Suppression Can Be a Dirty Word, Too

Times Arts Editor

One penalty for having lurched past 30 (or maybe it's 12), is that you begin to detect cycles and patterns in the world around you. Nothing so basic and natural as the relentless passage of the seasons. I mean the battles you had thought were won, but weren't, the self-evident truths that don't stay evident for everybody, the divisive arguments that recur like athlete's foot or heat rash.

It seems like only yesterday that a Boston bookseller and a writer named Bernard DeVoto and one of my professors, F. O. Matthiessen, were allowing themselves to be arrested for selling and buying Lillian Smith's novel "Strange Fruit."

The book, serious and eloquent and concerned with racial relations in the South, contained one four-letter word which, it was thought, would bring the Commonwealth of Massachusetts or at least the City of Boston down in ruins. It was banned.

My memory is that the test case led to the acquitting of the book on obscenity charges, although it is true that my memory tends toward optimism. But Matthiessen, concerned with what he saw as the steady darkening of the world and the suppression of personal freedom, killed himself a half-dozen years later at 48, in the Cold War year of 1950.

It is ironic, in the light of Prof. Matthiessen's brilliant, tragically foreshortened career, that books, the theater, films, radio and television all now have a freedom of expression beyond his fondest hopes. Hardly a book above the level of "The Little Engine That Could" does not employ once-bannable language, yet no commonwealths have collapsed.

Yet that old urge to cleanse us and protect us by censorship and suppression is abroad in the land now as always. What never seems to stay evident for long is that there is a difference between what may be clearly and presently dangerous to the society and what is merely distasteful or unpopular.

And also now as always, the cures seem far more dangerous than the distasteful items they seek to eradicate.

It was historically interesting to watch the politicians rush to have their suits hand-tailored by Betsy Ross after the recent flag-burning Supreme Court ruling. Patriotism now as ever is a handy stump for those facing re-election.

Not one in ten of the pols, at a guess, could recite the circumstances of the burning. I don't remember the specifics either. But even assuming it was a call to treason, which it wasn't, it had the intellectual force of a word sprayed on a fence.

What we had here yet again was the confusion between what was distasteful (as the flag-burning was) and what was dangerous (as the flag-burning wasn't, until the politicians seized upon it as campaign fodder). The flag is a symbolic object and obviously the real danger lies in threats to the freedoms the flag symbolizes, rather than to the sewn cloth.

This blurring of distinctions has beclouded many a noisy controversy, up to and including last year's furor over "The Last Temptation of Christ."

If Martin Scorsese's film had somehow infringed on anybody's right to believe in Christ, the protesters would have had a point, but it didn't. If, in fact, anybody had bothered to look closely, the film was on its own terms thoughtful and even devout, despite scenes some of the faithful might have found distasteful. That word again.

Now the world of the arts is having to marshal its forces against the pressure of political opportunism triggered by a couple of art shows, particularly the photographs by the late Robert Mapplethorpe which reportedly (since I've not had access to them) deal with aberrant sexual tastes.

Art institutions, which necessarily spend their lives hat in hand, depending for their survival on the kindness of governmental bodies and private donors, are extremely vulnerable to political threats.

Lyndon Johnson foresaw the possibility of such threats against the institutions as well as the individual artists a quarter-century ago when he signed the legislation creating the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities. He thought the necessary protections had built in, but he may yet be proved wrong. The endowments have caught the current political heat.

Meantime, one institution found it prudent to acknowledge the protests and cancel the Mapplethorpe show. The fact that the show found a second home is reassuring, but only somewhat. It is evident that the threat to the freedom of the artist to be unpopular, confrontational and outrageous has not ended.

The court victories won in the last half-century by works as various as James Joyce's "Ulysses" and Louis Malle's "The Lovers" have greatly expanded and protected the creators' latitudes of expression. It seems unthinkable that the full constraints of the past will be revisited upon us.

The conservatives who prefer Norman Rockwell to Francis Bacon and Louisa May Alcott to John Rechy are not alone; what is at issue is the right of those who disagree with the conservatives to be left alone.

A character in a movie a few years ago said, "Sex is like housework, it never stays done." You could say the same thing about the fight to keep expression untrammelled.

As I watch the latest fight in behalf of the artists' right to speak out in whatever their medium is, I do have the feeling I've been here before. To quote the joke, it's deja vu all over again.

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