library was raided and the book confiscated. The publishing company, Random House, was also invited to excise the two photographs deemed to be 'obscene' from the book, or alternatively, remove the entire book from publication.
Dr Peter Knight has vowed to 'resist the destruction of the Mapplethorpe publication'. As he says, 'access to a wide range of visual images is an important and integral part of the curriculum for students studying Art and Design and it is our view that any attempt to restrict that curriculum should be stopped'. The University Senate, believing that 'principles are priceless', backed the vice-chancellor. Gail Rebuck, the chief executive of Random House, refused to withdraw the 'obscene' photographs from the public domain. She has said she hopes that 'sense will ultimately prevail', since she is 'astonished that a scholarly work of such acknowledged artistic and literary merit should be at risk of prosecution'.
The attitude of the UCE and Random House is heartening - as was reading the messages of support on the UCE website (www.uce.ac.uk/mapplethorpe/comment/you.htm). Typical comments slam 'this attempt at censorship, by an organisation which has no right to act as moral guardians for this or any other generation', and praise the UCE for its 'sanity' in 'standing up for civil liberty and human rights'.
The attempt to destroy the Mapplethorpe book is contemptible and insulting. But was it a one-off, or does it mark a new assault on pub-lishing and academic freedom? Certain other publishers have found themselves on the wrong end of the Obscene Publications Act recently. Yet the heavy-handed police measures against a respected institution like the UCE were highly unusual. Dr Peter Knight said that he had 'never known anything like this in 30 years of academic life'. 'I have not detected any other comparable problems', Dr Knight told me, 'but, who knows, perhaps they will now start'.
Or perhaps they have already started? It would be a mistake to think that the blunt instrument which the authorities used in Birmingham is the only threat to freedom of expression. The thinking behind the action of the chemist and the police - that there are certain things too offensive to be seen or read, even in broad-minded academic institutions - is a commonly held idea these days. As a consequence, there are now more subtle and insidious attacks on ideas and books deemed beyond the pale - attacks which provoke far less opposition than a police raid to grab
a Mapplethorpe book, often because they are justified in the name of defending the 'vulnerable'.
I became acutely aware of this a couple of years ago when I found myself having to defend the right of a former lecturer of mine, Chris Brand, to publish and express his views - however objectionable they may be. Brand was somebody I was happy to see the back of when I left the University of Edinburgh. Yet in 1996, when a publisher withdrew a book of Brand's and a campaign started to have him sacked, because of his reactionary views on race and intelligence, I publicly supported his right to publish and to teach. As Brand himself said, students attending university 'are not children that can't listen to the other point of view' (Independent on Sunday, 21 April 1996). Just as we insist that university students are mature enough to look at Mapplethorpe pictures without being corrupted, so they should certainly be treated as adults in the sphere of ideas.
While remaining ever-watchful for the tread of the policeman's boot, I fear that we need to be far more wary of the threat to academic freedom and debate now posed by the politically correct guardians of bland consensus.
Helene Guldberg is co-publisher of LM
Robert Mapplethorpe, Self-portrait, 1995
Reproduced from LM issue 110, May 1998