ANOTHER VIEW

The unimportance of being earnest

The view was expressed that sex was fine, that censorship was bad, that art was art, that the human body was a beautiful thing

CHARLES GORDON May 20 1991
ANOTHER VIEW

The unimportance of being earnest

The view was expressed that sex was fine, that censorship was bad, that art was art, that the human body was a beautiful thing

CHARLES GORDON May 20 1991

The unimportance of being earnest

ANOTHER VIEW

The view was expressed that sex was fine, that censorship was bad, that art was art, that the human body was a beautiful thing

CHARLES GORDON

A terrible solemnity seems to be coming over us. Some will attribute it to the times, to the constitutional unpleasantness of the past couple of years or to the recession. But maybe we just have a need to be solemn; maybe it is just the kind of people we are, to have to look for things to be solemn about.

Heaven knows, there is no shortage, for those so inclined. The country is in fairly bad shape; the planet is in worse. But the truly solemn person needs neither economic crisis nor global catastrophe. Just about anything will do.

The other night the Canadian music-video channel, MuchMusic, had a panel discussion about two music videos. When you see panel discussions on MuchMusic, you know solemnity is floating in the air. This panel discussion was about two music videos that MuchMusic had been refusing to play, one by the Quebec singer Mitsou, the other by the American megasomething, Madonna.

The discussion was on why the videos were banned—if “banned” is the word—whether they should continue to be banned and whether anything should be banned at all. You would have thought, from the earnest tones of the participants, that great art was being discussed, or perhaps important political ideas.

But it wasn’t anything like that. No artist had been thrown in jail, no book had been banned, no film snipped by the censors. All that happened was that MuchMusic made a decision it had the right to make and chose not to play two music videos. When political ideas are suppressed or great art is banned, solemnity is the appropriate emotion. When a private television station decides not to play a music video, it is a bit premature to saddle up the old Freedom of Expression horse.

Before the panel got to serious discussion, MuchMusic played the two music videos it had decided not to play. The videos were not exactly Lady Chatterley ’s Lover. Mitsou’s was harmless enough, except for a bit of nudity that might have offended some people, perhaps on behalf of their children. Madonna’s was ugly and dumb, featuring some creepy-looking people of occasionally indeterminate sex planting kisses on various parts of each other in a hotel room. No one will remember a single lyric of either song six months, or six hours, from now.

But because this is a solemn age, MuchMusic’s decision not to include either video in its regular programming became an issue. Moses Znaimer, the president of MuchMusic, made a solemn introductory statement, defending, as if it were needed, the station’s right to play what it wanted and not to play what it didn’t want to play. The panel—a writer for a weekly entertainment newspaper, a spokesperson from MuchMusic, the writer and broadcaster Daniel Richler, Mitsou herself and a representative of the Toronto Roman Catholic archdiocese—was introduced. The videos having been played, the solemn discussion began.

The view was expressed in the panel discussion that sex was fine, that censorship was bad, that art was art, that the human body was a beautiful thing. The poor fellow from the Catholic church was attacked from all quarters for failing to recognize the art of Mitsou and Madonna. He was held responsible for every dubious action of his church in the past decade and jeered for expressing the opinion that the videos might not be suitable for little children to see on their television sets.

The discussion had a familiar ring, the one heard in every censorship battle this century, it would appear. But the battle lines have shifted a bit. This is no school board keeping great books away from children; this is no arbitrary officialdom holding up ideas at the border. It is a private television station deciding on its programming. And the objects of the supposed censorship are not great books, or even good books or even fair movies. They are music videos, little promotional films meant to sell records: young women dance around and pretend to sing; young men dance around and pretend to be interested in the young women.

It is hard to think of any duel of ideas taking place on this battleground. It is hard to recognize any ideas at all. Yet the battles seem to be taking place, with the participants thinking, or pretending, that they are about something important. We have a need to be solemn.

The media, the membership rolls of which swell by the minute, have a need for controversy. Madonna has a talent—some would say her only one—for self-promotion, and a need for publicity. The two needs meet and satisfy each other. There is nothing, these days, like the threat of censorship, real or imagined, to create headlines and create lineups at the box office.

That would not happen if we were not so solemn. To take another example, the infamous novel by Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho, has had its sales helped immensely by people earnestly trying to prevent it from selling. It is at least possible that had the book been allowed to slip quietly onto the market, the marketplace would have taken care of it. No muss, no fuss; another book sinks like a stone.

Instead, American Psycho and the attempts to prevent its publication and distribution became a big story. And American Psycho became a big book. There is nothing fair about that, but there is something inevitable.

Several forces are at work that may always be at work. First, the media cannot resist taking pictures of people like Madonna and writing down every stupid thing they say. We just can’t help ourselves. Second, people— some well-meaning, some not—feel this irresistible urge to do something whenever some new outrage hits the cinema, the library or the home screen. Third, other people will saddle up old Freedom of Expression and go riding off to sound the alarm at the slightest provocation. We have not seen our last phoney controversy.

While everyone loves a good row, the phoney controversy does more harm than good. Just as good ideas survive attempts to suppress them, so do bad ideas. Bad ideas are probably helped, as Ernst Zundel could tell you. Madonna is no Ernst Zundel. If there is an injustice in her case, it is that great rewards are going to her, while more talented people starve for lack of the gift of controversy.

Charles Gordon is a columnist with The Ottawa Citizen.