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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Saturday, April 07, 2012

The alleged evils of modern art

As I mentioned the other day - in the editorial insertion - Chris Berg from the IPA drew my attention to a piece on the IPA site.

This article, by Ben Hourigan, does, in fact, suggest (among other things) that the police butt out of art galleries. Hourigan gets a great deal right, including his description of the moral panic that arose in 2008 over Bill Henson's much-celebrated (and much-denounced) photography:
Australia's most recent dramatic controversy over freedom of artistic expression centres on veteran photographer Bill Henson's images of nude and semi-nude pubescent boys and girls. Following a complaint by Hetty Johnston of the anti-child-sexual-assault organisation Bravehearts, in May 2008 police seized photographs from a Henson exhibition due to open at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney. Just under two weeks later, police dropped all charges after the Office of Film and Literature Classification gave nearly all the images in question a rating of G (general). The sole exception, the image of a naked thirteen-year-old girl circulated on exhibition invitations, received a rating of PG (parental guidance recommended). Receipt of any rating at all is enough to quash charges of child pornography or indecency, but the awarded ratings are the broadest recommendations of suitability for any audience available under the Australian scheme, and mean that the Henson photos are subject to no legal restrictions on their exhibition or sale.

When professional, government-appointed classifiers place Henson's images so clearly within the law, it's astonishing to see politicians whip up such a media storm and inspire such heavy-handed action from police. The moral panic went all the way to the highest levels of our political system, with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd telling the Nine Network that he found the image of the thirteen-year-old girl ‘absolutely revolting.' NSW premier Morris Iemma called the photographs ‘offensive and disgusting.' The politicians' foray into amateur art criticism continued when Art Monthly Australia used a photograph by Polixeni Papapetrou of a naked-but relatively modestly shot-six-year-old girl as its cover in July 2008. This act of defiance against the attitudes that had victimised Henson prompted the prime minister to comment: ‘frankly, I can't stand this stuff.'
Hourigan goes on to say useful things about this particular episode and others, such as the famous Andres Serrano photograph "Piss Christ". Most notably, he sums up at one point:
The Prime Minister shouldn't be intruding on civil society by parading his uninformed opinions of contemporary photography in the mass media. The police shouldn't be confiscating artworks and tarnishing Henson's reputation with charges relating to child pornography when they should have been able to tell how clearly the images in question fall within the law. Crazy people should have more respect for private property and not go smashing up artworks with hammers, and newspapers shouldn't do so much to feed a public perception that the art world is impossibly depraved.
However, he segues into his own rant about the evils of modern art and the culture within which it is created and promoted. The attitudes of hostility to Henson and others are understandable, he thinks, because: "Whether they see it as a way to turn a profit or, more nobly, as their moral and artistic duty, the core of their art practice is the activity of violating, however subtly, mainstream reasoning, taste, and morality."

So far, so good. Some artists, especially more avant-garde ones, doubtless do consider it their duty to challenge and trangress mainstream reasoning, taste, and morality. That, however, seems to me altogether a good thing as far as it goes. Mainstream ideas and values should not go uncontested, and we do rely on artists to contest them. The result may not always be pretty, and sometimes boundaries that should not be crossed will be - or at least that is a risk. For example, contrary to the moral panic at the time, Henson's photography does not demean or blatantly sexualise its subjects, but what if it had? At some point, these images could have become child pornography, even though that never actually happened.

The point is that there are some limits, even if broad ones, to what can be done even in the name of high art. There is an edginess about much serious art, and it is, indeed, understandable that this makes many people uncomfortable. At the same time ... within those broad limits, art plays a valuable role, and it is one that requires defence all the more because of the edginess aspect. Without that defence, it is very easy to imagine the boundaries closing and constricting, as populist political leaders like Rudd appeal to the wider community's prejudice and ignorance.

And this is where Hourigan's emphasis is all wrong. His ultimate point seems to be that the messages conveyed by transgressive art are banal, and that this makes it more difficult to defend art and the artistic community. He makes much of the claim that Henson's message can be reduced to "puberty is a time of uncertainty, and that even though we might want to treat teenagers as children, their bodies are capable of carrying an adult sexual charge" OR even to something so simple as "puberty is difficult and thirteen-year-olds have a budding sexuality."

Now, there is something right about this. Perhaps these are the messages conveyed by Henson's work, and the second formulation in particular sounds rather trite. But it won't work to reduce any artistic production to a message that could equally be expressed as an abstract proposition. Imagine where most popular art and culture would stand if we did this - much of it could be reduced to simple propositions such as "hurting people is bad and romantic love is good". By stating this proposition, I have now saved you the trouble of reading numerous books and watching numerous TV shows and movies.

That is not how it works, of course, though exactly how it does work is a complicated issue for critics, philosophers, and artists themselves in their introspective moments. It's not that we can really expect modern art to embody more surprising or arcane social, moral, or philosophical insights. The power of any artwork is not going to depend on this but on its ability to move and provoke through mastery of technique. If we are moved by Henson's work to think thoughts along the lines of, "puberty is a time of uncertainty, and ... even though we might want to treat teenagers as children, their bodies are capable of carrying an adult sexual charge," the experience cannot be substituted by my writing those words in a blog post.

The beauty of Henson's work is that it provokes these thoughts, and doubtless others, perhaps many of them uncertain or mutually contradictory, through the power of its composition and other aesthetic qualities. The thoughts are not merely stated abstractly, perhaps in a dogmatic way, perhaps supported by arguments, but are brought home to us through surprise and emotion, delivered by the artist's mastery of his chosen medium.

Saying much more would lead us into controversial and intellectually murky areas of philosophical aesthetics, a subject on which I claim no specialist expertise. But it is obtuse and unworkable to demand of artists that they convey more profound and surprising messages. Hourigan has some useful and even incisive things to say, but his final admonition to artists misses the point.

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