A caution - and something on truthfulness ~ theatre notes

Saturday, June 07, 2008

A caution - and something on truthfulness

I know you must all be sick to death of the Henson debacle (I certainly am, and am looking forward to a break from Australia next week) but I feel obliged to update, I hope for the last time, since this case has signalled some warnings for all of us. I am a bit tired of those who keep casting this as a question of The Arts vs Everyone Else: no, it's a question of whether we want to live in a society where moral questions are rigidly applied in state law. As in, for example, theocracies ruled by Sharia law, or the extremities of the Taliban.

Western democracy balances individual and societal freedoms and, for the moment, there are places where the state, quite rightly, stops. As far as I'm concerned, its authority in questions of private morality should focus on the question of harm to others, and that harm should be actual and not perceived. It has yet to be proved to me that Henson's art has harmed anybody, although the kinds of distress these campaigners have caused Henson, his models and their families with their ugly accusations about child porn have, I have no doubt, caused a lot of damage. For all her supposed concerns about the rights of young people, Bravehearts campaigner Hetty Johnston hasn't shown a great deal of respect for the young models in Henson's photographs, and has certainly paid no attention to anything they have said in defence of Henson.

There are various responses to yesterday's dropping of charges against Henson. Hetty Johnston, whose complaints to police sparked the Roslyn Oxley9 raids, has announced her intentions to pursue her campaign against Henson. And, as comments posted here demonstrate, campaigners have decided that he's a menace to society and must be stopped, even over the dead body of democracy. As UK anti-porn activist Gregory Carlin said to the pro-life (homophobic, anti-Harry Potter) LifeSiteNews, "Material which is child pornography in Britain, is now considered child friendly viewing in Australia". Watch out.

Michael Leunig today claims that those who defend Henson do so "in chorus" (unlike, presumably, the brave individuals going with the flow of public outrage): "Some say his work is creepy pornography that culturally legitimises and fosters pedophilia, others hold the considered view that it's abusive and exploitative, while others defend it unreservedly in chorus, seeing any forceful questions or challenge about its essence as a sure sign of ignorance, repression and mindless resistance to change." He reflects many accusations recently made of the arts world, which reflect attitudinal prejudices rather more than what was actually argued; and of course there are many "considered" and thoughtful defences of Henson's work. And it's hard to think of a world more riven by disagreement than the arts.

But there we go: take heed, my friends, and think on. It is not the fault of artists that they are thought of in these ways so widely, since the arts are in general so badly discussed in the mainstream media, but it is up to artists to address the problem.

And finally, a word from Patrick McCaughey, whom many of you will remember as the flamboyant director of the NGV until he moved to the US, where he was a major defender of Robert Mapplethorpe. He has an interesting reflection in the Australian today, in which he talks with great good sense about the ethics and limits of art:

The artist as rebel against bourgeois order may be an over-familiar image. But working at the edge has brought us great rewards in modern art, from James Joyce's Ulysses to Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles and, yes, Henson's photography. That edge deliberately pushes the envelope of the acceptable, both morally and aesthetically.

Best practice among the arts hews to a morality of truthfulness: truthful to the artist's experience or imagination, to observed reality, to a belief, to a concept of art. That morality may find itself in conflict with bourgeois expectations, such as acknowledging openly the irreversible moment of sexual awakening in teenage children.

The morality of truthfulness also acts as a shield and a sword against racism, xenophobia and prejudice against the other, be they gay or lesbian, Jew or Muslim.

There are limits on the artist as there are limits on the laity. They are intimately tied to a morality of truthfulness. An artist cannot claim the impunity of artistic freedom and be, for example, a Holocaust denier, an addict of hate speech or a child pornographer.

Each carries a denial of truthfulness. The first is a denial of history, the second is a denial of authenticity and the third is a denial of responsibility and empathy for the innocent, without which good art cannot be made.

20 comments:

ken nielsen said...

