November 1644, England is gripped by civil war, the factions of the puritanical Parliamentarians and the foppish Cavaliers divide a nation. Austerity counterpoised with decadence, freedom with the oppressive rule of the old guard; has Parliament really changed all that much? Amidst the political upheaval and social turmoil John Milton publishes his Areopagitica. As an address to Parliament, the pamphlet argues in defence of the freedom of the press in response to the Licensing Order of 1643.
It is a familiar story, one we have all heard before, whether it is the painter taking knife to canvas or the writer blotting out the lines of verse. Rembrandt’s Claudius Civilis, Joyce’s Ulysses, all of them have fallen victim to the powers of state censorship. Yet today we bear witness to an equally powerful and yet infinitely more orotund form of artistic control, the censorship dictated by social mores.
The past year has demonstrated the public’s willingness, if not eagerness, to stand by whilst heterodox art is torn apart by the lip-smacking frenzy of political convention. In South Africa the artistic world was repulsed by the attempts of President Zuma to prohibit the exhibition of a painting by Brett Murray called The Spear. The image depicts Mr Zuma as a parody of Lenin, a mock-Soviet propaganda poster, the great spectacle of the piece being a flaccid penis dangling from the unbuttoned trousers of the President. Following threats to newspapers and to the host art gallery by the ruling ANC party, the painting was defaced by an angry member of the public by throwing black paint over the canvas.
In the weeks after this attack on the visual arts, the theatre became the next victim of the relentless assault from the ignorant masses. In London, The Globe hosted thirty-seven Shakespearean plays in thirty-seven different languages. When the turn came for Habima, the national theatre company of Israel, to perform The Merchant of Venice in Hebrew, the theatre was infiltrated by that particular breed of protestor that we all despise; the self-righteous , ill-informed and deluded activist. And so out came the banners and out came the shouts of ‘Free Palestine’.
This is not a debate regarding the issue of the Israeli and Palestinian people. This is a debate of whether it is right that social consensus can justify the smothering of artistic expression. Did these protestors not think that just maybe these actors might not be a group of extreme Zionists who advocate the occupation of Palestine? Did they not consider that The Merchant of Venice is in fact a play concerned with oppression, economic subjugation and social division comparable to that experienced by the people of Gaza? No. Instead of appreciating the subtlety of art, instead of respecting art as a method of exploring subjective ideas, the theatre was exposed to the usual mindless chuntering of the self-proclaimed freedom fighter. The play was stopped and intellectual stimulation suffocated by the disapproval of a narrow minded few.
The power of art must be appreciated today more than ever. Contemporary politics finds itself locked in stalemate. As Europe stagnates, Africa starves and the people of the Middle East are eviscerated by their fellow man, art provides the opportunity to escape the whirligig of the here and now, to stop and to contemplate ideas that can change how we live and how we think. Milton understood this more than most. As England verged on self-annihilation, he understood that for humanity to avoid atrophy and to pursue progress one cannot simply join the regimented party lines of Puritan or Cavalier, of Conservative or Socialist. The words of Areopagitica defending independent thought and inquiry resonates in our ears as much as they did when Milton first published them nearly four hundred years ago; as ‘he who kills a man kills a reasonable creature…but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself’.