The wash up ~ theatre notes

Friday, May 30, 2008

The wash up

Daniel Schlusser pointed out last week that an illiterate idiot published in the Age was quoting William Blake in order to condemn Bill Henson. (Formerly Chief of Staff to Howard Federal Minister Kevin Andrews, Kevin Donnelly is also, ironically enough, author of a paper attacking contemporary education called "Dumbing Down"). It's almost Freudian: I can't think of a more apt poet for the defence. No one more fiercely defended the innocence of the body, nor more eloquently attacked the hypocrisy of the prurient:

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut
And "Thou shalt not," writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

One could be excused for thinking this has been a bad week for art; but, exhausted as I am, I am inclined to think otherwise. It is a mistake to think that the loudest, most strident voices are the dominant ones. They are not. I have been scanning the media and the internet, and much more often I see thoughtfulness and reason, and disquiet at what has been happening here over the past week. Among the best responses I have read was a letter published in the Sydney Morning Herald from a former police superintendent, Alan Leek, which I'll reproduce in full here for its refreshingly sane perspective from someone who knows very well what child pornography and sexual abuse actually are. One of the aspects I most resent about this furore is, in fact, how it trivialises child sexual abuse:

With a foot in both camps, I have watched with interest as this sorry Bill Henson episode has unfolded. I am in a position, perhaps unique in this farce, of having been a member of the NSW Police Force for 34 years and, for the most part concurrently, proprietor of a commercial exhibiting gallery for more than 25 years.

I am gobsmacked and bitterly disappointed that a police force, which is far better than the one I joined all those years ago and far better educated, still fails to see when it has been ambushed by the pursed-lipped paragons of public morality; those zealots who can't separate nudity from sexuality and who rely on an obsequious police to do their bidding in glorious ignorance. Let's face it; most police would not know their Ansel Adams from their elbow.

Debate is one thing, criminal sanctions are another. Debate should be welcomed - criminal sanctions stifle any opportunity for debate.

Henson's art has nothing to do with exploitation or pedophilia, but enough has been said about that by those more qualified than I.

Not one of the pedophiles I arrested and prosecuted advertised their vile workings. They operated under the coward's cloak of darkness and familiarity. Not for them the arc lights of a legitimate gallery - more the deeper crevices of the internet or the well-thumbed pages of their sordid juvenilia and other paraphernalia.

That senior police fail to utilise their discretion to uphold the independence of a profession I still hold dear, setting themselves up again to be pilloried for ill-informed actions that must surely fail, is a bitter pill for me.

Having worked with scarce resources, I shake my head at the waste portrayed by television images of police seizing crates of artworks, and wonder to what better use their expertise might be applied. Child protection, perhaps?

Ill-informed comment and motherhood statements from political leaders that further cast the burden on police are regrettable.

To ensure that public disquiet is addressed in the future and that the police do not continue to undo their normally laudable work, perhaps those same political leaders might consider a mechanism where pious complaints can be referred to censorship arbiters.

In the meantime, I commend Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, for standing tall when others have lacked the backbone to do the same.

In my various command positions, I would not have sanctioned the actions being taken by police. I would also have no hesitation in exhibiting Henson's work.

In time, this whole inane episode will appear pretty dumb, but the damage to Henson and his subjects and lost opportunities for professional policing are inestimable.

Alan Leek (retired superintendent of police) Breewood Galleries, Richmond


Our Open Letter made the front pages of the Herald Sun, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age (the Australian gave it what perhaps was its real news value and ran it more modestly), and overseas was reported in the Guardian, the New York Times and by the BBC. I and other signatories were on talkbacks all over Australia, on PM, the ABC news and television. It has been misquoted, misrepresented and plain lied about. (I personally wish on Miranda Devine the task of getting the "lockstep" artistic community to agree about anything). It was also reported fairly in many instances, and published in full on the Age's site, so anyone who cares to do so can check what was actually said. The letter has been also been reproduced in OnLine Opinion, Real Time and on many blogs.

Those who are surprised by the venom some responses unleashed against the arts community should get out more. There is a real and abiding hatred of the arts and artists among a noisy minority of Australians, fuelled by perceptions that artists are lazy, rich bludgers who steal the tax-payers' money while lounging about decadently drinking absinthe and (almost certainly) molesting small children. Those who are not aware of this strand of the Australian conversation should be. The culture wars are by no means over. To undo this perception - one which, as we all know, bears no relation to reality - will take long, patient and calm work.

