The New South Wales government is considering laws that could severely inhibit and restrict artists working with children. Story here.
Surely laws already exist covering the production of child pornography? To give government and/or police the right to be the arbiter of artistic standards is an act of repression that defies common sense and would undoubtedly ensure severe restrictions on freedom of expression.
The story in the Sydney Morning Herald quotes NSW Council for Civil Liberties president Cameron Murphy, who said that removing the artistic merit defence would infringe on genuine artistic endeavour. Mr Murphy said: ”The problem is getting sensible policy in this area, which is compounded by people becoming emotional to the point of being irrational.”
A lot of the hysteria over the photography of Bill Henson derives from the very ignorance of the kind of people who would be making judgement on the work of similar artists. Are they aware that Edward Weston’s lovingly explicit nude photographs of his son Neil are available in any bookstore in Australia that stocks good photography books? You can view these pictures here, (WARNING: they are of male child nudity).
Weston’s work has always had a sensual quality about it but pornography is in the eye/mind of the beholder. There is a specific instance I know of where a woman cancelled her subscription to a British fine art photography magazine because in her view they had published pornography. This picture was also by Edward Weston. This was the photograph:
Weston himself, in his published journals, mentions that people’s response to this picture often referred to its sexual nature, yet he has stated that at the time of making the picture sex was the furthest thing from his mind. Even if there is some subliminal Freudian connection, the reality is that this is a photograph of a sea-shell…and nothing more. Any other interpretation is purely in the mind of the veiwer. (As an aside: In 1968 I talked with his son Cole about buying a print of this picture. He wanted $US60. Cole told me he was coming to London and would bring with him a print. He never turned up. I wish I had pursued it further. A vintage print of this photograph sold at auction for $US1,105,000 in 2007).
Could you too fall victim to the new puritanism? It’s possible. About eight years ago I took this photograph of my daughter in the bath. She was about four years old at the time. It hangs framed in our hall:
Parental love, her innocent poise and the ethereal beauty of her long hair drifting around her in the bath water, were what moved me. It was a moment I treasure and a picture that I think transcends the mundanity of the family snapshot. I am certain that in that instant my motivation was no different from that of Weston when he photographed his son.
I think we need to beware this dangerous retrogade slide into artistic repression. Governments should never be taken at their word.
May I remind you of the words of Hermann Goering, “…it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.” Substitute “artists” for “pacifists”. The meaning is the same…
“We should remember that an important index of social freedom, in earlier times or in repressive regimes elsewhere in the world, is how artists and art are treated by the state.”
Actor Cate Blanchett, Nobel prize winning author Jan Coetzee, Museum of Contemporary Art director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor and eminent Tasmanian economist Saul Eslake in a letter to the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Minister for the Arts, Peter Garrett, May 2008.
In his essay “On Indignation” published By Melbourne University Press 2008, that wonderfully lucid Australian author, Don Watson wrote:
“…if some decent people get indignant about pictures of naked children in works of art while others just as decent don’t, is that because the second group are less decent in the matter of children or because the first group are? Are the second lot simply insensible to the moral danger the first lot see, or are the first lot compensating for disturbing feelings the pictures disturb in them?
I would number myself among those people who don’t feel indignant about it, while conceding that they are not in every case morally vigilant or as strict with themselves as they should be. They do not feel themselves threatened by pictures of naked children, they do not feel their children are threatened by them and, perhaps because a bit of nakedness really never hurt anybody, they do not feel that the child in the photograph is threatened. It might be for these reasons that the matter does not spark indignation; it might be because they feel indignant about too much else, or because stupidity or cultural theory have left them without the capacity to feel indignant about anything; or it might be that they have an aversion to particular kinds of moral indignation–especially the kind which cannot co-exist with ambiguity; a sense of humour, or any other sense that might grant us tolerance and self-awareness. There is always a sense with the morally indignant that their real aim is to console themselves.”
Don Watson, On Indignation MUP 2008.