A few observations:
1. The question of whether artists have special freedoms was not tested in this case. Henson's work was in no context illegal. I am glad that I did not have to think about whether artists have freedoms the rest of us don't have.
2. Artists defended Henson because his work was art, not necessarily because they thought it had any privilege. I defended it because I believe in maximum freedom in society and because I could not see that this work harmed anyone. In other words, many of us creakily mounted horses we had last ridden in the 70s.
The motives of the defenders were not important, the principles were.
3. Who was harmed? Probably not Henson, but probably the models and their parents who were subject to very unpleasant criticism from Rudd and Iemma.
4. Iemma's comment today that he could not understand a parent allowing a child to pose in this way just adds to the many thousands of things in life that Iemma does not understand.
5. Hetty was Hetty, which should surprise no-one. AM radio behaved in its usual cheap irresponsible way. Those whose reputations were really reduced by all this are the politicians and the NSW police. I hope they have learned something.

Inkster said...

1. The Law as it exists today balances Morality and Art and gives Artists (more correctly, people who do something artistic) a defence or freedom.

2. Now that the Morality Brigade has witnessed the operation of the Law as it exists today, they're not happy and they want to change it.

3. The issue will soon be, will those who are happy with the current balance stand up for it and resist attempts to change the Law. Of course, we will be painted as immoral and revolting!

4. If the current defence is removed from section 91G (the section that protects the child as opposed to the audience), then we will basically have strict liability, so that parents (and maybe even children) who consent to participating in the photographic session will be committing a crime as well as the photographer.

5. No-one will want to venture into this area of Art, because it will be too risky and expensive. Which is exactly what the Moral Brigade want to achieve.

6. Ken's point about harm is a good one. The issue of perceived harm is really important to the issue of who should be allowed to consent. Is it an area where the parents should be entitled to consent (assuming that the child already consents) or is the Law going to reserve the right to the State?

7. The latter option would be the ultimate act of paternalism.

8. Which proves that there are no greater exponents of political correctness than social and moral conservatives, when it suits them.

Alison Croggon said...

Henson will have been harmed by this, in private as well as public ways. The public damage is obvious. Privately, I can only guess. I don't know how an artist preserves the innocence of a particular vision, when it has been so thoroughly humiliated and vilified.

I think here that artistic freedom ought to be seen as a subset of freedom of expression. Which goes way beyond the question of whether artists are privileged. I don't think artistic works ought to be privileged above any other kind, although they might be valued for things that other kinds of communication or actions (political speech, human rights actions, etc) might not be; ie, the kinds of human complexities and beauties and questions they alone are capable of expressing.

Russell Blackford said...

Iemma has free speech, too, in the sense that it should be legal for him to say these ugly, stupid things. I make this disclaimer because sometimes the muddle-headed accuse of us being against the freedom of speech of politicians when we criticise their utterances. I don't want a law shutting him up; on the other hand, it'd be good if he'd shut up voluntarily and stop making such crude, damaging, irresponsible comments.

One good thing that came out of this debacle - and I must thank Alison for it yet again, since much of it was her doing - was the way a broad range of people came together to stand up for Henson's freedom of expression. I hope that all the people who are worried about freedom of speech and expression in this country can find ways to organise, because these values are increasingly under attack. I certainly don't trust the existing civil liberties bodies to carry the fight forward.

Alison Croggon said...

Yep. Thanks for that, Russell: we've hit that issue a few times in this debate, where people seem to think disagreement means a desire to close discussion (no it doesn't, but the exhortation toward legal or police action or censorship certainly does). And this, despite the very clear disclaimer about the right for people to hold their own opinions and the welcoming of public debate in the 2020 letter. Probably time to quote Voltaire again!

Paul Martin said...

I must say that I've been a little surprised by Michael Leunig's stance on this matter. As an artist who has been hurt by vicious accusations of ignorant people on matters they have little understanding of, I'd have thought he'd be a little more hesitant to level criticism at Henson.

Anonymous said...

The 20/20 letter was about censorship, poor old Rudd got hammered for stating what most people think, the photos were sickening to many.

Also Alison is inviting disaster by claiming vindication,

she is not being honest, I concede what the board said about X, I've not denied what the classification board concluded

however I'm truthfully stating it is child pornography in London and Heathrow, Custom & Excise, is foreign ground to Henson.

I've ccampaigned in the USA for well for a decade, and I know Henson is in trouble there as well.

