Saving Art’s Face?

As the authorities have decided not to prosecute Bill Henson and Roslyn Oxley9 over pornography, the art scene breathes again. But though the prerogative of artistic freedom has survived, the art scene did not bear up to the challenge particularly well, and its public credibility remains under threat. Supporters of Henson drew upon dubious arguments, sometimes resting on Henson’s fame and success in the system rather than the moral content of his pictures. Throughout the fierce debate, the curatorium seemed incapable of explaining adequately the difference between art and pornography.

The two are sometimes confused because they have a lot in common. Both involve nudity and beauty and both are capable of giving offence. The fact that there are features in common, however, does not mean that you cannot make a clear distinction between them. It’s helpful to analyse three elements in looking at any picture. First, there is subject matter, the person depicted. Second, there is the address of the image, where the picture seems to be directing itself. And finally, there is the subjectivity of the artist, the position or personality that the artist conveys by making the image in a certain style.

When people look at pictures impatiently, they sometimes only consider the first of these, that is, the subject matter. This is unfortunate in our case, because the difference between art and pornography seldom lies with the subject matter.

In both art and porn the depicted person can be idle or forceful, active or passive, scornful or come-hither, vulnerable or triumphant, blissful or dour, totally exposed or partly shrouded. You cannot distinguish between art and porn simply by looking at the subject matter. Not even when some kind of violation is suggested can you declare that it is necessarily porn. Some classics like the Flaying of Marsyas or Tarquin and Lucretia involve nakedness coupled with violence; and these have never been considered porn. Even if you see erections, it will not suffice to identify the work as porn. For many centuries, priapic statues have been considered art and have not been condemned since the days of religious zealotry, when so many penises were lopped off by righteous bigots.

The distinction is better revealed in the address of the picture. This is a subjective quality of an image constituted by the picture as a whole, including the composition, the point of view, the style and the kind of access that the image gives you. All images address themselves to a spectator; but the question is to what part of the spectator’s consciousness does it speak? Does the image address itself to a speculative part of our imagination, a sense of wonder through moody suspension? Or does it exclusively go to a spectator who is already hungry, who only wants to satisfy a sexual appetite?

Porn is incapable of addressing itself to the disinterested wonder of the spectator. It cannot sublimate erotic feelings but trades in the promise of carnal gratification. Porn has no power of sublimation and cannot rise above the theme of eyeing off, or being the target of a thrill.

Art never gets stuck there, even when it has an erotic dimension and even when it involves adolescents. Canova’s Cupid and Psyche would be an example. The sculpture is more than its bodies, because the embrace has to be seen in somewhat godly, auratic terms, not completely chaste, but curiously awesome at the same time.

The third element is the artist’s share. How prominent is the artist’s subjectivity, his or her fingerprint? In art you have the sense that the image is made by an individual who seeks to express something, a vision unique to that artist. In pornography, meanwhile, the creator is effaced and hardly exists as a separate person in the image. As much as possible the creator of porn is collapsed into the identity of the spectator.

The purpose of porn is uniquely to arouse and promise fulfilment. The spectator will therefore not welcome any intermediary. It will be a turn-off if the fantasy of possessing the model is interrupted by the presence of an artist. Pornographic imagery proposes direct access to the flesh, as if the figure were naturally in your space, available and customised to your desire. A third person in the room – the presence of an author – would not enhance this illusion and would disappoint the fantasy. It wrecks the pornographic immediacy.

The best way to recognise this presence is how the art medium has been treated. If the medium has no presence of itself and transparently gives onto the model, it errs to porn, as the artist’s authorial position is denied. As the artist’s subjectivity recedes, the model is projected as real in your fantasy and the work becomes pornographic. But if the medium is conspicuously expressed through the artist’s style – with a consistent sense of artifice – the picture remains art.

According to these criteria, Bill Henson’s photographs are art, not pornography. They address themselves to a spectator who is equally pondering the gravity of the air, who marvels at the light, who is curious as to the action, the timing and a sense of emptiness out there. The pictures direct themselves to your sense of atmosphere and speculation, the feeling of imminent nightfall and some unsettling change.

Most of all, however, Henson’s pictures are self-reflexive. The grainy shots are heavily impregnated with Henson himself, his moods, his theatrical control, his demonstrative use of the photographic medium and its perspectives. These are not pictures that defer to the image within them, so that the model can be possessed in the fantasy of the viewer. The mannered photographs don’t completely yield to the illusion but suggest that the image is an artifice.

But the Henson case has brought a wildcard into the discussion. It is the theme of child abuse. Until now, we’ve thought of pornography as a matter of degree and hence rateable by the authorities. If it is soft porn it gets a gentle rating and parental guidance is recommended. If it is hard core it gets a stiff rating, an adult-only tag, which is enforceable. But child pornography is different and cannot be handled by this scale. There is no point at which you can say that it is only suitable for adults. It’s an entirely different economy.

With child pornography we are not protecting young eyes from seeing adult behaviour but rather we are protecting young bodies from being seen by adults for adult gratification. It is not about children seeing but children being seen. I was relieved when the DPP decided not to prosecute on the basis that Henson’s photographs have a low rating; but I am actually not sure how logical this is.

It has been suggested that if children are portrayed naked, the image automatically becomes pornography because the display sexualises children and is hence abusive. This is a circular argument, where two terms are defined by one another: proof of pornography is defined by the presence of naked children, while images of naked children are defined as pornographic ipso facto, with the dubious assumption that child nudity is always sexualised.

I understand why the presence of a naked child heightens anxiety; but there is little sense in the argument that nude children make for pornography solely by virtue of being naked. To lend credibility to this empty logic, Henson’s antagonists declare that a child who is photographed in the nude may one day resent the image and that the law must protect children against exploitation. This may be valid, depending on how you define exploitation; but it doesn’t tell us whether or not a picture is pornographic.

There’s a risk that the child may later consider the work suspect and be ashamed of it – especially if a Prime Minister insists that it’s revolting – but the child may also remain proud of the image. The prior issue is whether or not the work is recognized as art or stigmatised as porn. If it isn’t porn then it isn’t exploitative either. And if the work is destined in good faith to be art, the law shouldn’t prevent the child and guardians from consenting to make it.

Unfortunately, artists have not explained themselves well and the term ‘child abuse’ is used with a sense of panic and urgent absolute responses. The menace with which ‘child abuse’ rides above other vocabulary is a problem for artists. In a thoughtful article in The Sunday Age, Guy Rundle noted that artists in the past had created interventions against tyranny, whereas now artists are setting themselves up in opposition to laws which are fundamentally well-intentioned. These are good laws that are designed to protect children.

But I would argue that good laws only remain good if they have good interpretation around them. There is currently a severe law against men who like looking at pictures of naked children, even if the children are not in any sense violated beyond being pictured naked. The intentions of such men are considered malevolent and their gazing is criminalised on the basis of an assumed connection with active paedophilia. Indirectly, art interrogates these absolutes. Artists provide perspectives that let us recognise the relativity among things that society otherwise deems axiomatic. This is the very mission of art, not to be an ornament to what we already believe but to move our perspective to examine what we might want to rethink.

Robert Nelson teaches at Monash Art & Design and is the art critic for The Age.

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