Notes from the final session of Chance-Dream-Desire-Taboo
What is a taboo? Something that is prohibited by a particular society, culture or subculture. Not everything that is prohibited merits the term 'taboo'. Taboo carries with it a particular kind of abhorrence and those who break taboos are usually ostracised. In discussion some people suggested there was a distinction to be made between very widely held taboos (e.g. against incest) which might have evolutionary explanations. and those which were much more local, idiosyncratic and obviously socially determined.
Religions often have taboos - some dietary. There are also many taboos connected with particular kinds of sexuality and sexual acts, such as paedophilia, incest (more on this here), necrophilia, bestiality and so on.
Freud connects taboo with the unconscious. The reason for their being a taboo against, for example, a father having sex with his daughter, is that at some unconscious level both might desire this.
The Surrealists, as part of their project of unleashing desire, engaged freely with taboos. Many of the Surealists approved the work of the Marquis de Sade which was famous for its almost mathematical working through and inversion of the various sexual taboos. Perhaps the most extreme examples of this tradition occur in George Bataille's The Story of the Eye which is a scatological novella in which, for example, a couple run over a body, almost decapitating its head, revel in the beauty of the torn flesh, and then engage in a masturbatory scene that involves urination. The climax of the book is the murder of a priest while he is being raped by a woman, who then gets her accomplice to cut out his eye and insert it into her vagina. Here Bataille is self-consciously disgusting the reader with his provocative descriptions. The artists Hans Bellmer drew illustrations for this book. .
Bellmer is, however, more famous for his photographs of composite dolls (dolls made up by joining parts from other dolls), many of which are, broken or twisted in what looks to have been an act of sexual violence (there is a very interesting article about Bellmer by Sue Taylor here). Bellmer's doll photographs are included in the final room of the Surreal Things Exhibition. These are more subtle engagements with taboos than his illustrations for The Story of the Eye. But they nevertheless maintain the power to shock in their combination of violence and perhaps even implied paedophilia. They are also fascinating and uncanny (exploiting the Surrealist's familiar trope of using mannequins for their near-living qualities). Their effect on viewers is probably largely at an unconscious level.
The discussion of the Surrealists' use of taboo led on to questions about the limits on artistic expression, specifically the circumstances in which it might be approrpriate to censor a work of art. Plato famously censored representational art both on the grounds that it was deceptive (because it did not picture True Reality adequately) and, more pertinently here, because some art had a pernicious effect on the audience or performer (as, for example, when an actor reads a first person account of evil). The Surrealists' open depiction of taboo acts and topics was, they believed, a prophylactic against these things producing evil effects; but it could be argued that they might just as easily be a trigger to some evil...
John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (1859) is the classic defence of the liberal idea that free expression brings with it many benefits, but that some limits must still be put on it, namely it should be limited when there is a risk that the expression will lead to someone else being harmed. The relevant chapter is here. In his example, you can complain in a newspaper article about corn dealers pushing up the prices, but if you stand with a placard reading 'Corn Dealers Are Starvers of the Poor' on the steps of a corndealer's house before an angry mob, this is an incitement to violence and can appropriately be prevented. Mill was largely concerned with the written and spoken word, and notoriously was somewhat imprecise about what 'harm' meant (though he did take pains to argue that its causing offence was not sufficient justification for anything being censored). In contrast with Mill, some religious believers argue that anything that offends against their religion should be suppressed. When Mayor of New York City, Giuliani in 1999 took legal action against the display of Chris Ofili's picture of Mary in Brooklyn on the grounds that his use of cut out pornographic photographs and elephant dung in the pictures was disrespectful to Catholocism, this was an example of religious offence being used as justification for artistic censorship of publicly funded galleries. Other famously provocative art works such as Serrano's 'Piss Christ', Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses, and the play 'Behtzi' have provoked a similar backlash.
One major difficulty in this area is that art as we know it now frequently works in opposition to the status quo (social and artistic - see, fo rexample,the list of visual artists linked at the end of this piece on taboo) - challenging it, mocking it, parodying it, presenting alternative visions: we should expect it to be challenging and some art would not achieve its aims if it weren't permitted to shock...Furthermore some people see the freedom to challenge prevailing views and attitudes as a basic pre-requisite for a successful democracy: without the possiblity of presenting alternatives, and ridiculing dearly-held views (even if ultimately the prevailing views prove correct), there won't be the free market in ideas which is necessary for a flourishing democratic society.