Last Saturday a Montreal jury acquitted special-effects artist Rémy Couture of "corrupting morals" by creating gory photographs and short films for his now-defunct website, InnerDepravity.com. Couture was arrested in 2009 based on an Interpol tip from Austrian police, who initially thought his work, featuring the actions of an imaginary serial killer, documented actual crimes. The prosecution argued that the material, though fictional and produced without harming any real human beings, "undermines fundamental values of Canadian society" by illegally mixing sex and violence. Couture, who faced up to two years in prison, testified that the sex was merely an "accessory":
I create horror. I'm not a pornographer. The goal is not to excite; it's to disgust....
The objective of anyone working as a make-up artist is to make people believe their work. My objective was to create horror, plain and simple.
Can a man's freedom really hinge on this distinction? Under Canadian law, yes. The Canadian definition of obscenity includes "any publication a dominant characteristic of which is the undue exploitation of sex, or of sex and any one or more of the following subjects, namely crime, horror, cruelty and violence." In addition to arguing that the sexual content of his work was secondary, Couture maintained that its artistic value should shield him from criminal liability. Evidently the jury accepted one or both of those arguments. "It's the end of a nightmare that lasted three years," Couture said. "I want to thank the jury and all those who supported me."
I am glad Couture was acquitted of something that should not be treated as a crime, but the process by which that happened hardly epitomizes the rule of law. The government said his images were obscene, and he said they weren't. Until the jury voted on Saturday—based on imponderables such as the nature of art and how much exploitation of sex is "undue," which in turn depends on how much a community is prepared to tolerate, itself an utterly subjective and self-verifying judgment—there was no way to say who was right. How can people reasonably be expected to conform their behavior to the law when it is impossible for them to figure out what actions it proscribes until after they've been arrested and prosecuted?
The same problem, of course, afflicts obscenity prosecutions in the United States, even without Canada's special sex-plus-horror provision. Ira Isaacs, a self-described "shock artist," presented a defense similar to Couture's, saying he was deliberately trying to "challenge the viewer" with his films, which featured scatology and bestiality. Isaacs said he was an artist, but a federal jury said he wasn't, and now he faces up to 25 years in prison. Why? Because his movies were, like, totally gross. This is no way to run a criminal justice system.