To cut or not to cut...
Mario de Marco, in his capacity as Minister of Culture, has cut the Gordian Knot which, ever since the controversial Duchess of Malfi incident all those years ago, had remained unresolved.
What is being proposed is that instead of a censorship board or the police being ultimately responsible for the “classification” of works of art, particularly dramatic ones, the responsibility will shift to the Malta Council for the Arts but only in extremis. The upshot of the reform, which, till now, only mentions dramatic productions per se, is that a form of self-classification will be encouraged.
This reminds me of the Idomeneo incident at the Berlin Opera a couple of years ago when the board of directors “censored” a production of this Mozartian gem for fear of attracting reprisals from the Muslim community. It was, in fact, Angela Merkel herself who intervened and insisted that the production be staged in its original form. This is where and how self censorship can go awry.
We are a nation of hypocrites. We profess belonging four-square to the Catholic Church, yet, many of us harbour racist sentiments of the extreme kind that would certainly make angels hide their faces. We made a pig’s dinner out of the divorce issue with anathemas and fatwas flying like missiles over an ever-shrinking No Man’s Land and, yet, within a couple of months, cohabitation is being introduced without a murmur!
So before we go further in a discussion like this let all those who purport to be crusaders of public morality forever hold their peace.
I am delighted that this step has been taken. It is a bold step; the last frontier perhaps in the attainment of artistic freedom on this island which, before the advent of TV and internet, was culturally backward and mentally introspective.
As we saw only too well, a centuries old play, The Duchess of Malfi was “censored” not because of its text, which, by the way is full of Protestant anti papal sentiment, but because of the particular cheek by jowl production, which had the baited and tormented duchess kick a crucifix across the stage. Not a pretty sight; far from it, but one that brought the extreme emotional anguish to a shattering climax. This, incidentally, was not in the Webster text but was introduced by the direction.
It is, therefore, not only the text of a play that needs to be censored by whoever but also the production. What is to stop a production of Antony and Cleopatra from simulating an orgy? Who can object to a production of Othello from being racist? Both interpretations can be argued to be valid ones.
How long is a piece of string? And this does not only apply to staged works, of course. We seem to have forgotten that a couple of years ago an exhibition was not put up because it was deemed to be inappropriate. Only last Friday we read an article about Vodafone’s current advertising campaign. There are people who have objected to it.
We have to learn how to take all this unloading of bigoted baggage in our stride and overcome it. Self-censorship is not going to be easy. It is also, in its initial stages, going to rely heavily on whoever and whatever is set up at the MCA to arbitrate in extreme cases.
Can a group of artists decide to have an exhibition of erotica without having the establishment come down on them like a ton of bricks? The demarcation line between what is art, what is erotica and what is simple porn is extremely tenuous.
Look at many of Egon Schiele’s works or even Aubrey Beardsley’s to know that, yes, erotica has been in the public eye for a long time. More recently, the works of Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso reveal a sensuality that is translated into the depiction of sex, which is, or should be, the ultimate form of life for without it where would we be? Look at Courbet’s 1866 painting L’Origine du Monde.
Contemporary artists like John Currin, Odd Nerdrum or Jeff Koons have all depicted works that, by some, would be described as sheer pornography.
What would happen if, for instance, the Ministry of Culture and the French Embassy were to organise an exhibition of Picasso’s Vollard Suite? Probably nothing but, then, should Kenneth Zammit Tabona exhibit his small erotic pen and ink drawings what would happen? What if the Manoel Theatre were to stage the Covent Garden production of Richard Strauss’s Salome with its naked and blood bespattered executioner? And, yet, he is physically no different from the Neptune statue in Piazza della Signoria.
There are many so-called patrons of the art who think that art is all about familiar lines of beauty that do not place viewers and audiences out of their accustomed comfort zones. There are, however, a zillion art forms, many of which are thought-provoking and which cannot achieve their aim of making one think unless comfort zones are destroyed and new frontiers created.
I welcome the very bold step taken by the ministry and hope that this will pave the way to establish new attitudes, new opinions, new mentalities, which will wake up desensitised minds to think for themselves and ask themselves: Why are they here? What are they doing? Where are they going?’
Instead of living out the life of a blinkered camel going round in never-ending circles grinding corn remember that the Almighty gave us a brain. The Almighty gave us the ability to create art and literature. The Almighty gave us the sensitivity to sense beauty in ugliness and poetry in the mundane.
Let us learn how to open our minds even more and open up to new ideas and allow people to think for themselves.
The author is deputy chairman of the Manoel Theatre board of direction and artistic director of the Malta Baroque Festival, which kicks off in January 2013.