The Limits of the Rights of Artistic Expression

By James Humpish

I believe in unrestricted access to books, films, television programmes and music. There are moments when it is appropriate to restrict those under the age of 18 from access, but I can’t see why any autonomous adult cannot utilise any form of artistic expression whenever desired.

Yet, The Human Centipede series made me question my belief in this liberty.

The Human Centipede II is one of the most horrific productions I have ever encountered – not so much because of the direct fear it instilled, but rather because of the potential actions I imagine a depiction of such depravity could inspire.

Comparing the film to the previous instalment, The Human Centipede, my disgust increased with the second film’s amplified gore and brutality. The grimness of stapling as a means of adjoining each victim to one another rather than sewing, as in the original, felt as sharp to the vision as it was dulling to the heart. The use of black-and-white film rather than colour only served to highlight the explicitness of the gore. The original film is presented as a film-within-a-film, and in The Human Centipede II the first instalment of the series serves to inspire the antagonist. This revelation is double-edged as it further fictionalises the original concept, but also provokes the idea that the first film can motivate the horrors of the second. The second features the tagline ‘100% medically inaccurate’ as opposed to the former’s ‘100% medically accurate’, but that gives little comfort as the viewer is confronted with the visual nature of its subject matter. I couldn’t help but wonder if the existence of this work was justifiable; there are graphic depictions of violence, rape, and child abuse. I couldn’t help but feel that the film should be banned.

However, the British Board of Film Classification permitted an 18 certificate, contingent to the cutting of 32 video fragments which totalled 2 minutes and 37 seconds.

I watched the film mainly because I wanted to see if its extremity warranted the hype. I should have been careful with what I wished for.

I was just over seventeen years old when I watched The Human Centipede II. It’s difficult to believe that besides vague scepticism from the shop assistant as to whether I was actually 18, it was just warning via word-of-mouth that obstructed my viewing. I had already seen the first one, rated it as vile, and yet I was quite content to explore the second in spite of my belief that it would feature heightened horror.

The film certainly lives up to the maxim that a sequel is never as good as the original. The original was highly disturbing, but its successor was considerably worse. How am I to interpret my fortunes on the evening that I viewed The Human Centipede II with two of my friends, both of whom claimed to have felt similar distress at the film’s content?

I actually consider us quite lucky to have been able to watch The Human Centipede II.

Amongst the books, poems, and films that have influenced me positively—in that I have adopted mantras, philosophies and perspectives propagated by them—are Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Steven Chbosky’s The Perks of Being A Wallflower, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Van Sant’s Milk, and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Each makes a contribution towards a discussion which might have some bearing on people’s gain and utility. Each has been banned in at least one country at one point in time. Those who deemed Chbosky’s use of gratuitous sex, and drug-filled, paedophilic scenes as inappropriate forgot that he also asserts a message that one should participate more in life and avoid shyness. Salinger inserts moments of teenage profanity and a tackling of sexuality, which authorities decided was enough to ban the text, ignoring that his text also teaches valuable lessons in the unpredictability of the human experience; the tension between the expectations others have upon someone and who they actually want to be. And against the tide of authoritative opinion on what was suitable for public consumption, Kundera highlights his political misgivings in his depiction of Czechoslovakia under communist rule, whilst at the same time focusing on the aesthetic nature of the human feeling.

There are reasons as to why the bans were warranted, but were they justifiable? What gives someone the authority to ban artistic material?

The first part of this article runs the risk of begging the question that censorship does actually have a place in modern society. Should we have universal access to all content, when it could include scenes of extreme horror? Especially considering the media’s capacity to influence people’s thinking, beliefs, and even actions?

Murderers Andrew Conley and Håvard Nyfløt claimed that their actions were influenced by the eponymous serial killer in Dexter. Jose Calvillo and Jose Martinez-Romero’s exposed methamphetamine business was inspired by Breaking Bad; the stuffed toy main character, Walter White, was found at the scene of arrest. However, I can’t help but feel that these criminal’s appraisal for these characters has little bearing on their motivations. I consider their appreciation of Dexter and Breaking Bad a mere symptom of what they would have been capable of anyway.

Popular culture now embraces the anti-hero. There is a rise in sexual imagery, drug use, defiance of cultural norms, and violence depicted in art across a mass spectrum of media.

