I am not sure the extent to which the world has been exposed to current art versus child porn debate that has been raging all week in Australia. I have been mulling over whether to post some thoughts on the current debate over the exhibition of Australian photographer Bill Henson. The Prime Minister has had his say, as had the art crowd. As is always so very useful, they appear to have set their tents in polar opposition to each other.
I have not commented mainly because I have not really had the time to devote to expressing myself with the clarity that I would like. As might be expected, venturing into the mine field that is a discussion that pits the notions of ‘artistic merit’ and ‘contextuality’ versus ‘the rights of the child’ and the legislative and judicial protection of minors is not one that I want to go in half arsed (not that this has stopped many commentators!) Moreover, my footing is not too sure when I venture into the legal notions that appear to underwrite the shut down of the artistic display.
Now, I am not making a call either way on Henson’s work, because quite frankly I am not too sure of my opinion! But I do have some sympathy to both legislators and those whose job it is to enforce the law. Legally, it seems to me that a firmer line has been established with regards to ‘the rights of children’ and what constitutes an infringement on those rights over the past ten to twenty years. By and large, this seems to be a good thing.
In this sense, I just cannot agree with Australian playwright Michael Gow when he says that any debate about the ethics of art should not involve the police. For mine, this is tant amount to saying that art is above the law. For me, the real problem is the question about who (or perhaps what) defines what equals art and what equals porn?
Given the absolute subjectivity of art itself (as I have already discussed on this site), this seems to me a ridiculous notion. For example, there was an outcry a few months ago over a story involving Costa Rican artist Guillermo Vargas allegedly tying up a starving and sick stray dog as part of an art exhibit. The story claimed that the dog eventually starved to death as an artistic statement. Now, contrary stories have emerged over whether the dog died or not, but for me, whatever artistic merit might be found in Vargas’s statement should not override any law that prevents cruelty to animals. Of course, it limits the freedom of artists to express themselves as they would like, but it does so to the broader benefit of animals elsewhere who may also be mistreated.
For me, it really gets back to the whole positive and negative freedom debate (as most arguments about rights and the state eventually do). As an unapologetic and self confessed social democrat, I am happy for the state to infringe upon some of my liberty to enhance my liberty in other areas and give me a pleasant vista.
Thus, for me, the simple recourse to ‘this nude child equals art because the artist (or art world) asserts it so’ has the potential to knock a pretty big hole in the legal framework that has emerged around the protection of children, one would think.
Now, I don’t intend this to mean “Henson should be locked up”, but I don’t think it is as straightforward as commentators of either extreme are framing it.
How does one quantify concepts like ‘artistic intent’ and ‘viewing context’? Where does the notion of ‘informed consent’ begin and end in an artistic context? Legally, the line in Australia on consent (although it has shifted) seems to have been reasonably clear (although I may be talking out of my backside on this one). I know that the mother of one of the models has defended the artist (and thus the art), but where does this stand with regard to the law? More importantly, where should it stand with regards to the law?
Supporters of Henson claim that the naked images of the thirteen year old at the centre of this controversy are at the same time ‘un-sexualised’ as ‘pushing the boundaries and provoking thought on the sexualisation of minors’. Talk about sailing close to the wind!
Similarly, the whole debate forces us to think about who sexualises such images. If an adult who has a sexual interest in children gets his/her jollies off on the pictures, is that the fault of the photographer, or the viewer? To flip this, if Joe Bloggs in the street (rather than internationally renowned artist Bill Henson) for whatever reason likes to take nude, but ‘artistic’ pictures of the little girl next door, do we extend to argument of ‘artistic merit’ to him? I would pretty quickly guess that we have not done so recently, and the odd are that the law would not. I think that the case of actor Chris Langham (Roy Mallard, how could you do it!?!) is a nice counterpoint to the Henson example.
Anyway, I said that I wanted to have my say and now I have. I would direct people to an interesting post on the Skepticlawyer site, who writes with much more authority on the legal issues than I ever could, and expresses an opinion that sounds like the one I have in my head, but cannot quite get out today! There is also some fiery discourse to be found on both Lavartus Prodeo and the Public Opinion blog. Have a look, and join in if you would like to have your say.
UPDATE: the art life has a neat encapsulation of the debate thus far.