Saturday, May 24, 2008

Art obscenity charges

...screams the headline on the front page of today's Herald.

A photography exhibition in Sydney has been closed down, and police are investigating the possibility of charging the photographer and the art gallery.

The issue: photos of a naked 13-year-old girl which can be seen as sexual.

Artists, in turn, screamed censorship ("what about Carravagio?" yelled one).

The photographer, Bill Henson, apparently has a high reputation, and has apparently been doing such subject matter since at least 1995.

What about Carravagio? Of course, in recent years, the issue of pedophilia has rightly become significant, with a renewed fervour in prosecution for both offences of decades ago, and for current accessors of kiddie porn over the internet. So cultural context inevitably plays a big part. And in general the current culture of prosecution is quite understandable. But art?

One of the Herald's articles was a commentary by John McDonald, who says inter alia:
"His pictures are dark and edgy, but it would be foolish to write them off as 'pornography'.
"Pornography, as I understand it, is a form that revels in its own sordidness. It is a commercial product made for the sole purpose of titillation."

In the ebb and flow of debate about pornography, there is one point that is overlooked (in fact I can recall witnessing scarcely any discussion about this ever). That is that once images are released - in any context - they can become pornography in the hands of viewers. What becomes pornography is entirely in the hands of the audience, and out of control of those generating the images.

I remember some years back, a lesbian filmmaker made a film that she aimed at women, stating she was reclaiming pornography and giving control back to women. Yet she had no control of the work once it is released, bar what a very disparate audience will make of it. And there will always be a part of the audience that will take a work pornographically.

So the producer of the work can say what they like, and have whatever intention they claim, but they have no ultimate control over how the audience responds to the work.

This is why, I believe, debate will continue to rage about the issue. The reception of a work is in the hands of the audience, not the producer.

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