Montreal artist Rémy Couture’s trial set to pit artistic freedom against state censorship

How to describe the bizarre case of local artist Rémy Couture? Some in the media seem to have coined a new and disturbing term for it: art crime (also the title of a sympathetic documentary on the subject).

You see, arguably, Coutures only ‘crime’ is that he is pushing the boundaries of good taste with his horrific images of women being dismembered and people being crucified. This, in and of itself, does not constitute a crime. Of course, as any number court rulings recognize, art work, no matter how offensive, is a form of protected self-expression (Section 2 of the Charter) in Canada.

That said, Couture has been charged specifically with committing moral corruption (sometimes the law just sounds so delightfully quaint!) through propagation of obscene material. The result of a complaint originating in Germany after someone visited his website and was apparently so shocked and confused by what they found that they contacted the cops to report what they wrongly believed to be genuine snuff films.

Couture does nothing of the sort. He is, in fact, an internationally renowned make-up artist and special effects geek with a passion for graphic sex and gore. He is due to stand before a jury of his peers (as the saying goes) next December in a highly anticipated and much publicized trial. If found guilty, he could face a lengthy prison sentence and financial ruin.

Under the criminal code, (Section 163) it is illegal to distribute materials that combine sex with horror cruelty or violence. It seems likely that the crown will rely on the harm principle established 20 years ago in the Butler case. While this precedent does make an exception for erotica or works that display artistic merit, they deemed sexual materials that are ‘degrading or dehumanizing’ to constitute obscenity under the law.

Justice John Sopinka provided three categories of porn. The bad news for Mr. Couture is that the only protected categories of porno specifically excludes the depiction of violence and any sexual material with a hint of violence could be enough to justify classifying something as obscene.

However, Mr. Couture does have a few things going for him, legally speaking:

A) He stands accused of creating child pornography, but thus far there is no evidence that any of his actresses were under the age of 18, nor have any of them complained about their treatment at his hands or claimed that they were coerced into participating.

B) The prosecution has their work cut out for them in that the onus is on them to meet the standard of harm established by the Supreme Court. This means that the victims here are either the people that willingly participated in the creation of his art work, none of whom have agreed to testify against him, or lodged a complaint for mistreatment. Or, much harder to prove, that society at large is the victim for being exposed to his artwork. Basically the type of questionable argument used to justify infringing freedom of expression when it’s considered hate speech.

C) Finally, there is the new media aspect of this case. The fact is, in the internet age, the idea of state censorship, legitimate though it may be in some instances, just seems less and less relevant. The State may try and suppress something or someone by locking up artists like Couture and throwing away the key, but you can’t lock up his art work. It is already out there in the ether, being consumed, for better or worse, by millions of users around the world.

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