Tag Archives: Censorship

Misunderstood Art

Polonius: (To Hamlet) What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet: Words, words, words.

(Hamlet II, ii, 192-3)

Nobody mistakes a game of football for anything else; there is never the question that it might not be a game of football or that it might be about something other than football. There are rare exceptions, the 1956 Russian Hungarian Olympic Water Polo match was about more than a sport. Generally the quality of the playing is tested and the results displayed on a scoreboard. Debate about sport is possible but eventually resolvable, the best team is the one that wins the most games.

Art is not like that; nothing will ever be resolved, it can be tested but not definitively. New interpretations and assessments are always possible for art but, short of revelations of cheating, nothing reverses sports results.

With all art there is always the possibility that it will be fundamentally misunderstood, not just in meaning or quality but also in its very category. It could be interpreted in a number of ways, or in post-modern speak, there are multiple readings. It is this possibility of being misunderstood that brings a special kind of quality to art. Not that all misunderstood things are of art, nor that ambiguity should be the objective of art, but that without the possibility of being misunderstood, that ambiguous quality, that makes art more than the sum of it constituent parts.

According to Mary Douglas’s theory expounded in her book, Purity and Danger (1966) the ambiguous category of art should make it taboo, a pollution that should be expelled. Or, because it does not fit into any category, that it should be sacred. Art is seen as both sacred and a pollution in society.

This ambiguous quality means that art can be about something else. Art has a relationship to a subject that cannot be reciprocated. For example, art can be about football but football can never be about art; as football is always about football. For art is a sign and signs also have a non-reciprocal relationship with what they signify.

Humans naturally want certainty but art requires a sophisticated, civilised approach that is, in this aspect, against nature. Art requires a degree of uncertainly, ambiguity or cognitive indeterminacy; to not know if you are looking at an image or paint, a story or words, Hamlet or an actor. Art requires possibility of multiple correct readings and even misunderstanding.

The unsophisticated mistake fiction for fact: a character for a real person, an actor for the character played, etc. They are apt to mistake art as pornography, sedition, blasphemy or some other prohibited or offensive category. These are unsophisticated views because they are forgetting that art is ambiguous, that they are looking at nothing but a creation of ink, or paint, or lights on a screen.

When a government’s claims to be able to make unambiguous distinction between what is permitted and what is censored the government case will always appears unsophisticated. How an unambiguous distinction can make about ambiguous material is never explained. It is simply assumed that the government is acting in a reasonable and rational manner. That agencies like the Australian Classification Board represent community values in their decisions. That it’s arbitrary interpretations of ambiguous material are certain and definite even when they very from year to year.

Sport is uncensored and more approved of than art because sport can be legislated. It can be legislated and controlled because it is unambiguous.

Are You Experienced?

In covering the Paul Yore story I felt hopelessly out of my depth, as an art critic I wasn’t experienced reporting on politics and law. I persevered, determined to follow the story to the best of my abilities for over a year.

From the start, covering the case felt like a futile task as I already knew the outcome, it was as predictable as continued government funding for the National Gallery. Sure, it might not happen, especially if people treated the outcome as predictable and that any energy spent on it wasted but realistically, what are the chances?

If Paul Yore had been found guilty it would just been a further repeat of what happened to Mike Brown with the sentence reduced to practically nothing on appeal. To expect anything else is to expect a revolution, art galleries ransack, Chloe seized by police from Young and Jackson’s…. As much as such a purge might be the wet dream of some right wing conservatives, it is not something that magistrates and judges would want to encourage. What they want is to preserve the status quo.

However in Australia, the status quo includes the random persecution of artists. I’m concerned that this could happen again, not in Victoria, not for a few years at least, after the police pay costs for the case, but to another artist in another state in a couple of years. Following the police raid on the Linden Centre gave me the feeling of the repeated witch hunts in Australian culture.

