Thursday, May 29, 2008

Next week: pantaloons on the piano legs

Oh for crying out loud.

In decades of literary training I have never had reason to suspect that there was any category beyond farce. Until now.

Not even Ratty ever presided over anything as ludicrous as this. The Ern Malley hoax pales into insignificance as a demonstration of what a ridiculous country we can be when we put our minds to it. Imagine the international headlines: AUSTRALIA'S NATIONAL POLICE RAID ITS NATIONAL ART GALLERY. One can only hope that Barry Humphries is getting a lot of new material out of it.

Some time over the last 24 hours the Bill Henson fiasco has assumed the proportions and hysteria levels of a witch-hunt; one manifestation of this is that the discussion has broadened in some fora (see for example the link to Larvatus Prodeo, below) into accusations that Henson has also "exploited" drug addicts in Europe as subject for other photographs.

And despite the many precedents in various countries (notably the US and the UK) regarding art versus the moral-panic perpetrators, I am actually a bit frightened about what that says about this country and the people in charge of it. There are several different discussion threads on the subject over at Larvatus Prodeo; I've left a comment at one of them that I might paste in here as well.

... No doubt like many other tourists, I was and remain haunted by the addicts in Vienna’s underground railway stations, particularly those in the Innere Stadt. One in particular, can’t remember its name, was so full of floating, dazed, emaciated, deathly bodies that it looked and felt like some nightmare underworld. Some of them were begging. Some of them were unconscious. Some of them were vomiting and/or incontinent.

If representation of them in photography is ‘exploitation’, would representation of them in painting be any different? What if you wrote a song about them? I have been known in the past to write fiction and I hope to write more fiction in the future; If I put this vision of hell into a story or a novel, accurately describing what I saw, is that exploitation? If I write nonfiction in which this scene is described in a documentary manner, is that better or worse? If I refuse payment for these works, does any of that make a difference, and if so in what way?

Here’s another example: ten years ago Robert Hannaford painted a fabulous portrait of Robert Dessaix when the latter was very ill, with, at that stage, a not-wonderful prognosis. The painting is profoundly haunting. Was that exploitation?

My point, and I do have one, is that the logical conclusion of arguments like these is that all art depicting human subjects is exploitation and should be banned. Given the degree of hostility to art that is oozing out of public discourse as we speak, perhaps that’s the aim. I am so appalled by the federal police’s raid this evening on the National Gallery that I’m now prepared to believe anything.


Bernice said...

Tuesday morning's Life Matters broadcast a discussion with two women involved in a campaign against the sexualisation of children. And while one of them had the sense to agree that marketing and media pose the real threat, if it can be called that, in terms of sexualising children, and that harassing an artist smacks of witch hunt, they both ended up at a point in their argument that ANY representation of these "vulnerable " children is problematic.
"Protecting" children and the pre-pubscent by even contemplating the erasure of visual representations of them from our societal mirrors is of course, so ridiculous as to be dismissed. Except it is where much of this leads. That puritan notion that someone knows best and has the moral authority to formulate a set of rules based on something that offers little to the disputed subjects and everything to the agendas of others.
It is the stench of hypocrisy I find most appalling about this. Henson has made comment that one of the purposes of the works is to make the viewer uncomfortable as to the very place of sexualisation that viewing the works may lead. The viewer's response - which suggests an engagement with the some of the complexities and difficulties we have as regards children and sexuality in our culture. The growing wrath of the moral panic would now suggest Henson has achieved this rather too well.

lucy tartan said...

The jaw is dropping through the floorboards again every time I look at the news.

Glad to see that at least one person caught up in this has got some sense, dignity and maturity, ie the model who's reportedly declined to speak to police. Yay her. It's a good decision to keep it private.

I'd endorse all that you said Bernice if I thought many of the witchhunters were actually looking at the pictures (even crappy Net reproductions) and responding to them, but that's manifestly not happening.

lucy tartan said...

Beyond farce - yes, there's going to have to be a new name thought up for this.

Grand Guignol with live ammo?

tigtog said...

How can any police force justify this level of vigorous pursuit in a case where there is no evidence of a minor in clear and present danger?

Obviously, once a complaint is laid it should be investigated, but why do both the NSW and the Federal police seem to be letting the talkback & op-ed columnist outrage jockeys dictate the course of the investigation?

Bernice said...

And it's just occurred to me that if these raids upon public galleries are to gather evidence as to the endangering of the minor subjects (so to speak), surely a more direct route would be to raid Henson's studio & seize the negs & prints, as well as records re the subjects?

Kate H said...

Hello PC, Kate here (ex Moment to Moment, in case you think I'm one of those free-floating weirdos who's been popping up in the wake of this thing...)

A few years ago I put a picture on my Flickr page of a young (six) female relative in her swimmers (frolicking in the backyard in summer under the hose, as kids will do) and a few days later I found it had been collected into a very disturbing online album by another Flickr user.

It completely freaked me out and I took the picture down and spent several days feeling very guilty for allowing her image to fall into the wrong hands. I still feel guilt about it, along with vague nausea and not a small amount of anger.

I also reported the user to the Flickr police, as it was all I could do.

Anyway, I am not sure quite how this relates to Henson or his photographs, which I find disturbing but not pornographic at all. It is a witch hunt, there is so much hysteria, and every day out there people misappropriate children's images in a thousand tiny and not so tiny ways.

We live in a world where images of young women's bodies are used everywhere to sell everything and it barely seems to raise an eyebrow. And remember all those people counting down to Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen's 18th birthday? Or Britney's teenage music videos? And so on and so on. There are so many examples, impossible to catalogue or overcome.

And so far the only really sensible commentary I've seen on this whole debacle has been in blogs, esp yours and Laura's. The MSM coverage has been particularly dreadful, shallow, onenote and that note has mainly been in the key of stupid.

Ann O'Dyne said...

Yes. What Kate H said:
"We live in a world where images of young women's bodies are used everywhere to sell everything and it barely seems to raise an eyebrow"

Young Talent Time anyone?

This Summer, expect beach police arresting parents whose children are not completely covered at the beach.

ashleigh said...

All those who have left comments here seem to be following a common theme, which I'll bang on about a bit more:

We now seem to have somebody (it seems to be Hetty Johnston) who is determining what can and cannot be shown to the public. At the same time we have Clive Hamilton arguing that showing such artwork to the public who visit a gallery is acceptable, bit allowing the same images to be published on the net is not - because who knows who will be looking at them.

This is elitism and hypocrisy at its extreme worst:

- I have the right to tell you what is Ok. I am the moral arbiter.

- Those who have good taste and decency visit galleries. Those without use the EVIL INTERNET to pursue their nefarious aims.

Clearly both arguments, boiled down to their essence, are fallacy.

Our political leaders are so terrified of the shock jocks, and the child porn/protection campaigners that they condemn rather than raise a note of basic sense. The only exception being Malcolm Turnbull. Strange seeing as in other respects I think the man is a fool and I can't bear him!

Australia seems to go through periods of this kind of moral wowserism. I hope we soon some to our collective senses.

Anonymous said...