I love reading old newspapers. It is a great way to get direct access to the way people used to think. It also bypasses hindsight as we see the strength of opinions held then that now seem laughable. Anybody who reads old newspapers will take today's opinions and truisms with a slightly bigger pinch of salt. Old news also teaches us how little genuinely new there is under the sun.
Take The Times exactly one hundred years ago today. Back then the Times reader could delve into articles such as 'The Importance of Art', 'Works Of Art And The Tariff', 'Literature In The Colonies', 'Mr. Shaw's Play In Dublin' as well as the announcement of the establishment of the Imperial Arts League.
Public debate about the arts was clearly alive and well. Back then censorship was the cause of many debates. One of the most heated on this day a century ago concerned the production of a play by George Bernard Shaw, The Shewing up of Blanco Posnet downloadable here or readable online at Google Books). The censor was unhappy with the portrayal of prostitution on the stage and concerns were also raised about the use of certain phrases from a religious context.
Perhaps what is most conspicuously absent from the article is something that does set the cultural climate of 1909 apart from that of today: the lack of threats to withhold funding for the offending play. In 1909 theatre was almost exclusively a commercial operation. Governments did not fund the arts. Today, when almost all - especially controversial - art relies on state funding, the possibility of such funding being withdrawn as a result of public controversy has the potential to assume the role of the government censor in Shaw's time. The process is more subtle and less overt, but the outcome more or less the same. Self-censorship is often the result as controversial artists today rub against the boundaries of social norms, just as they did in 1909.
© Brian Long 2009