Perhaps we are experiencing a moral decline between generations. We think of our ascendants as stuffy and conservative, desperate to maintain the status quo. Yet we are proud of the state of affairs we have established – we consider ourselves to have found the equilibrium. In the year 2064, will The Human Centipede II be considered relatively tame? What of The Human Centipede III which is being released later this year? Director Tom Six has promised that the next installment ‘will make the last one look like a Disney film’ – and to follow the tagline trend will be dubbed ‘100% politically incorrect’. I don’t doubt that it will live up to expectations.

A vast amount of the media considered socially acceptable would historically have been deemed racy. I feel like the evolution of social tolerance  and acceptance has been reflected in the media as part of a realisation of how things ought to be.

Having considered films and books, one need only look at the ground broken by television in the past few decades to see the reflecting, and potentially the shaping, of cultural norms. The 1970s All in the Family tackled issues previously considered unsuitable for a family sitcom. Roots gave a portrayal of slavery and racism in history which was in conjunction with shifting perceptions about multicultural societies. The 1980s The Kids of Degrassi Street and 1994-5 My So-Called Life introduced problems encountered by teenagers in a realistic portrayal, each featuring anxiety, relationship issues, drug use, teenage pregnancy, and homosexuality as present in the typical lives of young people. Russell T Davies’ brilliant 1999-2000 Queer as Folk gave a central role to gay characters and broke stereotypical impressions, paving the way for subsequent gay characters in everyday television, in which sexuality is shown as not defining a person. Once upon a time none of these programmes would have been considered acceptable for mainstream television. Could these examples of changing attitudes and beliefs in television, film, and literature be on a par with an artistic piece which is disturbing – something which genuinely crosses the line, such as the surgical abuse of human prisoners as in The Human Centipede films?

I don’t think so.

In 1776, Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations. In 1859, Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of Species. Both have been contested, both became central strands of the subjects they were relevant to. Both managed to revolutionise global thinking. And yet they only revealed what was already there: the former the sensibility of free markets, the latter the theory of evolution. Though in these cases, I highlight non-fictional works, I fail to see how the degree of influence that the literature inspired and continues to inspire is not  akin to the impact and influence that art also achieves.

The degree to which the works highlighted above are influential seems to be because they unveiled truths in an expressive and artistic form. The Catcher in the Rye is perhaps the most famous recent example, the book being banned nationwide in schools in the USA. However, even though the authorities may have cited Holden Caulfield as a negative role model, it is only because teenagers may have already wanted to think, or feel, or be like Holden. They were just being prevented from fully interacting with the character. It is in this way that I can reconcile my feelings for The Human Centipede series with the belief that it will not in itself inspire a shift in what we find acceptable. I think the examples of fiction being blamed for the misdeeds of criminals is either demonstrative of outliers, insignificant results, or indeed evidence of symptoms rather than causes. I believe that the freedom to expression via the medium of art should be encouraged; the consumer should be left to personally decide what is right.

In one of the most appraised television shows, which highlighted many of the changes in modern society during the transition into the twenty-first century, conservative Italian-American mafia capo and archetypal father-figure Tony Soprano struggles and at times actually manages to break the surface of his own environment to consider his views on race, sexuality, and the state of the world.

We have our values, we have our expressions, and we have our art. We also have boundaries which certain depictions can test. Through a free market of art we can individually decide what is and what is not good for us, free from government powers. We make mistakes, but they are our own. They are sincere. I am glad that I have been exposed to an array of different depictions – some beneficial and others detrimental to me – which factor into my psyche and result from the freedom of being allowed to be who I truly am and to discover who that is.

I can’t say this for certain, but I think there’s a chance I will watch The Human Centipede III. I don’t think I’ll enjoy it, and I’m pleased there are no plans for a fourth film. But whilst someone envisions this art and is motivated to create it, I am pleased that I have the option to choose whether or not to explore it, and I feel safe that its messages will not be accepted as normative behaviour.

James Humpish is a Philosophy, Politics and Economics student at the University of York.

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One thought on “The Limits of the Rights of Artistic Expression

  1. Hello James. This is an excellent article, well written, sophisticated and elegant. I look forward to everything else that you write. By the way, would you like to come to my house and watch the third installment with me for my birthday?

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