This piece was considered immoral and vulgar by both critics and the public when it was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1865 due to the power with which the prostitute in the painting was looking at them without shame.
Like in the trial of Flaubert over the publication of his novel, Madame Bovary, which Rushdie also mentions, the issue was not with the woman’s infidelity, the issue was that the artwork suggested no judgement of that infidelity – in other words, the work was morally frontierless. But now history has affirmed that crossing of frontiers by Manet and his contemporaries, considering them, Rushdie states, “as the art-world’s blue-chip masterworkers” (441). Doing an about turn on the question of whether art should remain morally and politically “frontierless”, he declares that, “we have one answer to those who would reimpose limits on art: which is, that one age’s pornography is another’s masterpiece.” (441)
Rushdie’s anger at those who wish to limit art echoes a section of At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers, published during the fatwa, in which the narrator suddenly says that “We, the public, are easily, lethally offended. We have come to think of taking offence as a fundamental right. We value very little more highly than our rage [with which] we can shoot down at our enemies and inflict heavy fatalities. We take pride in our short fuses.” (89-90) He is clearly trying to highlight here how peoples’ want to be outraged and offended in the modern world is having a damaging effect on the freedom of art. Artists are becoming too afraid to be truly daring, reckless and critical in the fear that they may anger a particular group of people and have their work shut down as a result. It creates a climate of self-censorship, as well as censorship.
It is upon this cry for frontierless expression which Rushdie turns back to the question of how civilisation should respond to an attack by people for whom there are literally no limits at all. For Rushdie, the increasing struggle for artistic freedom post-9/11 “serves to crystallize the larger question which we were all asked when the planes hit the buildings; how should we live now?” (442) And typically, he answers his question with another question, rhetorically asking:
“What will be the spirit of this frontier? Will we give the enemy the satisfaction of changing ourselves into something like his hate-filled, illiberal mirror-image, or will we, as guardians of the modern world, as the custodians of freedom and the occupants of the privileged lands of plenty, go on trying to increase freedom and decrease injustice? Will we become the suits of armour our fear makes us put on, or will we continue to be ourselves?” (442)
As with his writing in his post-9/11 novel Shalimar the Clown, we see in Step Across This Line a far more direct quality to Rushdie’s non-fiction prose; carrying a voice which is angry and unafraid to ask the reader a multitude of challenging and controversial questions.
Image: By PEN American Center [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons