‘Back in the Nineties, I was in a very famous libel case…’ – the Dissertation post!

HistoryJack is what else but a student of History. Following several consultations with members of the Faculty of the Department of History at the University of York and many months of deliberation, I decided yesterday on a definitive topic for my undergraduate Dissertation. It is something I found to be both original and intellectually demanding but one that would provide myself with something that combined many of my existing interests.

The subject will be a comparative study of genocide denial in British libel cases of the 1990s. Wait, come back!

Whilst reading into the relationship between academic historians, independent enthusiasts and the murky swampland of cranks, cooks, crackpots and quacks (readers of a scientific bent will be familiar with the interplay between creationist and Spirit Science quackademics and actual scientists), I stumbled upon a fascinating factoid and what might be one of the bizarrest coincidences in British legal history. In the late 1990s; in fact, from the years 1997 to the Spring of 2000 to be precise, two libel cases were contested concurrently in the Royal Couts of Justice, Queens Bench Division – both of which concerned accusations of genocide denial and defamation of character.

The first case, best known to historians, was Irving v Penguin Books, the infamous suit filed by the far-right military historian David Irving against Deborah Lipstadt and her publishers for Lipstadt’s claim that Irving was a “dangerous” promulgator of racist pseudo-history and a prolific Holocaust denier. The case involved the expert witness testimony of Richard J. Evans, Professor of History at Cambridge and author of the now celebrated text In Defence of History, published 1997. Despite becoming known as ‘the Irving trial’ in the press, the civil case was brought against Lipstadt and Penguin by an Irving as claimant. English libel law then (and still) placed the burden of proof on the defendant and Lipstadt was forced into a costly legal battle against an author whose work had been published to popular and bestselling acclaim in previous decades. The outcome of a case, championed as a vindication of History and its methods, resulted in Irving’s professional discrediting as an author as well as bankruptcy from the award of legal costs to the defendants. Irving’s name became synonymous with Holocaust denial and he has not been granted a column or contract by a respectable newspaper or publishing-house since.

The second case remains less well-known among historians specifically but famous among journalists and the London intelligentsia; the suit brought by Independent Television News (ITN) and the journalists Penny Marshall and Ed Vulliamy against the publishers of LM, a magazine formerly known as Living Marxism. The magazine had printed allegations in 1997 that an ITN report on the Bosnian war broadcast in 1992 had fabricated evidence of atrocities committed by Serb forces, particularly the subsequently infamous scenes of starving concentration camp inmates in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The case, as did the Penguin trial, dragged on for three years and LM became a cause celebre for many on the intellectual Left, as well as several libertarians and conservatives who had opposed intervention in the Balkans and regarded LM‘s right to print the accusations as a free speech issue. Reputations were dragged through the mud of the docks in cross-examination and ITN won a resounding victory; the magazine folded but subsequently reformed under new imprints. Bosnian genocide denial has only become more contentious as former leaders of Serbian forces and political movements were tried for war crimes and genocide throughout the 2000s and 2010s. Even Noam Chomsky entered the lasting affray in 2005 and one of the most common tropes for Serb nationalists and their supporters who deny that genocide in the Balkans took place are rehashes of the original claims made by LM.

So what would this have to do with history? The libel trials provide, not least for their simultaneous occurrence, a tremendous insight into the relaitonship between historians, the public, the press and everybody else. The Irving trial was an instance of historians becoming agents of causation; Evans’ expert testimony led to Irving and his claims being completely discredited, with press and public confidence in History restored to new heights. Historians became actors and participants in major events in British legal history. Postmodernism and the narrative question were thrown into focus once more as the rationale for LM and Irving’s claims was invoked as a defeater for the claims of postmodernist conceptions of History. Denial of historical crimes against humanity and the spectre of organised racial hatred seeped into public consciousness again as the supporters of both denying parties were exposed as propogating intellectual fraud in the guise of radical scholarship and ‘dissent’.

