Editorial To dream a child
It was a rare day for Australia’s visual arts recently when two related stories headlined the TV news in one night. The first item, we might expect, was the Bill Henson ‘scandal, ‘affair’, ‘furore’ … I’m not sure what the correct term is but the facts of the case probably need no introduction here. As Adam Geczy writes in one of three articles in this issue which directly respond to the matter, the story is ‘sure to enter into Australian cultural legend’. The whole farcical episode might be easier to shrug off (given the eventual ‘mild’ classification for Henson’s images) were it not for the serious question of ‘collateral damage’, as Denise Ferris and Martyn Jolly phrase it in their opening article: ‘every photographic act is now more readily viewable through the prism of victim and abuser, rather than artist and subject.’ A particularly bizarre yet disturbing example of this ‘Henson-ism’ fallout took place in Canberra when a public display of life drawing nudes from local senior school students was abruptly taken down.1
‘Nudity is not obscenity’, assured a NSW Law Society spokesperson once Henson and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery were cleared of any charges. Yet the censoring of photographs of children has occurred even where nudity is not at issue. ‘It’s a fine line between sensualising and sexualising them’, admitted Sydney artist Ella Dreyfus of the fourteen subjects drawn from her son’s soccer team in her 2005 exhibition Under Twelves. Despite her determination to ‘not step over that line’ in producing a series of utterly tame and beautifully frank blackand-white portraits – from the chest up and, yes, even topless – their exhibition was marred by censorship.
Artistic intention and public reception don’t always see eye to eye. Sometimes a work reveals more than the artist intends, as Geczy’s analysis of Henson’s imagery purports in an article which reflects that not all in the arts community are at ease with all aspects of Henson’s work despite his strong international standing. Melbourne artist Polixeni Papapetrou, the artist of this month’s cover image, has also borne her share of censorship and moral outrage, particularly with the nude photographs of her daughter Olympia. ‘My criminality appears to rest on the notion that art has somehow supplanted my maternal duty’, she said earlier this year in an interview with Australian Centre of Photography Director Alasdair Foster. The transgression of the artist-mother – especially one who dares to ‘implicate’ her own child in the process – can cut deeper than any questions surrounding the male gaze as a domain for art and exploitation.
The choice of Papapetrou’s Olympia as Lewis Carroll’s Beatrice Hatch before White Cliffs (2003) for our cover may be seen as controversial but is made in the hope of restoring some dignity to the debate; to validate nudity and childhood as subjects for art; to surrender to the power of the imagination (in children and adults) and dialogue without crippling them through fear-mongering and repression.
There is, admittedly, a fair amount concerning sex and sexuality in this issue, apart from discussions of Henson’s
work (and at the risk, perhaps, of distorting the nudity in Papapetrou’s image): from the celebrations of women in the work of Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki and Australian painter David Laity (who have both sparked controversy and divided their audiences) to the subject of Queer perspectives in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras 30th anniversary exhibition Bent Western, and the critical ‘excavation’ of one of its artists, the late Arthur McIntyre. As Donald Brook argues, it should never be a question of art or pornography, but rather: ‘Should works of art enjoy a general indulgence, recognised in law, so that even culpably pornographic works of art like those on the walls of brothels in Pompeii may sometimes be tolerated?’ The past few weeks in Australia have certainly exposed just how timid and intolerant our society seems to have become, even while Henson is now free to show his work. The obvious parallels, in the extr eme, are suggested by this issue’s inclusion of German painter Otto Dix, one of the Nazi’s ‘Degenerate’ artists, alongside Melbourne artist Sam Leach’s ‘self-portrait as a Nazi’, Self in Uniform (2007).
Yours (perchance to sleep) Maurice
Note 1. As reported in The Canberra Times (‘No nudes please’, 1 June, 2008), this exhibition (ironically intended to coincide with Public Education W eek) was actually removed from the Canberra Centre four days before Henson’s photographs were seized. The other headlining news item was the alleged censorship of Van Thanh Rudd’s Special Forces in Melbourne (see page 12).
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