Those of us who care about the arts and freedom of expression should focus rather those on who are also speaking, if less stridently, more rationally and thoughtfully about this issue. Over the past couple of days, I have done a scan of blogs and media coverage, and it seems to me that these voices far outnumber those rushing to lynch Henson. I am not so sure that the "arts community" is as "out of touch" as some interested commentators claim.

Samples of the more interesting commentary, in blogs and other online publications, are below:

New Matilda
Sorrow at Sill's Bend
Discussion (and links to others) at Larvateus Prodeo
The Guardian
Home Page Daily
Sebastian Smee (The Australian)
Guy Beres
Hyperidian Bannerman
Goals + Girls Blog
Cafe Philos
Not Too Much (interesting, a Christian view)
Pavlov's Cat

Interestingly too, given the Malthouse/Victorian Opera's recent production of Through the Looking Glass, Phillip Adams raises Lewis Carroll. And it's hard not to wonder how the upcoming Hayloft production of Franz Wedekind's Spring Awakening will go in its return season at Belvoir St in Sydney later this year.

And, for some comic relief:

Ampersand Duck
Aaron Timms in the SMH
Pauline Futeran

Finally, many people have asked to put their names to the Open Letter. We are now considering how best to facilitate this, and will let you all know as soon as it's decided. Meanwhile, normal programming will resume soon.


Anonymous said...

The Alan Leek letter was also praised in the Sydney morning Herald this morning in a letter from Robyn Nevin.

Anonymous said...

Devine: ' remote Aboriginal communities...the social norms we take for granted, such as the love of a mother for her child, have collapsed.'

shame, Miranda. I am not part of your 'we'.

Anonymous said...

There's a similar post, in the same vein as Elmo, you could add to the list: "New Jim Henson Photograph Uncovered".

"World-renowned art expert and Queenslander, Kevin (’Check My’) Rodd told Channel Nine’s Toady Show, “Look, you kneejerk reaction is it’s just disgusting...Piglets should be allowed to be just…piglets, you know?"

Anonymous said...

I was going to say that I found Donnelly's article was astonishingly ignorant and intellectually dishonest for someone with "Dr" in front of his name, but have now discovered he was Kevin Andrews' CoS at DEWR, is a member of the Liberal Party and writes regularly for The Australian. I am no longer astonished. (I am astonished, though, by the drawing beside his opinion piece.)
I mean what can you say to this: "Put the photographs of an under-age girl between the covers of Playboy or Penthouse and, not only would it be illegal, but the public would have every right to complain"? Yes...and? Or this: "Art deals with human emotions, predicaments and the world around us in a profoundly moral, spiritual and aesthetic way"? I think he means, "the art I like". And then to admit "I have not seen the photographs in question".

There may be some insight here: "under-age girls, silhouetted and standing provocatively". Actually, not standing provocatively. Just standing. However, some viewers - say, for argument's sake, Dr Kev - could conceivably feel "provoked" by images of naked underage girls. But the viewers are responsible for their own reactions, not the girls in the images.

And then to offer the devil's (or perhaps the evil post-modernists') "slippery slope"... Next thing you know he'll be wanting to "Draw The Line!", beginning with re-banning Lady Chatterley perhaps.

Anonymous said...

Donnelly as Chair of the bit of the Liberal Party organisation that covers Kooyong has spent about 10 very bitter and sleazy years trying to get rid of Petro Georgio by hook and crook.

Paul Sunstone said...

Thank you for the link, Alison! It's much appreciated. Also, I believe your open letter was very persuasive to anyone with a mind to think it through.

Troy Camplin said...

This much is accurate: "Art deals with human emotions, predicaments and the world around us in a profoundly moral, spiritual and aesthetic way." One would hope that true artists could agree with this without agreeing with the conclusions drawn from it. This statement does not mean that artistic depictions of underage girls should be illegal; quite the contrary, it can equally mean that when viewing the images, we should look for the moral, spiritual, and aesthetic value, and not just assume that it's meant to turn people on. The latter assumption may say more about the objector's predilections than about his artistic sensibilities.