The exact angle I wish to take with this study is not entirely settled upon yet. However, the trials were major subjects in polemical writing and reportage by one of my favourite and most-cited authors, Nick Cohen, and Richard Evans was one of the most influential forces in my decision to pursue History as an A-Level student. It would be an appropriate culmination of my study to turn the analytical focus onto the career of an historian who set the hare running to begin with.

Intellectual, social and legal history in a time very far removed from our own – the 1990s!

Here is to a year with some of my favourite writers and some of the darkest hours that modern history has had to confront.

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Artsy history: pre-Raphaelites as the original ‘fan art’ people?

The_Young_Lord_Hamlet

The Young Lord Hamlet by Phillip H Calderon (1868).

The author’s ignorance of historical matters artistic will show through as the light of the Last Judgement over Patmos, but one subject that came to mind today was the issue of ‘fan art’ and its precursors or prototypes in the History of Art. It would be easy to reduce fan art to an invention of the digital natives, or at the very least a product of twentieth century mass culture and mass communications. Drawing one’s own conceptions of images from cinema or television is a hobby of any child raised with a visual medium as a major influence alongside those of creative disciplines. For me, that meant drawing my own reimaginings of the Death Star Attack and the Batte of Endor with felt tip pens. The freedom to extrapolate an existing license or canon of ltierature, film, television or otherwise and add one’s own spin has been the impulse behind the world of fan fiction and Live Action Role-Playing in vast subcultures of ‘fandom’, as well as the titular subject of fan art.

However, is fan art something which came into existence only with mass culture and the age of comic books and the cinema screen? Fandom as a social force existed before the movie camera; the hounding of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle following his decision to send Sherlock Holmes falling to his death is known well enough, though authors long before Doyle had legions of devoted followers. Goethe’s novel¬†The Sorrows of Young Werther became famous for the wrong reasons after a wave of copycat suicides were attributed to young men in depsondency deciding to emulate the character in dress, philosophy and self-destruction. This behaviour was subsequently named the ‘Werther effect’ in 1974 by the American sociologist David Phillips. Modern studies have challenged the extent to which media reporting and the power of suggestion influence the overall rate of suicides, as well as the number of suicides causally linked to the novel itself in the late 1700s, but the power that Goethe’s novel held over some of its fans was one approaching religious fervour. Among those who did not follow Werther’s pistol-based solution to rejection, the character remained an endearing hero for the bitter and unrequited. Antecedent to the bard Morrissey, doth thou not concur?

Fandoms are understudied social movements; the impact they can have on cultural evolution in the long term can be immense. Arnold Schwarzenegger would unlikely have risen to the public prominence which allowed him to sweep into the California Governor’s mansion had it not been for truck driver and future Terminator creator-director James Cameron’s obsession with emulating 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, resulting in his aggressive advance through the film industry. The enduring devotional power of fandoms to have killed-off characters resurrected or entire series returned to publication and airtime (think the original Sherlock Holmes and his current Cumberbatchian iterations as well as Futurama and Family Guy) is a force to be reckoned with that historians have paid relatively little attention to cf. labour movements, permanently rising middle classes and social activist groups. Something for the future, perhaps.

But away from this and to the matter of fan art. If fandoms existed before the term itself entered the lexicon and before ‘fans’ would even self-identify as such, could their artisitc proclivities have done so likewise? This is an area that, were the author an art historian, it would be consuming a great deal of my time in the library. We know the famous trope, established most prominently by journalist and full-time science-denying crackpot Christopher Booker of there being only five, six or seven at the most core stories that are adapted and retold across every culture. There may be some weight in it – the Hero Archetype of Joseph Campbell generally holds up under scrutiny at the very least. But the fact remains that the adaptive storytelling practices of humankind have made it possible for Shakespeare and Milton to retell older chronicle-histories, ballads and folklore as dramatic catastrophes and centuries later have their theatrical versions reshaped and retold by Hollywood and Broadway. Humans of every generation adapt the fictions and histories of old for their own purposes. Among the reinvention is the adding, subtracting and division of characters. Entire scenes are invented and when juxtaposed with the source material, the process can be consternating. Dramatic license can quite literally be a license to kill (entire dynasties who actually lived) and a license to conjure. Shakespeare worked from adaptation and invention, though his deployment of familiar characters from earlier works and the use of earlier dramatic structures (medieval morality plays influenced the presentation of the monstrous Duke of Gloucester in Richard III and his soliloquies) draws the lines for a brutal fisticuffs over whether the he undertook ‘fan fiction’ of a kind.

