Morals Versus Art, Title Page

Earlier I posted this PDF of Anthony Comstock's 1887 Morals Versus Art. Here you can find an HTML version which has been proofread. This HTML version is produced from a TEI version that I am currently working on. I'll be trying to improve the document structure and adding some scholarly annotations as well. But together with the PDF it should help anyone interested in this text who is having a hard time finding a copy (OCLC Worldcat lists 4 print copies).

The document is a minor but very interesting part of the larger debates about obscenity around the turn of the twentieth century. This period itself sits at the middle of a larger history history beginning with the passage of the Obscene Publications Act in Great Britain in 1857 (and the famous Regina v. Hicklin case in 1868) and the effective "End of Obscenity" (as Charles Rembar calls it in his excellent book [Amazon link] of that title) in 1966 with the exoneration Fanny Hill from charges of obscenity. (The 1960s American rulings on Lady Chatterley's Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and Fanny Hill, in which Rembar played a crucial role, evolved by arguing that the Roth obscenity test included special protections for works of art; this concept was formalized in the 1973 case Miller v. California which established the three-pronged obscenity test that remains the law of the land. The conflation of British and American law in the preceding paragraph is intentional; while interesting disagreements emerged, the law itself was largely similar on both sides of the Atlantic—and in both cases quite different from Continental obscenity law. This conflation is equally evident in Morals Versus Art, where Comstock draws on both American precedent and the history of British obscenity law.)

Some Quick Background

I am still putting together the complete story behind this pamphlet which I hope to integrate into the TEI version. But for anyone interested, here is the basic background behind this pamphlet and why I think it is interesting enough to merit greater attention and a wider audience.

Morals Versus Art has its origin in a raid on the Knoedler & Company art gallery (located at Fifth Ave. and Twenty-Second St.) reported on November 13, 1887 in the New York Times. (Knoedler's customers "were among the most refined and intelligent people in the country" the Times assures us). An agent of Comstock's New York Society for the Suppression of Vice purchased "117 photographs of original paintings by such artists as Cabanel, Bougereau, Gerome, Le Fevre, Henner, and others of the modern French school." These pictures were brought to Comstock who then had Edmund L. Knoedler and his clerk arrested on a charge "of trafficking in improper pictures." At the heart the debate is the issue which emerges through the modern history of obscenity: can art be obscene? Already in 1887, before Roth and Miller, in the initial response to the raid on Knoedler's Gallery there was a distinct sense that these images were a priori not obscene because they were art. The concluding paragraph of the Nov 13,1887 story reads:

Daniel Huntington, President of the Academy of Design, said he did not think it was within the capacity of any man to draw the line sharply between pictures which were intentionally obscene and those which were classically artistic and pure. Much lay in the character of the person judging the picture. The pictures upon which the prosecution in this case was based were classically artistic, and he thought Mr. Comstock had made a mistake. T. J. Blakeslee and several other art critics gave like expression to their views upon the subject. The general declaration was the Anthony Comstock had exercised an uncultivated and awkward discrimination and had committed and unwarrantable assault upon the domain of legitimate art.

In the following weeks newspapers continued to follow the story; Comstock appeared in a number of editorial cartoons in venues such as Life, and a group of American artists published a protest against Comstock's raid (Comstock includes the full text of the protest in Morals Versus Art.

The pamphlet Morals Versus Art is a direct response to this broader enviroment of debate about the border between art and obscenity or, as Comstock puts it, between art and morals. It is a defense of the raid on Knoedler's in particular, of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and of censorship in general. Certain aspects of the pamphlet are interesting but predictable: Comstock consistently insists on the foreign character of these French works; he employs a predictable (and now humorous) rhetoric of "manliness" to describe morally grounded censorship (rather than the feminized, enervating effects of "art for art's sake"). Comstock's attitude toward the lower classes is outright infantilizing: "the nude art has not its proper place. But we do in all sincerity appeal to the public, that the proper place is not before the eyes of the uncultured and inexperienced?" Later on the same page he asks "By what right does a few selfish men enter that privacy and denude women for the inspection of others or seek to put these representations of nudity upon the open market for all classes to gaze upon?" (10)

Comstock's pamphlet provides ample bread and butter for academic treatments of gender and class in the period. Equally interesting, and perhaps more surprising, is the way that Comstock's position seems to hypersensitize him to the complexities of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Comstock's contemporary critics tended to ignore Comstock's insistence that context determined obscenity, that a painting in a museum may not be obscene but a photographic reproduction of it might be. Comstock intuits the far reaching effects which changes in the media landscape of the late nineteenth century will have: increasing literacy, the advent of photography, and advances in lithographic and (ultimately) half-tone printing techniques. Undergirding this sensitivity are a series of assumptions that are products of their time and strike us as absurd in their old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy conservatism; chief among these being the insistence that obscene texts corrupt the moral well-being of young men and, thereby, of the nation itself (and there is no small amount of the discourse surrounding "self-abuse" mixed in here). (This pamphlet is interesting in the concern it shows for the fate of young men while remaining essentially quiet on the group traditionally thought to be susceptible to the influence of the novel—young women.)

These out-moded assumptions, however, had the strange effect of sensitizing Comstock to the complexities of textual circulation and reproduction in ways that his contemporary critics are not. Before celebrating Comstock, it is worthy of remembering the enormous, negative impact on the lives of actual people that Comstock had, particularly on early advocates of birth control. Nevertheless Morals Versus Art offers, in a sort of encrypted, mirrored way, one of the most insightful portraits of the changing textual landscape at the turn of the century, decades ahead of Walter Benjamin's classic essay on the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. In Comstock we have an early account of the disappearance of "aura." (I have plenty more to say here...)

Finally, it is worth pointing out that Comstock in Morals Versus Art uncannily anticipates the controversy surrounding September Morn (which is of course a preoccupation of mine). At the heart of the Knoedler case are French academic nudes, many of which were exhibited at the Salon—precisely the genre of Paul Chabas's MatinĂ©e de Septembre (1912). Comstock even invokes the scene at the window which would come to play such a crucial role in the reception of September Morn, "It is said the exposing to public view of nude figures of women is 'an educator of the public mind.' It may educate the public mind as the forms of beautiful women, but it creates an appetite for the immoral; its tendency is downward... As proof of this, note the throngs about windows where nude or partly nude figures are exposed" (9 - 10). Indeed, note them:

September Morn Postcard

Works Cited

  • Comstock, Anthony. Morals Versus Art. An Electronic Edition. Edited by Chris Forster. Web.
  • "Mr. Comstock's Work: Beginning a Prosecution Against a Prominent Art Firm." New York Times. Nov. 13, 1887: 3. Proquest Historical Newspapers New York Times (1857 - 1922). Web. April 30, 2010.