Days after Irfan Yusuf pointed out that Sheikh Al-Hilali has a kindred spirit in Pastor ‘He Hit Me and It Felt Like a Kiss’ Danny Nalliah*, comes word that al-Hilali has support from an unexpected quarter.

Roger Sandall, gunslinger for Quadrant magazine, has come out to say the unsayable: that in calling scantily clad women ‘plates of uncovered meat’, Hilali had a point, being a rare voice pointing out the degree of hyper-s-xualisation of everyday life.

Crikey readers will remember that your correspondent made a similar point last year, noting that the racks of FHM, Loaded, Picture etc magazines on rack after rack depersonalise the flesh so much that they look like a butcher’s shop window. Female bodies are the baseline visual symbol for all desire in a heterosexual culture – once any cultural restriction on their use is removed, they just become a sort of semiotic margarine, spread over everything. Hilali didn’t have much time for the female form per se. Sandall, writing in the January Quadrant, (reproduced on his Culture Cult site and Arts and Letters Daily), is more concerned with media culture and he blames the artists.

Sandall’s point has a lot of validity – that once you enter modernity and appoint the artist to the moral centre, you are letting set the tone people (in the form of works like Lolita, Death in Venice or Kill Bill) whose job is to overturn all cultural taboos, and the result is chaos. People from more traditional cultures come and remind us, with various degrees of gaucheness, that culture means having limits.

The curious thing is that such positions throw curveballs to both left and right. The conservative commentariat’s hare-and-hounds chase of Hilali cast Piers, Pearson, the Bolter et al, in the unlikely role of Madonna-feminists, defending to the death Britney’s right to flash her Brazilian as the essence of Western values.

But I think my very good friend Jeff Sparrow at Leftwrites has missed the point too, suggesting that Sandall is blaming women for being lascivious hussies. That’s to shoehorn the issue into a bit of a 60s thing – Sandall’s really talking about a general cultural condition, one that many people share disquiet about. They hate pole-dancing kits for eight-year-olds and lesbian photo spreads on hi-fi magazine covers but they don’t know how to stop it.

What Sandall won’t do is take it to the next stage – to see that it is art plugged into the market that creates this conundrum, and to blame artists is to let the real culprit off the hook.

*the reference is to a great if evil Phil Spector song from the early 60s, which turned out to be horribly prescient.

Peter Fray

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