What is Art? The Henson Fallout

It is a matter for extreme regret that nothing good or positive came out of the controversy arising from the recent publication of a photograph of a nude thirteen-year-old girl by Bill Henson. The Australian art world missed a golden opportunity to explain to an obviously compliant public what art is and how it can be distinguished from pornography. Instead, we will undoubtedly be saddled with legislation aimed at curbing the most essential aspect of contemporary art—freedom of expression. And it is ironic that the legislation will be framed by the very academics and authorities who should have intervened at the time to safeguard the future of art in this country by explaining what was really going on.

This is a sad commentary on the functioning and status of the Australian art world. Worse, it is proof that nothing has changed since, as long ago as 1974, Donald Brook wrote that the concept of art had “collapsed in ruins”. And it explains and justifies successive governments’ negative attitudes to visual art, most recently to the National Review of Visual Education (NRVE).

Because the theorists, critics—and even the Arts Minister and his departmental advisers—remained silent, arts aficionados like Cate Blanchett had to rise in defence of Henson’s right to self-expression. They asserted endlessly that the pictures are “beautiful” while others denied this, or else countered that—nonetheless—they are pornographic. The end result is that the public is still unenlightened about both art and pornography. And no amount of censorship legislation will change this. Only education will do it, but the NRVE—which recommended major attention be given to education about visual communication (which includes both art and pornography)—having been commissioned by the Howard government, is unlikely to be respected by the current administration.

There is no doubt that ethical—as well as aesthetic—considerations are involved in making and exhibiting works of art—as, indeed, they are in any aspect of human social life. But, in the past, art world insiders have usually been able to negotiate any problems resulting from disjunction between the ethical and the aesthetic in particular cases: Beardsley, Epstein. Klimt, Davila, Goya … the list is endless. And there can be no doubt that ethical considerations—because they have wider and more potent social ramifications—must generally have primacy over the aesthetic in public life. This is why it was justifiable to consider prosecuting Leni Riefenstahl and Albert Speer, who were servants of Hitler, for war crimes. Similarly the attempted prosecution of Gustave Courbet for the destruction of the Vendome Column in Paris after the rout of the Communards in 1871. And, in the current climate—in which pornography and pedophilia are said to pervade the internet—ethical judgments will inevitably be applied to the work of Bill Henson too.

But it may be worth noting, in parenthesis, that there would have been no controversy if Henson’s gallery, Roslyn Oxley9, had not posted the image which offended some on its website. Earlier exhibitions of Henson’s work had never attracted such media attention, but these were advertised by the traditional method of mailing invitations to selected gallery patrons—thus, the images were only seen by those who were able to negotiate the ethical-aesthetic disjunctions which, undoubtedly, have always been present in his work. So it could be maintained that the fault in this case was neither in the artist nor the work but in the gallery and its need to generate income from sales of the artist’s work. But, no one seems to have raised this possibility—which is not surprising at a time when commercial galleries are operating according to the principle enunciated long ago by a director of London’s Marlborough Fine Art Ltd: “If it sells, it’s art.” Regrettably, the art market has been allowed to overshadow art per se in recent decades—another fault of the art world, of course, for not challenging the specious myth that art is “industry”.

It is saddening to contemplate the possibility that the coming censorship laws may make it illegal for parents to photograph their small offspring naked because, in this state, they clearly trigger parents’ legitimate aesthetic emotions. But censorship legislation could make them criminals for undertaking this essentially natural—and completely ethical—action. And censorship will undoubtedly cause many artists to go underground in a situation not unlike that which operated in Stalinist Russia and Maoist China. Is this what we hope for in twenty-first-century Australia?

The latest insult to our intelligence from a leader in art theory appears in the Spring 2008 edition of Art and Australia. An article entitled “What is art, really?” by John Armstrong—who glorifies in the title of Philosopher-in-Residence at the Melbourne Business School and who was, until recently, the inaugural Knowledge Transfer Fellow at the University of Melbourne—is part of an underwhelming reference to the issue. From the title of the piece and the credentials of both its author and the journal it would be reasonable to expect that the question would be answered and, not only would the public—finally—be informed what art really is, but also how it relates to pornography. Armstrong informs us that the question that is the title of his essay was asked of him by a police officer who was charged with handling the Henson case. How, he asked, is a nude photograph made by an artist different from one made by any other sort of person? The officer really needed to know the answer to his question, one he asked of one who he believed had the authority to answer it. But, apparently, he did not get it. Instead he seems to have been regaled—as readers are—by a discussion of how some of Henson’s imagery could be interpreted as pornographic by minds of a certain cast (which is undoubtedly true). And Armstrong concludes that, although Henson may be “out of touch”, he is not a criminal for naively applying his subjective appreciation of what is beautiful in a work of art. A reasonable position—but both the officer and we are left without an explanation of what art really is!