What merits consideration is the place of art in all of this. Shakespeare, who “departs from his source materials repeatedly” (in relation to Coriolanus in the linked accessible example) was not above inventing entire scenes that existed not in the historical or dramatic sources from which he worked. In the dramatic cases it was probably beneficial; though no copyright laws as modernity knows them existed at the time, originality and innovation are why we study Shakespeare and not the poems of Rupert Brooke with such intensity. So what of the artistic depictions of dramatic works? The inspirations for portraiture and draughtsmanship found in the works of Shakespeare himsef provide one of the most illuminating examples.

Now to the titular matter. It should be worth pointing out that this idea came to me whilst looking through the vast interconnecting fandoms on dedicated social networking platforms for, among other things, the Harry Potter series, Star Wars, Sherlock, Star Trek and the plethora of popular works that encapsulate the attentive fantasy and focus of the Millennial generation. Of course fandoms for these and countless other works existed before the age of the online fan forum but modernity gifts such ease of access to the inner workings of fan minds. Fan art, particularly the representation of imagined scenes from established canons, ranks hugely in popularity in fan communities. Imagined backstories, uncanonical actions by characters and the meeting of impossibly separated individuals, whether by crossover or resurrection from the canonical dead, are standard fare in the genre. It is difficult to believe, given the long pedigree of adaptive and creative license taken in literature and drama for centuries before the advent of modern communications, that this genre of artistic expression was itself merely a by-product of digital modernity.

The one exceedingly good example of this wroking thesis aforementioned is the 1868 painting by Phillip H. Calderon, The Young Lord Hamlet. The traditional depiction of scenes from the stage play are dispensed with in favour of something radically different. Hamlet is seen playing with Yorick the jester as a child, as family look on. Happier times. This memory or something resembling it is merely alluded to in the ‘gravedigger scene’ of Act V, Scene 1 in the play Hamlet, Prince of Denmark and not even indirectly depicted besides the reference made by Hamlet’s speech:

“… he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is!”

Could Calderon’s work be among the first examples of truly imaginative ‘fan art’? Taking an unstaged scene, drawing the entire foundations of a painting from one stanza in the tragedy would not be out of place among Tumblr pages dedicated to the unknown histories of various Doctor Who villains, the lovelorn youth of Professor Snape or imaginings of Luke Skywalker’s boyhood on Tatooine. Is the Calderon imagining of Yorick and Hamlet among the first of its kind? Nestled among the work of the Pre-Rafaelites of the later nineteenth century could be the starting-point of devotional fan art extending beyond the parameters of canonical authority.

With the help of fellow postulators on Reddit, I have located the works of John William Waterhouse in a similar context. An artist in the post-Pre-Raphaelite vogue (they ought to have found better prefixes and placeholders for their clubhouse name), Waterhouse was immensely fond of classical and mythic subjects, especially women. Among his forays into myth-making with historical characters are his The Remorse of Nero After the Murder of his Mother in addition to his Shakespearean portraiture which includes a consistent fondness for Ophelia.

This midnight rambling has gotten to the ghost of a point. Was there a genus of the modern fan-art phenomenon within the pre-Rafaelite movement? Did it begin even earlier? Again, there has been comparably little historical study of this when one considers the energy expended upon textual criticism of the plays of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Middleton or the career-bending controversies thrown up over two centuries of the Stratfordian Question (like creationism and climate change denial, most scholarly effort has been sunk into rebutting the curve-arrow claims of cranks and crankhood, fired from the high parapets of quackdemia). Nor has there been much social history done on the issue of fandoms, again treated mainly by sociologists in their contemporary contexts.

Treat this, as you like it, as a placemark for future research. The question of what constitutes ‘fan art’ and whether a chronology can be developed based on the work of the pre-Rafaelites will be of interest to the author for some time to come!