Sunday, 8 March 2015

For the Daughters of Ishtar

Here's a difficult position to defend: the celebration that 'theatre with nudity is exempt from sex license law' is a depressing example of how people within the arts regard themselves as somehow above the law, but also how they flagrantly fail to apply their hope for 'freedom of expression' to anyone outside their sacred circle.

I've been following the 'air weapons and licensing bill' with increasing alarm for the past six months. My main complaint has been that a bill designed to control scrap metal and guns does not do justice to the complexity of licensing issues around 'venues designed for sexual entertainment'. It reads like a tacked-on clause, making this bill a general moral grand-standing rather than a serious attempt to consider the role and consequences of lap-dancing on society. 

This isn't a defence of lap-dancing clubs, nor is it a condemnation of a political body simultaneously expanding its power to define entertainment without taking moral responsibility (I'll get to that elsewhere). 

This is a short expression of irritation at the way that theatre has begged for special exemptions from a law, rather than considering the law's implications.

Jon Morgan, director of the Federation of Scottish Theatre, told the committee last month that this could affect performances at the Edinburgh Festival which contain nudity or explore issues such as pornography.

And The Scotsman's article goes on to describe how Mr Matheson recognised this danger and would include provisions to protect performances.

Interestingly, one of the examples Morgan gave was Sister, a well-received show which, among other issues, attempted to justify sex-work and present sex-workers (including lap-dancers) in a more positive light. It was described as a legitimate work of art (which it is) that might be censored by the legislation. 

However, Morgan's example reveals the problem. During the show, the sisters are naked and perform two lap dances on audience members, presumably of the same sort seen in 'sexual entertainment venues'. The work, which was designed to open up the conversation about how lap-dancers are regarded has become a totem for the defence of 'high-art' and an argument for a division between what happens in the club and the theatre. 

In other words, art that intended to defend lap-dancers has become a weapon to reduce them to a lower level in a moral hierarchy.

Over the past few years, there have been a rash of plays in the Edinburgh Fringe which take lap-dancing as their subject - some have been thoughtful reflections on the industry, others have had a voyeuristic delight in appropriating a community that justifies flashing some tits on stage. These, presumably, will not be bothered by the new bill: their framing as performance presumably gives them credibility and value. Equally, Nic Green's Fatherland, which has her doing a highland strip, will get a pass. 

Well, good for freedom of expression, but if that freedom comes with a price of 'aesthetic or moral value', it isn't freedom. As seems to be the refrain of activists for freedom of speech, it's no good allowing freedom just for things that you like, even though that pretty much seems to be as far as theatre community's pleasure at their exemption reaches. 

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