So the reality is, he has a temporary respite, if he stays put, he might also find Cambodia or Hapan hospoitable, but we are waiting for him, and we're going to get him.

Henson is a hunted creature from ths point on, he's finished. I also what what the foreign cops thought of the classification bosard thing,

Because Centurion wasn't the only thing bounced to Oz recently. Henson also featured in alerts from Canada, UK etc.

Anonymous said...

"As UK anti-porn activist Gregory Carlin said to the pro-life (homophobic, anti-Harry Potter) LifeSiteNews, "Material which is child pornography in Britain, is now considered child friendly viewing in Australia". Watch out."

I just objected to the sleight of hand, in the UK the images are child pornography and the UK's Tony Blair had a reputation on abortion which shocked pro-Vatican advocates, I also accept he was inducted into the club in a style for for a Duke.

I hardly think the UK falls into the anti Harry Potter camp. Though the SOA 2003 has my finger-prints on it.

I'm doing Henson, in my view, it is only a matter of time, one gallery at a time, one country at a time, I don't lose campaigns, whether it takes one year or five, that's just the time table.

Henson was a factor in relation to the development of child pornography laws in Britain.

What Hetty has been saying oon TV and the radio, that's true, if he does it in London, he's in a lot of trouble, and there is no classification board to save him, thee just isn't.

The defenses are as follows.


There are a number of exceptions:

* Under section 1 (1)(a) of the 1978 Act taking, permitting etc, section 1(1)(b) distribute or show and section 1(1)(c) possession with a view to distribution, it is for the defendant to prove that the photo was of the child aged 16 or 17 and at the time of the offence charged he was married or lived as partners in an enduring family relationship;
* It is a defence under section 1(1)(b) or (c) where the defendant proves that the photo was of the child aged 16 or 17 and at the time (s)he obtained the photo (s)he was married to the child or lived as partners in an enduring family relationship;
* The above only apply where the photo shows the child alone or with the defendant;
* Once the defendant has proved the marriage or other relationship, there is an evidential burden on the defendant to raise an issue in relation to the child's consent to the taking or making of the picture, and a reasonable belief in that consent;
* In relation to the showing or distribution offence, it is a defence, unless the prosecution proves that the photo was shown to anyone other than the child;
* In relation to possession of the photo with a view to distribution, the defendant has an evidential burden to show that the child consented or reasonably believed the child consented to his or her possession of the photo;
* The same exceptions apply to possession of photographs under section 160 of the 1988 Act;
* Where the indecent photograph is made for the purposes of prevention, detection or investigating crime or for criminal proceedings in any part of the world (section 46);
* Prosecutors should be aware that the consent of the DPP is still required.

And that's it. In the UK, I'd have had no difficulty arranging a problem for Bill Henson.

There are exceptions to the SOA 2003, and being a good photographer or Bill Henson isn't one of them.

Gregory

Anonymous said...

"the Law going to reserve the right to the State?"

Consent isn't possible, that was the UN & Amnesty thing we had with the jail guards, & the teachers as well, how many thousands have went to jail because of that campaigning?

I was doing anti-pornography activism there as well, with guards, with teachers, I initiated the campaign against Sheriff Joe Arpaio, that went to the Supreme Court courtesy retired district judge Donna Hamm (Tempe, Arizona)

JAIL WEBCAMS
Criticism for sheriff's pornographic jailcam
Posted Mon, 30 Apr 2001

Arpaio was on the College of Electors by the way and who is as conservative as Attila.

I targeted the rightist and Catholic Gov. Engler in Michigan and republican Gov. Symington in Arizona as well. I chased one of my Arizona opponents to the gates of Abu Ghraib,

So, I'm now doing Henson, because it was squirted all over the internet, because he is now a pedophile icon, because I have no choice, he went too far.

It's like that.

Gregory

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Gregory, thanks for the warning. On my side, I've been watching developments in Britain and Canada that will be making it illegal to stage Romeo and Juliet or to read His Dark Materials or other popular children's books. I've also been keeping a close eye on local commentary on this case, and I have some faith in the stubborn common sense of the Australian public.

Alison Croggon said...