The typical Australian mob chants: “We don’t like it. Ban it!” Art, books, clothing, people…. “We don’t like it. Ban it!” The mob needs to shut up, listen to reason and understand that just because they are the mob doesn’t mean that they should dictate taste. That instead of banning art and the expensive circus of police raids and court cases that we should engage in a democratic discussion. But what are the chances of that happening?

Being out of my depth with covering a criminal case there were things that I could learn, how to find court dates, get media statements from the police but as I learnt I also realised one of the drawbacks of being a blogger and freelance writer. What I was missing as a freelance writer and blogger was the experience of a large newsroom where I could have consulted with, or even collaborated with, the regular court reporters and the politics reporters.

Now I’m not asking for your sympathy but for you to consider a world with smaller editorial departments, smaller news rooms, more freelance journalists trying to tell larger stories. In the current world experience is too often dissipated rather than concentrated.

Sometimes I felt like a vulture lopping over to the carcass of an artist’s career, amid the flapping wings of other vultures and having a feed on the remains. Choosing to stop by Neon Parc on my rounds of galleries in the city to see if I could pick up something.

I wrote a summary of the case for the online art magazine Hyperallergic and an article for Vault Magazine that examined Yore’s use of collage and assemblage in the light of Max Delany’s testimony to the court.

Graffiti & Censorship II

Are chalk drawings illegal under local laws? Moreland Council city infrastructure director, Nerina Di Lorenzo said that chalk drawings were illegal under Moreland Council laws. (Tessa Hoffman, “A message for all” Moreland Leader 27/9/10 p.1) I have tried but have been unable to get a comment from Nerina Di Lorenzo but it does appear that Moreland Council has made it illegal for a child to draw a hopscotch pattern on a Coburg sidewalk.

The Moreland Council is highly unlikely to prosecute a child drawing in chalk on the sidewalk. The legal threats were the council’s response to the political demands of the chalk marks as that were part of the campaign for a high school in Coburg. Letters to the Moreland Leader the following week were all in favour of the chalkboard hoarding. The campaign for high school in Coburg doesn’t care they have also been using a sticker campaign to get their message out.

One un-stated reason for the state to enact draconian anti-graffiti legislation has been to censor and control the public space. And anti-graffiti legislation goes further in providing an excuse to censor computer games, films and magazines about graffiti because they promote illegal activity. For example, in 2007 70K, a local film about graffitists, including Renks who was a member of the 70K graffiti crew, has been censored by the OFLC (Office of Film and Literature Classification) and cannot be shown in MUFF (Melbourne Underground Film Festival). “The Classification Board also refused classification for the film, 70K, because it deals with crime (the defacement of public property) in such a way that it offends against the standards of propriety generally acceptable to reasonable adults. The film features documentary footage of people, with masks, disguises or their faces blurred out, vandalizing passenger trains and applying graffiti to walls in Australian cities, including Brisbane and Melbourne. The film is edited to rock music and does not feature commentary, interpretation, justification or explanation. In the Board’s majority view, the film glamorises and attempts to legitimise what are criminal acts committed in Australia and which have a negative impact on Australia and the Australian people.” (OFLC Report p.57) The filmmaker’s obvious mistake, as far as the OFLC is concerned, was not to have a pompous pedantic narrator and a soundtrack by Hildegard Von Bingen.

For more about graffiti and censorship see my blog entry from 2009: Graffiti & censorship. Trying to control and censoring the messages on the street is a reason for enacting anti-graffiti legislation. Anti-graffiti legislation is about censoring the young and poor. People passionately quote Heinrich Hein about burning books but anywhere that they destroy and censor they will also destroy people.

The Henson Witch-Hunt

On 22 May of 2008 columnist Miranda Devine of The Sydney Morning Herald started the witch-hunt. NSW police joined in closing Bill Henson’s exhibition in Sydney and threatening to lay charges.

The Bill Henson story was picked up by Associated Press and reprinted in newspapers around the world. What politicians thought would have local breakfast television appeal makes Australia look internationally like a nation of philistines. Peter Garrett, the Minister for the Arts and former Midnight Oil front-man, ducked the issue and has kept largely out of sight since.

