Martin Sharp and the Gas Lash

Martin Sharp was one of Australia’s most iconic artists of the counterculture generation, known for his acerbic, satirical pieces that transgressed the limits of obscenity laws during the ‘60s. He was the joint founder of Oz Magazine, helping form a visual style emulated by many, and he would go on to repaint Luna Park’s iconic entrance in 1973.

Through Tharunka, Sharp tested the waters of obscenity laws in Australia with ‘The Gas Lash’ in 1964’s Orientation edition. The cartoon itself depicts a young student’s night out, where he takes a young woman to the Roundhouse for a formal, gets her drunk to ‘seduce’ her, and just when success is in sight, “she chucked all over me tux!”.

A couple of days after the Orientation edition of Tharunka was released, rumblings of discontent began, with criticism on radio stations, an article on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald and eventually the Vice Squad interviewing the culprits. The Director of Student Publications Peter Conyngham, former Tharunka editors Alex Popov and Michael Robertson, printer Anglican Press, and Martin Sharp himself were all issued summonses for the piece.

Running parallel to this in 1964, Richard Neville, Richard Walsh and others were also summonsed for a different cartoon Sharp had drawn in Oz Magazine, ‘The world flashed around the Arms’. With that, Tharunka and Oz’s legacies became intertwined in the history of Australian censorship laws. Sharp and the editors of Tharunka went before the Stipendiary Magistrate with Neville Wran representing them. Initially they were found guilty of printing an obscene publication, with judge Gibson commenting “In my view the article unduly emphasises matters of sex”.

Sharp was fined £10 and others £5, but they appealed. On appeal in the Sydney Quarter Sessions Appeals Court, Lionel Murphy joined Neville Wran and with the help of testimony from artists and commentators, the conviction was eventually quashed on August 12, 1964.

The judge A. Levine’s verdict was that the cartoon wasn’t obscene and wouldn’t corrupt the morals of its readers after all. But what of ‘The Gas Lash’ itself? You can’t help wondering after all these decades, what we would think of publishing it now. “The bird’s a bit of a gas, eh? Jumps like a pogo-stick, so I heard… needs a bit of grog to get her moving” “She was all over me like a lash! Blind as an owl” “… got her on the couch… just got the ‘frog’ out of me wallet… when… she chucked all over me tux!”

The satirical edge of Sharp’s cartoon might be blunted by the passage of time. With today’s eyes, the material is questionable, illustrating, in essence, a young man’s night out with a woman trying to get her so drunk that she’ll sleep with him, “jumps like a pogo-stick, so I heard”. The piece ironically was labelled obscene at the time for portraying sex, but now we’d call it problematic for different reasons. On first glance, the way in which Sharp presents it is as if it were a bit of lascivious backroom-talk; in 1964 it might’ve been cheeky, but now its overtones are of sexual assault.

Was that Sharp’s intention? Some may find it difficult to tell. Those academics who helped defend Sharp in court thought of the piece as a brilliant piece of satire, “shocking in the sense that it exposed and held up to ridicule and contempt the sort of man who does this kind of thing” as Professor A.K. Stout commented. But others will find its content uncomfortable, in poor taste, and insensitive. Whatever your opinion of it, looking back on ‘The Gas Lash’ all these years later, it’s still as profoundly relevant to censorship and publishing as it ever was.

It asks us questions about the type of material we should publish, what should be censored, and the place that satire and bad taste has in our culture. It’s an important piece of work not just in Tharunka’s history, but in Australian media history too.

 

Photographic Material Courtesy of Tharunka and UNSW Archives


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