What has happened to modern art


| Ben Hourigan

Photographs of naked thirteen-year-old girls, crucifixes immersed in urine, and videos of chickens being decapitated: this is modern art.

So you'd think, at least, if you went by what gets the most attention in the news, and never visited art galleries or thumbed through art books. You might even get the impression that artists are mostly depraved or at best loopy. And you probably wouldn't be too worried when you see photographs in the papers of police confiscating artworks from galleries.

It's the wrong attitude, but understandable-because in many cases, high-profile artists are motivated by the idea that it's a good thing to deliberately flout what they consider to be the ideas ordinary people hold about what is good, beautiful, and decent. Unfortunately, the intellectual dividends from such convention-busting brinksmanship are often meagre.

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.'

Seeing our police and top politicians turned vigilante art critics is more concerning than the climax of our last major art controversy over ten years ago. In 1997, an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne showed Andre Serrano's Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucifix immersed in urine. George Pell, then Melbourne's Catholic Archbishop, nevertheless called the work ‘a grossly offensive, scurrilous and insulting treatment of Christianity's most sacred holy symbol,' and attempted to secure an injunction from the Supreme Court of Victoria to prevent its exhibition. But an enraged member of the public made the definitive statement by taking to the piece with a hammer while it was still on display, damaging the glass it was mounted under but leaving it otherwise relatively unharmed.

More recently, sensing a public appetite for art controversy, articles on the Biennale of Sydney have called attention to the Mike Parr's exhibition Mirror/Arse, which includes ‘a film showing a live chicken being decapitated ... footage of Parr slicing his arm with a blade and burning his index finger with a candle.' A police visit following a tip-off by the RSPCA in this instance only resulted in a strengthening of the warning shown at the exhibition's entrance, so that it tells attendees that the show ‘contains acts of violence ... some involving animals.'

Speaking as a writer (a class characteristically protective of their freedom to speak) and as a libertarian, all this is deeply troubling. 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.

And yet, it is easy to understand how this all happens. It's because all these artworks, and their artists, hold a common motivation that also pervades the academic arts and humanities in Western countries. 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.

In 2004, I spent an afternoon discussing the topic of ‘transgressing boundaries' with a postgraduate reading group in cultural studies I was a part of at the University of Melbourne. Our focus that day was an article that included an analysis of ‘erotic vomiting,' where two people took the stage in front of an audience and one vomited into the other's mouth. In the context, it was supposed to be an act of intimacy and trust that had sensual allure and sexual charge for participants and onlookers alike.

Though many readers may now be feeling an instinctive revulsion (which I apologise for provoking), this anecdote is not designed to shock. Academics will treat such a practice clinically, even with an air of boredom if they have spent long enough discussing such topics. The point is that this level of deviance from commonly exhibited norms-not boring old bourgeois heterosexual love, or even homosexuals showing public affection for each other in the street-is what it takes to elicit interest in some quarters of the academy and the art world these days.

Academics will tell you that what people vomiting into each other's mouths has to do with naked thirteen-year-old girls, self-mutilation, and religious icons photographed in containers of bodily fluids, is that it is an act of transgression. That doesn't mean that it's an act of wrongdoing, necessarily, just that some kind of line has been approached, prodded, and then straddled or even flagrantly crossed.

This is supposed to be a good thing because the standard distinctions we make between good and evil, truth and falsity, and a whole range of similar pairs of concepts, are fundamentally flawed and an obstacle to proper critical thinking. Thank French philosopher Jacques Derrida for that gem of unreason.

Participants in erotic vomiting test the limits of what they will accept into their bodies from another person. Serrano's Piss Christ mixes up (so the standard analysis goes) the sacred and the profane, prompting us to consider what it really meant that God became man (the answer, apparently, is that Jesus urinated too). Henson's photos of naked adolescents, poised between childhood and adulthood, show that 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.

This last point, judging by the recent reaction to Henson's work, is something that many people don't like to be confronted with. And that's exactly the point-artists and intellectuals today are often coached to think of mainstream mores and tastes as simple-minded and contemptible. I often think this way myself. But the mission these artists embark upon to prod and transgress such attitudes can too often become an equally simple-minded exercise in hating the status quo and rejecting it out of hand, busting norms in an act of ‘creative destruction' without thinking much about what purpose those norms have served.

What comes out of it? Is ‘Jesus pissed too' really all we are supposed to get from an artwork that caused an Archbishop to seek a court injunction and a zealot to smash it with a hammer? Is ‘puberty is difficult and thirteen-year-olds have a budding sexuality' the most profound insight we get before the police show up and take Bill Henson's photographs away?

The anxiety-producing nature of some modern art might be easier for public attitudes to stand if the ideas motivating it weren't so crushingly banal.

Hetty Johnston, who made the complaint that started the whole Henson affair, advocates legislation that would see artists going through a government-supervised approval process before they were allowed to work with children. Appearing as a panelist on the SBS television program Insight, she said, ‘It's a debate we have to have ... I think it's healthy that we're having it.'

But the idea of artists begging the government to license them to do their work is as frightening as it is ludicrous. And it is lamentable in the extreme, for Henson as well as the art world, that the practice of boundary-prodding he's been pursuing for most of a career that began in the 1970s has now come up against a public hysteria about paedophilia that is apt to see any hint of teenage sexuality as an incitement to child abuse. However overworked his message is, he remains immensely technically accomplished, and the producer of many images of great beauty. Henson's craftsmanship is now likely to be remembered less than the fact that he was once accused of being a child pornographer.

Our law-enforcement authorities should legitimately be concerned about art that involves committing real crimes that involve real, non-consensual harm to people. Outside of that, the government should have nothing to do with art. It is one of the many facets of human civilisation that is best never politicised. Unless serial killers start exhibiting images of their crimes, we should not have to see, in the papers, images of police hauling photographs out of art galleries.

A world where government leaves art alone is a beautiful dream. If artists have any interest in seeing it realised, those who make a virtue of transgression need to make sure they have something genuinely profound and surprising to offer. Only then will they be able safely cry ‘hands off!' when the next politician tries to whip up moral outrage.


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