Saturday, January 16, 2010

Silence Is Shame

Australia's National Association for the Visual Arts Ltd (NAVA) has just published an important booklet for artists:, the Art Censorship Guide: What you should know about threats to artistic freedom and how to deal with them. NAVA is the main (primarily government-funded) organisation representing the professional interests of Australian artists. The publication is now available from their website.
The Art Censorship Guide explores a number of case studies of Australian artists whose work has been censored. It attempts to advise on how best to respond to censorship and details the several laws and protocols that can prevent public access to artworks – many of which can be invoked capriciously or on the whim of politicians, officials or interest groups.
It also examines laws relating to classification, blasphemy, profanity, defamation, indecency and obscenity, sedition, public order, vilification and incitement, as well as the issues involved with working with children, human remains and animals.
I was approached last year by the Guide's project manager, who asked if she might include a case study of the censorship of my Sex Tourist installation at Art Melbourne, a couple of years ago. The episode attracted national press coverage, led by Melbourne's The Age newspaper and ABC Television news. The mixed media works featured in the installation are reproduced in the Guide in colour.
The publication has had a lot of media attention since NAVA announced, in 2008, that they would be developing it – most recently in an article published in The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.
The publication of the Art Censorship Guide is particularly timely. This week the government of my home state, New South Wales, announced their recommendation that the ‘artistic defence’ provision be removed when images deemed as ‘child pornography’ go to trial.
The Australian definition of child pornography includes pseudo images (artwork) of children. Only the Child Pornography Working Party (in which no artists are included or represented) decides whether artworks are created for a legitimate artistic purpose or child pornography.
Even works including non-sexual nudity can possibly be deemed as such. During prosecution, the courts decide the artworks' standards of morality and decency, its literary, artistic or educational merit, and the general 'character' of the material.
The full Report of the Child Pornography Working Party can be read here.
No artist, gallery or arts body would be exempt. NAVA submitted their Art Censorship Guide to the state's Classification Board before release to avoid possible censorship, restrictions or legal action. Inevitably, government art grants will only be given to art and artists that meet the Child Pornography Working Party's guidelines.
Bill Henson
is an established, internationally recognised and critically acclaimed Australian photographer. He represented Australia at the 49th Venice Biennale in 1995, and has works in major institutions in the USA, Europe and, of course, Australia.
Throughout his career, Henson has explored the transitions of pre- and early adolescence in his photographs. However, In 2008, Henson's Sydney exhibition was shut down and his photographs seized by police after complaints that a photograph of a13-year-old girl, naked from the waist up, was child pornography. Our prime minister, who hadn't seen the images, described them as "absolutely revolting".
I wrote about the controversy in a blog entry in 2008. Despite spurious charges against Henson (and his gallery) being dropped, a media witch-hunt ensued. And it continues.
initial cultural, legal, media and public response to the issue across Australia was deplorable. No-one – not Henson, not his gallery, not the many senior curators that exhibited his work, not the hundreds of collectors and government-funded institutions that have bought his work, not the many critics who had given his work rave reviews – spoke out. The silence was deafening.
Potential damage to Australia's cultural significance was mentioned. But no-one said a word in public about the works themselves or Henson's role as an artist – although some were moved to acknowledge he was "a good artist" (whatever that means).
Instead, a number of galleries removed Henson photographs from their public collections and websites until the controversy passed, probably because they were concerned they might lose governmental and corporate funding. I was, still am, furious that an entire segment of society that's supposedly devoted to art was too gutless to stand up for itself.
I was enraged that Henson didn't defend his own work and the ideas he had been exploring in his photographs for more than twenty years. He stayed silent and out-of-sight. A month later, he made a brief, ass-kissing statement thanking people for their support and praising existing laws. It was an unforgivable betrayal not only of his own work but of the work of other artists. Whether intentional or not, his silence was a submission to censorship.
Artists don't need further encouragement to self-censor their work. These days, they're pressured by commercial galleries to create work that sells and that can double as interior decoration. They're also pressured to conform to current academic and cultural trends – not to mention government agenda – in their applications for funding grants.
The culture of art competitions and prizes further encourages the ideas of creating a work that will be popular or appeal to a certain set of judges.
Henson's lack of action implied that art and ideas are not worth fighting for, that the role of the artist is to avoid risk, to retreat in the face of adversity and controversy, to be silent on (then publicly thankful for) oppressive laws. His actions – and even, in some ways, the Art Censorship Guide's advice for avoiding damaging public or media reactions to artwork – are a recommendation to artists to play safe and be prepared to edit their work to avoid controversy.
This is indirectly confirmed by Executive Director of NAVA, Tamara Winikoff's statement that the tightening of NSW child pornography laws could increase the artistic self-censorship that has happened in the wake of the Bill Henson controversy.
Bill Henson states that he is not interested in a political or sociological agenda (even though his work inevitably engages both). It's a neat line used by too many artists to extract themselves from any further involvement when the real-world issues blow up. This unwillingness to be involved reinforces art's current irrelevance to the world. The position is beyond safe. It's cowardly and hypocritical.
The recent legal developments regarding censorship – and my reactions to it – have made me re-evaluate my own position. I have been increasingly disquieted by the fact that I have taken less, not more, risks. I'd been considering moving away from my more sexually explicit work. Not anymore.
It has only been a few decades since women began openly to discuss their sexual desires. Even now, we face derision, abuse and neglect – to which men are not subjected – when we're frank about our sexuality. But we need to remember that in art as in all things to do with sex silence equals shame. I'm all too familiar with the damage that silence can wreak.
So I refuse to be silent.