Censorship of the arts in Australia became a hot issue again, and to the frustration of the politicians, the issue would not go away. It continued with the cover of Art Monthly featuring a photo of Olympia Nelson taken by her mother. The controversy was raised in every gallery director’s opening speech at an exhibition of nudes; especially Gordon Morrison, the Director of the Art Gallery of Ballarat, introducing his exhibition “The Naked and the Nude”.

Many artists have commented on this controversy over the year. Mary Newsome referred to both the censorship of Fogelberg and Henson in her postcard installation at Mailbox 141. In Hosier Lane, a paste-up of a fat ugly naked man by Camel bares the slogan “No Rudd Gonna Censor Me!”

The lack of a clear outcome in this controversy has meant that artists working with nudes now fear censorship and demonising. The increased sensitivity to nudes in the community lead to more censorship issues; for example, in South Australia at the Tea Tree Gully’s annual art exhibition in August two nudes were banned.

There has also been an increase in search terms like: “pedophile melbourne art”. The popularist polemics of state and federal politicians have convinced some people that art, like the Catholic Church, is simply a cover for pedophiles. In October the next round of the witch-hunt started with a non-controversy: Bill Henson visited a Melbourne primary school. The Victorian government reprimanded the school principal, before finding any breach of protocols, presuming wrong doing and slandering Henson by in the process. I have called this witch-hunt as it is an intensive systematic campaign directed against Bill Henson and those who support him. The reason for the witch-hunt now is simply to vindicate the politician’s views by any means.

The last word on this subject should go to Olympia Nelson: “I’m really, really offended by what Kevin Rudd said about this picture. That was really, really rude. For him to be talking about my picture, the picture with me in it, it doesn’t feel very good.” Kevin Rudd is yet to apologize to Olympia Nelson.

Culture Battle

“Frankly, I can’t stand this stuff.” Kevin Rudd’s said commenting on Australian art magazine, Art Monthly. Rudd joins the long list of Australian Prime Ministers who hate the arts. It is a hatred that spans party politics and social background. Australian PM Menzies had the same opinion of modern art as his contemporaries, Churchill and Hitler. And Menzies did more legislatively to enforce his opinion than Churchill but less than Hitler.

There are several culture clashes in Australia, some, like the battle between the arts and philistines have a long history. There has never been any resolution to this conflict, only heightened times of tension. There is a great desire to bring this particular cultural conflict to a conclusion rather than continue with the tension. This is why there have been so many letters and comments about the Bill Henson controversy as people weigh in on various sides.

The battle, between Australia’s cultured and the philistine wowsers, is worth fighting. The outcome will have wide, but not unforeseeable, effects: the brain drain, the number of skilled professionals willing to work in remote areas, the number of teenage pregnancies, the general education standards of the country and many more areas. For example, Australia is now the fattest country in the world. Australian culture has an ugly body image stuffed with junk food. Has it become a culture where any attractive naked body, young or old, is regarded as sexual bait because so many Australians have made their bodies so unattractive?

I have nothing but praise for the tactics, Art Monthly editor Maurice O’Riordan, he has chosen the work of art worth fighting for and with excellent defenses. He has restored some “dignity to the debate”. The fact that Opposition leader Brendan Nelson (no relation to Olympia Nelson, the nude model) can only understood this in terms of “two finger salute” is an indication of his lack of comprehension and not O’Riordan’s tactics.

The politicians are on the run and their tactics are highly questionable. They bark loudly in the popular media in a manner offensive to one little girl, Olympia Nelson. They call in the police, threaten prosecutions, threaten to cut funding and then retreat under the cover of an independent organization capable of making reasonable, informed decisions, like the NSW Public Prosecutor. The politicians hope that this controversy would just go away but it is a battle worth fighting and I would encourage everyone to keep applying the blowtorch to Rudd.

