As purveyors of filth and obscenity we know we’re lucky. We live in a century, and a part of the world, where we can get away with it.
Had we lived in different times, we’d have felt the full force of the law. A few hundred years ago, we may have been punished with the scold’s bridle. Or been ducked in the pond. Or humiliated in the stocks. Or burnt as witches.
People are still prosecuted for obscenity in the UK. It’s been argued that in a world of online pornography and changing social mores that the 1959 Obscene Publications Act is something of an anachronism. But the Act was always problematic. It hinges on very subjective responses.
In 1966, Leeds-based artist Stass Paraskos was fined for lewd and obscene paintings. But even back then, the courts had to use a different law to prosecute him. The Vagrancy Act of the 19th Century included clauses about “wilfully exposing to view in any street or public place, any obscene print, picture or other indecent exhibition”. It was that under which he was prosecuted.
The court case was widely criticised. Many suggested that had the exhibition been in London rather than in provincial Leeds, no one would have batted an eyelid. Eminent art critics tried to explain to the court that displaying a painting of a sexual act in public was not the same as actually having sex in public. Prominent MPs spoke out on his behalf, and criticising the prosecution. But it all fell on deaf ears, and Paraskos was fined £5.
The actual painting is barely lewd at all. There’s a bit of full frontal, but no more that your average Renaissance painting. And yes there’s a bit more to it than that. But you have to be looking for it. Which says something about the person who originally alerted the police. And the irony is that he produced far more naughty work after his prosecution!
The offending painting is currently on exhibition at The Tetley gallery in Leeds: Stass Paraskos: Lovers and Romances