But while the American battle was all about NEA funding of the arts (a pittance, relatively speaking) -- of performance and visual artists -- the events of the last 24 hours in Sydney are far more chilling for artists. They're reminiscent of the raids of the late 1960s, when actors were arrested, charged and convicted in various cities, for saying 'fuck'. Let we forget, the Norm and Ahmed convictions were not overturned, except (from memory) in Queensland where the appeal courts were more forgiving than those in the 'free-thinking' southern states.
And yet, a charge of offensive language or obscenity or lewd behaviour -- whatever -- is nothing compared to the accusations being levelled against Melbourne photographer Bill Henson, whose latest exhibition was supposed to open last night at RosOx9. Pre-publicity, in the Sydney Morning Herald, attracted the attention of lobby groups and ultimately the police who intervened to prevent the exhibition from opening. Reportedly, the 41 photographs show young teens -- a boy and a girl -- naked and in sexually suggestive poses.
First up, I haven't seen these images. However, I have been writing about Bill Henson's work for a dozen years, and first saw his work more than thirty years ago when the models he was photographing weren't that much younger than me. Or, indeed, much younger than Bill was.
An example of Bill Henson's work, c 2006
While I gather my thoughts on this, let me make two points. Firstly, and disregarding for a moment if any offence was wittingly or unwittingly committed in the taking of the photographs, the bastille has been stormed by those who vociferously deny that context counts here. That an image in an art gallery -- or in your family photo album -- is identical to that same image if it were printed in a magazine to advertise clothes or posted on a porn site.
And secondly, Henson has resolutely declined to comment on or defend his art over the years... rather like Andres Serrano of 'Piss Christ' fame though, artistically speaking, that's a very clumsy and inappropriate comparison. Serrano reckons porn can be art and vice versa. Henson's work is rarely graphic or explicit or especially detailed. Indeed, like Mapplethorpe, he's at his coolest when photographing what the press and the pollies are so eagerly calling "kiddie porn" and even, moments ago on the Fairfax radio news network, 'pedophilia'.
Robert Mapplethorpe's most erotic photographs were of flowers. His shots of erect black cocks curving out of polyester suits were stylish, but cool. Almost clinical. Likewise, Henson's most passionate photographs are of empty roads. His naked teens have the cyan of death...
Britain's foremost painter of swimming pools David Hockney reckons that we should "believe only what an artist does, rather than what he says about his work." That used to seem like good advice in the age of post-postmodernism, when artists and curators and critics seem incapable of saying anything simply or coherently, but when your work causes as much disquiet as Melbourne photographer Bill Henson's does, can he afford not to defend it?
More soon. Doubtless, too much more.