In Dirt for Art's Sake, Elisabeth Ladenson recounts the
most visible of modern obscenity trials involving scandalous books
and their authors. What, she asks, do these often-colorful legal
histories have to tell us about the works themselves and about a
changing cultural climate that first treated them as filth and
later celebrated them as masterpieces?
Ladenson's narrative starts with Madame Bovary
(Flaubert was tried in France in 1857) and finishes with Fanny
Hill (written in the eighteenth century, put on trial in the
United States in 1966); she considers, along the way, Les Fleurs du
Mal, Ulysses, The Well of Loneliness, Lady
Chatterley's Lover, Tropic of Cancer,
Lolita, and the works of the Marquis de Sade. Over the
course of roughly a century, Ladenson finds, two ideas that had
been circulating in the form of avant-garde heresy gradually became
accepted as truisms, and eventually as grounds for legal defense.
The first is captured in the formula "art for art's sake"-the
notion that a work of art exists in a realm independent of
conventional morality. The second is realism, vilified by its
critics as "dirt for dirt's sake." In Ladenson's view, the truth of
the matter is closer to -dirt for art's sake-"the idea that the
work of art may legitimately include the representation of all
aspects of life, including the unpleasant and the sordid.
Ladenson also considers cinematic adaptations of these novels,
among them Vincente Minnelli's Madame Bovary, Stanley
Kubrick's Lolita and the 1997 remake directed by Adrian
Lyne, and various attempts to translate de Sade's works and life
into film, which faced similar censorship travails. Written with a
keen awareness of ongoing debates about free speech, Dirt for
Art's Sake traces the legal and social acceptance of
controversial works with critical acumen and delightful wit.
Subjects: Language & Literature
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