Modern art and its alleged evils

This post is adapted from one I made on personal blog a few days ago – hopefully, it might attract interest here. The issues spin out of current debates in Australia (which are similar to some debates elsewhere) about freedom of speech and expression. During the discussion, I was referred to an article by Ben Hourigan, published by the Institute of Public Affairs – a more-or-less libertarian think tank that I often disagree with (but like the Cato Institute in the US, it also takes some stances that I find intellectually attractive).

This piece by Hourigan goes back some years to a controversy in 2008 about the work of a celebrated Australian photographer, Bill Henson, which can be controversial because of images like this (warning: the image is not, in my view, an example of pedophilia, child pornography, or anything remotely of the kind – but there are people who disagree). I posted on this issue on numerous occasions in June 2008 (e.g. here), if you want to follow up on my personal blog.

Hourigan makes some comments that I agree with:

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 various useful things about this particular episode in Australian social and political life and others, such as the exhibition at an earlier time of 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, Hourigan 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, or so I think, 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 in mid-2008, Henson’s photography does not demean or blatantly sexualise its subjects, but what if it did? At some point, images with certain similarities could cross the line and become child pornography, even though that never actually happened in Henson’s case (and the images were ultimately given G-ratings, or in one case a PG rating).

The point is that there are some limits, even if broad ones, to what can be (acceptably) done even in the name of high art. There is an edginess about much serious art, and it is, indeed, understandable that it 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 Kevin 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 photographs, 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”. Hey, 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 art 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 these 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, well, “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 (but not surprise at an abstract proposition) 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. At the time of the Henson debacle, Hourigan found some useful and even incisive things to say, but his final admonition to artists misses the point.

  1. Two things strike me here.

    1/. Is it possible to make an artistically valid statement without upsetting everybody?

    2/. If so why is so much modern art ‘edgy’?

    Its it on fact possible that its a lot easier to be ‘edgy’ than create a work of genuine talent?

    And the edginess is a sign of lack of talent, rather than its presence.

  2. In answer to (1) wouldn’t that depend on, among other things, the content of the statement? But in any event, can works of art be reduced to statements? Presumably they are intended to have certain effects on people, such as provoking emotional responses, sometimes unsettling people, rather than just stating abstract propositions. If that’s your aim, I don’t see how it shows a lack of talent if people are, in fact, provoked, unsettled, etc.

  3. Do you think the funding source of an exhibit has a place in this discussion? Say, Public (governmental-tax payer) funded versus private funding?

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