Borderlining and Sedition


In 1930, the Australian Customs Service banned Norman Lindsay’s novel Redheap. In 1929, the same process had banned James Joyce’s Ulysses, so while there was shock at the brutality of censoring an Australian novel, the act itself was not a surprise.

Until relatively recently, Australia did a good line in censorship of anything risqué (see Nicole Moore’s Secrets of the Censors: Obscenity in the Archives, link here). At one stage, Australia was competing with the Republics of Ireland and South Africa for the most absurd list of ‘immoral’ banned books. While there were long and angry campaigns at the time fought against those whose aesthetic ideal was white sliced bread in a kind of trans-continental Pleasantville anger alone did not defeat the censors.

Nor was it simply that the times changed and freedoms were granted by a suddenly enlightened government. Censorship policies changed towards freedom because the mood of the country changed. The particular tactics of the mood-changers did not depend on petitions or marchers, but on an asymmetrical war of ideas and actions. The War Against Censorship was led by writers, artists, journalists, lawyers, and even the odd politician. They were the kind of people more commonly regarded as thinkers and drinkers their weapons were words while their tactics are best described as opportunistic.

‘Lee Harvey Oswald Fan Club’           photomontage by Lawrence Finn

Now that the Howard Government has succeeded in making Australia a place of terror and sedition, where unionists are preparing to go to jail for rights achieved in the 19th century, it is worth looking at past wars, to see how the bullies were defeated and to see if there are lessons that can be drawn from historical successes.

With regard to moral censorship, the national mood changed in advance of the laws. Television, mass air travel, and most importantly post-war immigration, softened the edges of the rigid, Protestant-dominated ruling class. In 1958, some mildly salacious books were released, including Redheap. However, Redheap’s publication was as dishonest as its original ban. It had never been banned because of obscenity but because it was defamatory and when the person who was the main victim of the defamation died, the ban was lifted. Censorship serves to conceal the very reasons for its existence.

Talking and lobbying, was not enough to effect real change in Australia’s ‘morality.’ That took direct action. In 1961, Edwards & Shaw, a small left-wing publishing house based in Sussex Street, Sydney, published a banned book, The Trial of Lady Chatterley, and with that single act of defiance the law was rendered impotent.

The book was about another banned book, DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The previous year Penguin Books had decided to test the long-standing ban on Lawrence’s book by seeing if it could be published under the new Obscene Publications Act. The book was found to have literary merit and was freed. The Trial of Lady Chatterley was the book of the court case, and was instantly banned in Australia as an obscene import.

Because Australia is an island with a small publishing market, censorship was run by the Department of Customs. Incoming passengers were routinely searched for both contraband food and salacious ideas (in material form). On one occasion this led to comedy when a children’s story book, Fun in Bed, was seized because a Customs officer thought that the players were adult. However, there were few restrictions on books actually printed in the country, and this was the loophole used to free The Trial of Lady Chatterley.

Years later the artist Rod Shaw, one half of Edwards & Shaw, told me how they smuggled the master copy of the book into the country by posting it, page by page, as personal mail to avoid Customs inspection. By the time the authorities realised what had happened, the book was already out in the marketplace, and the battle had been won. Over the next five years many banned books were quietly released into the public domain without any noticeable effect on morality.

The late, great Jessica Mitford used to call this kind of provocative pressing at the barriers of those who would constrain us, ‘borderlining.’ The reality is that the government holds its power only by the consent of the governed. If enough people refuse to comply with an unjust law, or hold the lawmakers up to ridicule and contempt, then that law fails. Every time real pressure is applied the border shifts towards liberation. Likewise, every time people acquiesce to official intimidation, the border becomes stronger.

In the years after publication of The Trial of Lady Chatterley, some free-thinking art students joined with some equally free-thinking university students to create Oz magazine a magazine that came to define the new liberation of the 1960s. It gloriously lampooned the hypocrisies of middle Australia while mocking politicians and police (link here).

In 1964, the Oz editors were tried on the charge of obscenity on the basis of one story, ‘Gas Lash,’ a parodic account of rape that, from memory, mocked the prurience of the Sunday Mirror, a newspaper that thrived on stories of gang bangs and wife swapping. The Oz defendants were sentenced to six months hard labour.

However, once the case reached the Supreme Court it became a test on the ability of a piece of writing to ‘deprave and corrupt’ (link here). The lawyers and the defending philosophers had such an erudite conversation that the sentence was quashed. Although the Supreme Court began overturning charges of obscenity, magistrates were still a problem. For the rest of the decade there was almost a guarantee that a particular NSW magistrate, Gerald Locke, would take any opportunity to prosecute a creative work for obscenity.

In 1966, the artist Mike Brown was charged with exhibiting indecent paintings and appeared before Locke who sentenced him to three months hard labour. On appeal, this became a $20 fine and a good behaviour bond. In 1973, an artist in a performance piece by Tim Burns was arrested when he walked naked through the Art Gallery of New South Wales, but was acquitted when it was successfully argued that the exhibition was the kind of place which would only attract specialist viewers. By constantly provoking the police and the magistrates, the artists succeeded in changing the law.

As those who attended the recent ‘SEDITION!’ performance (on November 13) at the Sydney Theatre know, our actors and scriptwriters have a highly developed sense of ridicule. This week, visual artists converged on Liverpool’s Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre to create an exhibition in the same spirit (organised by Nick Tsoutas). Some of the artists are extremely well known. There is work by Richard Larter, a veteran of the censorship wars of the 1960s, Elizabeth Pulie, Adam Cullen who won the Archibald Prize a few years ago, and Tony Schwenson whose performance piece embedding his feet in concrete is seriously unnerving.

Eugenia Raskopoulos has recorded a performance that gives new meaning to the term ‘Pissing on Australia,’ while Laurence Finn has a postcard that could be said to urge violence towards a man responsible for the death of tens of thousands of people he never met socially.

Possibly the most subversive work in the exhibition is by an anonymous artist and wa
s distributed at the opening for the price of a coin. It is an advertisement for the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre entitled ‘No Visa Application Required.’ The glory of it is that it uses both the language and the graphics of the Department of Immigration (DIMIA).

By Anonymous

These responses are just the start. Every day and in every possible way irresponsible laws should be not just broken, but held up to ridicule and contempt. As Jessica Mitford once said, ‘You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty’ (link here).

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.