Maria Brophy said...

It takes a lot of courage and strength of character to stand up for what you believe in. I'm glad you have both. Thanks for writing this - it's an inspiration and an encouragement for artists to not bow down to pressures that force them to play it safe.

Christy said...

Hazel's back. With a bang! Very well written and dare I say thought provoking? Welcome back.

lisa said...

It's really hard to be the one brave enough to say what many others are thinking but too chicken to say. But it's so important. Good on you Hazel.

laf said...

Glad you're back and how.
Looks like you're going to have a fight on your hands, that'll raise the adrenaline level without a doubt'
Good on you woman

Lorna said...

I wiggled with embarrassment reading your words of empowerment. I changed a naked mother and daughter painting because of the anger I received whilst blogging it's process. I felt that I was being criminalised because of the perversion of the few.

I admire your courage.

Remittance Girl said...

The telling part you have pointed out is: "Our prime minister, who hadn't seen the images, described them as 'absolutely revolting'."

That about says it all. Politicians and opinion makers so bent on appearing righteously indignant, who have never actually seen the work.


Angela Hunt said...


Go Hazel.

Glad to have you back.

faunawolf said...

You are such an inspiration. I have never understood the human ability to 'roll over and take it'. I admire anyone who gives as good as they get.

Very informative and interesting post.

Liras said...

Artists often have tight leashes binding them and collars forced around their necks.

I have often wondered what a struggle it must be to fight society and one's heart.

Often, we shut down a discussion about a subject, because we do not want to even set parameters. How can a picture been called revolting if it has not been seen? The description did not make me think of a prurient image. Why did the PM think so? Because she was thirteen and not ten? Was it solely based on gender?

How do we create guidelines without discussion? Why is punishment considered to be a form of dialogue?

I do not advocate pushing the envelope with images of minors. I also do not think a steady diet of violence given to kids is great, either. There is way too much of a cultural push to make young girls into sexual objects, as it stands. However,the human body is not intrinsically sexy, to me. We cannot operate on the presupposition that it is. And those who think any and all images of a human body are sexy need help.

But is not not prudent to automatically crush the debate. I have not seen the pictures, either. But I don't see how not talking of them somehow makes things "right".

We often fear images, because they have so much power.

Mr Hensen should have taken a public stand. But maybe he felt it was too risky. However, when one makes something, one should be prepared to explain, protect and defend it.

I wish you all the best in your fight to help others see that questioning and vigilance on the part of artists is necessary for the health of a society.

Anonymous said...

This is a fantastic piece, and a stirring call to arms. I'm glad you're out there fighting the good fight and actively recruiting others to join in.

Alas, most people are chicken-shit when it comes to defending their beliefs, so the heavy lifting is always done by so very few.