Peter Propaganda Garrett

When Peter Garrett was still Shadow Minister for the Arts I wrote about his arts policy – Burning the Midnight Oil.  I did not hold out much hope for his arts policy at the time. On that occasion Garrett calls his political opponents “philistines” but in the Bill Henson controversy one of these alleged philistines, Malcolm Turnbull has defended the Henson against philistine attacks by the ALP. Garrett also said that he and his party would talk more about the arts but on the first major arts issue Garrett has remained silent.

I emailed Peter Garrett to find out what the Minister for the Arts was doing to reduce the chill effect from the recent censorship or if he wanted to reduce the arts to a mouth piece for government propaganda. I have heard nothing, not even an acknowledgement of my enquiry and I am not alone. In the open letter leading writers, dramatists, filmmakers, musicians and artists called on the Minister for Arts Peter Garrett to “stand up for artists” against the “encroaching censorship, which has resulted in the closure of this and other exhibitions”. Garrett ignored their letter too.

Garrett like other Christian socialists wants the arts to be a well-crafted propaganda suitable for the masses, without subtly or any genuine insight. This sums up his entire artistic career as front man for Midnight Oil.

If Garrett now wants to do something for the arts he should resign as Minister for the Arts. He has failed according to his own standards. He has lost the confidence of the arts community. He does not even have the courage even reply to the concerns of the Australian arts community.

Unlike Garrett, the ABC is doing its job and educating the public about the arts with multiple repeat broadcasts of a documentary on Bill Henson, as well as another story about Henson on Sunday Arts. And unlike Garrett, the ABC is unconcerned about prejudicing an ongoing and going nowhere police investigation. 

Censorship in Australia

From the long history of censorship in Australia, it is possible to achieve an accurate understanding of Australian culture as dominated by prudish, thin-skinned, sycophantic, philistines.

Not a single Australian politician has come out to defend Bill Henson, not even those who own art by Henson (they are hoping that they can profit from the increased sales price and the witch hunt). The Federal Arts Minister, Peter Garrett has remained silent on the controversy of arts censorship – censoring himself. (Garrett is not really the Minister for the Arts, rather he is just another one of Rudd’s toadies.) International readers of this blog may not be aware that in Australia there is compulsory voting that censors anyone who does not encourage voters to show a preference for both political parties. (I wonder how Bill Henson will be voting but according to Australian law he will have to support a party that condemns his art.)

A major contributing factor to censorship in Australia is prudish, Christian morality. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd introduced his religious bias quickly into the debate of Bill Henson’s art with his “God forbid” remark. Rudd believes, without evidence, in the idea of the “innocence of children”, introducing Christian dogma to the debate. Christians are not in a good position to throw stones as they frequently expose children to an image of sadomasochistic pornography with a nearly naked man hanging on a cross. [Andy Soutter “The Greatest Porn Star Ever Sold”, Rapid Eye 3 (Creation Books, 1995)]

In 2004, the ACMI was responsible for the censorship an artist’s work that they had commissioned. ACMI then exhibited an altered version of the work against the artist’s consent. The censored work exposed the pornographic sadism in the central Christian icon. And in 1997 there was the vandalism of Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ by a thug with the blessing of then-Archbishop, now Cardinal Pell Pot.

Censorship is also an issue at the 2008 Sydney Writers Festival. Journalism students of University of Technology, produce ‘Festival News” for the Festival. The first edition of the Festival News was censored by the Writers Festival because of references imply that the Minister of the Arts was not popular. The festival claimed that the publication was ‘offensive’ when it was merely critical of the government. This action is similar to the demotion of academic Dr. Paul Mees by the University of Melbourne for criticism of the Victorian Government. This sycophantic aspect of Australian culture is disgusting; it makes it very difficult for critics or intelligent debate and retards civic progress.

The chill effect of the recent censorship of artists self-censoring out of fear will damage the careers of artists in Australia and further retard Australian culture (if there is such a thing). Read about the experience of recently censored Melbourne artist Cecilia Fogelberg in her blog.


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