I'm sorry to break the news to you, Gregory, but Henson's work is widely displayed internationally in many major galleries. And yes, the letter was about censorship: but not on our part: we condemned no one for holding a differing opinion. We merely asked that these questions be debated where these debates belong, outside the courts of law. What bit of the following is so hard to understand?

The public debate prompted by the Henson exhibition is welcome and important. We need to discuss the ethics of art and the issues that it raises. That is one of the things art is for: it is valuable because it gives rise to such debate and difference, because it raises difficult, sometimes unanswerable, questions about who we are, as individuals and as members of society. However, this on-going discussion, which is crucial to the healthy functioning of our democracy, cannot take place in a court of law.

We invite the Prime Minister, Mr Rudd, and the NSW Premier, Mr Iemma, to rethink their public comments about Mr Henson’s work. We understand that they were made in the context of deep community concern about the sexual exploitation of children. We understand and respect also that they have every right to their personal opinions. However, as political leaders they are influential in forming public opinion, and we believe their words should be well considered.

We also call on the Minister for Environment Heritage and the Arts, Mr Garrett, to stand up for artists against a trend of encroaching censorship which has recently resulted in the closure of this and other exhibitions.

We wish to make absolutely clear that none of us endorses, in any way, the abuse of children.

Anonymous said...

"Campaigners have decided that he's a menace to society"?

Campaigners? Right-wing Catholic lunatics more like.

Speaking of which, when do we suspect that defamation charges will start?

"A win for peodophiles". I feel so sorry for that woman.

abigail proctor said...

Please don't tell Gregory this as he's likely to have an embolism, but anyone can Google Sally Mann's name and see dozens of her beautiful photographs of her children, most of which are far more direct in their "nakedness' than anything done by Henson. Who would have thought the backwoods of the rural South in the USA would be more accepting of an artist than our Prime Minister's office?

Inkster said...

I'm sure people use the internet to mislead others, but if you wander around in the limited time available, you can occasionally work out whether they're having a lend of you.

Article 2 of the "Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography" states that, for the purposes of the Protocol:

"(c) Child pornography means any representation, by whatever means, of a child engaged in real or simulated explicit sexual activities or any representation of the sexual parts of a child for primarily sexual purposes."

Before everybody starts amending Australian Law to conform with their view of UK Law (or their view of what the Protocol means), could they please start at the top with the United Nations and work down.

In the meantime, if they focused their efforts on child pornography(as defined by the UN), then they might actually protect some real (rather than hypothetical) children.

Anonymous said...

What Bill does is child pornography in a lot of places. It is not as if my views are that unusual.

In the USA, one doesn't really need nudity, in Hong Kong, a bare breast will be enough.

The ECHR is compliant with the SOA 2003, so that is European Union compliant.

It is good to see that the first inklings, of a VGT problem being hit upon by your pro-Hensonites.

Given the scale of child pornography, it is better to cut Oz adrift sand let it run with Japan.

The Oz police are telling their US and European counterparts that your country's a complete mess on the child protection front.

It is a morale thing.

Gregory

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Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Gregory. One spam is enough. This thread is now closed, so we can get on with talking about theatre, the actual topic of this blog, and I can go have a wash.

Alison Croggon said...

PS One final post, to clarify: the UK sexual offence laws are quite clear that illegal actions (of assault, abuse, touching etc) are made with "sexual intent", and quite clearly address sexual abuse. I would suggest that Gregory's arguments here wouldn't be accepted by any fair minded judge, and that any defence would rest on the definition of "indecent". It seems to me, though, looking at the very specific definitions of sexual assault, indecency and abuse in the legislation, that it could be very clearly argued that the photographs are not indecent under law.

The relevant sections are summed up here, with a short definition of "indecent":

Indecent images of children (section 8H)

Section 8H amends current legislation criminalising the taking, possessing and distribution of indecent images of children and young people so that it applies to images of people under 18 rather than under 16.

The provisions however allow a defence to the charge if:

* the picture is of a 16 or 17 year old

* the 16 or 17 year old consents to the picture being made and/or possessed

* the picture is not distributed

* the accused person and the 16 or 17 year old are married, civil partners or in an established relationship


The Bill relies on the existing definition of an indecent picture, as established by the courts, of a picture that tends to corrupt or deprave the viewer.