Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Adults overboard in the frenzy to sniff out smut
By the time John Howard finally shuffled off he was an embarrassment even to his fans, like the wedding present you’re dying to give to the school fete but daren’t, just in case. The relief, across the country, was palpable, a sighing of land after rain. At last, it seemed, we had a leader to walk forward, not back. A leader who would tell the truth, eschew war, pluck refugee children from the rising tides of climate change and not embarrass us on the international stage.
For an instant or two, as Kevin ’07 scolded China in her own language, the optimism persisted. Then, the rot. First it was the supremely daft Peter Garrett, tramping his ministerial Doc Martens all over the fledgling solar industry by means-testing the photovoltaic subsidy. Next, the budget allocation of more dollars, sooner, to the nonsense of clean coal than to renewables.
And then, embarrassment, with the ghost of decades past again making global headlines: police raids on Sydney galleries, artists in the dock. The thin blue line knotting itself once again around art. And why? It’s like that joke. A man on the psychiatrist’s couch sees, in ink blot after ink blot, nothing but sexual imagery. A butterfly shape looks like testicles, a hilly mountain-scape like a rollicking bedroom scene, and so on. But when the shrink delivers his verdict – you, sir, are a sex fiend – the man is indignant. “What?” he huffs. “But you’re the one drawing the dirty pictures!”
This underpins the Henson case. Who’s drawing the dirty pictures here?
But let me come clean. I don’t much like Henson’s work. I find it cloying and slightly disturbing. Treacly. Unnecessarily Norman Lindsayesque. This I share with Morris Iemma, Frank Sartor and Kevin Rudd. But that’s where the common ground ends. Unlike them, I know that individual dislike, or even general disgust, isn’t the point.
Never since the Medicis has art’s main job been to please. When in 1865 the furore over Manet’s defiant whore, Olympia, caused armed guards to be stationed outside the Paris Salon; when Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain, an off-the-peg ceramic urinal, was ridiculed as both obscene and plagiaristic; when Andres Serrano’s 1989 Piss Christ caused outrage in Europe (and closure in Melbourne) despite being declared “not blasphemous” by Sister Wendy Beckett: through all those furores our culture and our lives were enriched.
Art has undeniable moral content, but it’s not the simple “thou shalt not” kind of moralising so beloved of churchmen and politicians. Art’s moral role is exploratory, speculative and playful, more concerned with the poetics of contradiction and paradox than with mundane decoration, convention or instruction. Which is why art’s freedom underpins civilisation. And why offence, moral or aesthetic, cannot be the test. Erase every offensive building in this town and there’d be a lot of new space. No, when moral leaders can describe women as “uncovered meat” and remain at large, offence is clearly not a decider.
To delete what offends is the mark of tyranny. Protecting what offends you, on the other hand, guards free speech. As Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote, paraphrasing Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Action, of course, is different from speech. We do not protect freedom of action, especially when there is deliberate harm. But art, even visual art, is closer to speech than action. Manet’s Olympia was considered pornographic not for her nudity, but for her unashamed prostitute status; for daring to make comment. This underlies Kenneth Clark’s famous distinction between the naked and the nude; the nude being a message bearer, not just an unclad body.
Still, Henson’s detractors look for harm caused by his pictures: harm to his subjects (which they, and their parents, deny); harm to children generally; harm, as it were, to public morality. This underlies Rudd’s “let kids be kids” comments and Iemma’s blather about moral codes and decency. As though a latent pedophile might enact his fantasies only after popping into a Paddington art show for inspiration.
In truth, however, pedophilia pervades society, ban or no ban. We habitually accept the sexualising of children – in advertising, television, beauty pageants and talent shows – as entirely normal.
We know that pedophilia thrives less on public erotica, offensive as such advertising is, than on secrecy masked as decency. We know it exploits children’s innocence, not their sexuality, and that it flourishes in the very vestries, boudoirs and private offices of the respectable.
The Henson witch-hunt may yet become Labor’s “children overboard” affair. One effect of which, if Henson weren’t already world famous, would be to make him so, without affecting the child abuse figures one iota. And bear in mind that party signing itself “Yours, disgusted” on this is the party that closed ranks for months around its own ministerial rock spider Orkopoulos. Now that’s disgusting. Almost as bad as living in a town where all art must be pre-approved by the Rudd, Iemma, Sartor triumvirate and all policy pre-approved by the coal industry. Who’s drawing the dirty pictures now?