So—what is art, really? Theorists have been arguing about this forever but, to date, all have failed to enlighten us. However, it is not such a difficult proposition. All we have to do is ignore the scholastics and focus, instead, on what artists have done and are doing. The artists know what art is: how could they operate otherwise? But, we need first of all to recognise that everything changed with the advent of Modernism at the beginning of the twentieth century. Before that time, artists’ works generally were commissioned, which means that the rule “who pays the piper calls the tune” operated. Artists had limited freedom of expression. Michelangelo, painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, had to restrict his expression to illustrating passages from the Old Testament; if he had included a representation of Christ, for example, he would have been hurled off his scaffold by the Pope, his patron. From the eighteenth century, artists began to break free from commissions and patronage and asserted their right to free, individual self-expression.

The work of artists like the Impressionists, Picasso, Matisse and Dali is very different one from the other, but there is one common denominator: all these artists asserted that art is the free self-expression of an individual. So the modernist artists tell us that the essential characteristic of art, properly so called—its essence, in fact—is that it is the free self-expression, in whatever medium, of an individual. No need to invoke aesthetics, taste, expression, representation, beauty or creativity because, while these things may (or may not) be present in a work of art, they do not characterise art per se because they can be present in other human and natural things as well as in works of art.

This criterion places folk art and other traditional forms as well as kitsch in separate categories from art per se. It also distinguishes art from design, the category of human-made objects that are made by creative people using similar processes and materials as artists use but to make things that are functional—things like buildings, vehicles, utensils, tools and clothes. Designers function differently from the way modern artists do in that their products must effectively be instrumental to human existence. This is not a criterion for art as it has been understood since the nineteenth century.

And it isolates a particular work from the judgment of its worth—by the critic, the ordinary observer, the market or the purchaser. Every individual work is entitled to be judged individually by each stakeholder in the enterprise. Thus, it legitimises the right of every one of these to like or hate any work individually—which is what actually happens in the real world!

All pictures are not automatically art, of course—news photographs and maps, for example. Other examples of pictures that are not art are advertising art-work, book illustrations and cartoons because they have clear functions. The portrait, too, should be included in this group because a portrait has the functional imperative to represent a particular person.

Because they are not—or not intended to be—functional, it is clear that Henson’s photographs are works of art. How good they are is another question—one requiring aesthetic judgment, and this will vary according to the aesthetic sophistication of those who judge it. And it would be an aesthetic judgment that could be made independently of the ethics of the situation—or not, depending on the individual judge.

And—what is pornography? Pornography, as it is understood these days, is far from what the Greek origin of the term suggests: writing about prostitutes. It is pictures—usually photographs—of naked or, more usually, provocatively partly undressed young women, sometimes engaging in explicit sexual activity (in which the representation of any male partner is usually restricted to the performing penis). Its purpose is titillation and if it does not titillate it fails its function as pornography. So, pornography is as much in the realm of design as is advertising illustration—which often edges over into it. But—as with the judgment of the worth of a work of art—opinions differ, and different individuals may be excited (sexually) by a painting of the Virgin Mary nursing a naked Christ-child. Or a photograph by Bill Henson.

So, pornography is pornography and art is art. Whereas a particular work of art may be pornographic, no pornography can be art because pornography has the function of sexual arousal—and art is not functional. The problem with pictures like the Henson photograph is that, while they are clearly intended by the artist to be works of art, they have the potential to be used functionally—as pornography.

A key issue which it would have been helpful for the art world to raise in the context of the Henson debate is the distinction that Kenneth Clark made half a century ago in his book The Nude—that between the twin concepts naked and nude. Whereas being naked, he said, is just being deprived of our clothes, the nude is “the most serious of all subjects in art” and “the most complete example of the transmission of matter into form”. In the work of Michelangelo, it is the vehicle for the expression of the most profound humanistic and religious concepts. And the discussion should have stretched to whether—or to what extent—Henson’s nude photographs are equivalent to the Italian Renaissance master’s painted giganti or carved slaves.

Finally, one question that has not been raised—but surely is absolutely central to this controversy—is why we are so concerned about the representation of the natural naked body and the most natural of all natural acts—that of procreation? Why these things should be considered reprehensible cannot be sheeted home entirely to our Christian morality because the attitude exists—to more or less extent—in non-Christian cultures. But there surely is a deep-seated flaw in our collective psyche that underlies this whole issue and that begs to be explored.

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