In the eye of the beholder: the “art or porn?” debate rears its troublesome head. Again.

6 01 2011

Despite my best intentions to stay clear of the blogosphere during what’s proving to be a blissfully peaceful summer break, I couldn’t resist this one. The arbiters of all that is decent in Sin City are at it again. First it was Bill Henson, now it’s Del Kathryn Barton. What, to me, looks like a perfectly innocuous photograph of the artist’s son with his torso be-speckled with clusters of adhesive boggle-eyes (pictured at left) has been withdrawn from a charity exhibition to benefit the Sydney Children’s Hospital. According to an article published today by Robert Nelson in The Age online, it was determined that the artwork breached the hospital’s ‘visual protocols’ which are very strict when it comes to all things child-related.

There’s no point in rehashing the arguments against this type of censorship, most of which have been expressed eloquently and effectively in print by many people including Nelson and Tamara Winikoff of NAVA (not to mention David Marr in his exceptional essay, The Henson Case, published in book form by Text Publishing). The best way to understand the fuss is to bear in mind one of the most common themes artists have been grappling with in the post- (or post-post-) modern era: that a response to an artwork is inevitably informed by the viewer’s own life experience and personal history. No two people will react in the same way, or take away the same message from a single work of art. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. As someone who has studied art history, I look at Barton’s photograph and see iconographic references, whether intentional on the artist’s part or not – the gentle contrapposto stance speaking of a figure at rest, and the classic ‘fig-leaf’ pose as used to great effect in Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s 18th century painting (below right) to convey modesty and awareness of the viewer’s gaze.

A work of art is a mirror – you see yourself and your own perceptions in reflection. I like to think that’s why Barton included a bubble in her photo – I find myself peering into its reflective surface to see whether I can see myself, or perhaps it’s captured a glimpse of the artist herself, as in the wall-mounted mirror in Jan van Eyck’s Marriage of the Arnolfini. But that’s just my reading. The parent of a boy the same age would see something quite different. As would a person who had been molested as a child. It goes without saying that a pedophile would also respond to this image in a manner that is thankfully foreign to the great majority of us. But it’s impossible to eliminate all images from circulation that might titillate a person with such incomprehensible sexual urges. Depressingly, the most pervasive message communicated to society at large from all this fuss is that a child’s body is a shameful thing, even where it’s the sexualisation of the child’s innocence via the adult gaze that causes all the harm.

Let’s return to the Greuze painting, though. Unlike Barton’s photograph, the exposed breast and the symbolic use of a ‘broken water jug’ tells us that this was an allegorical painting with very strong sexual overtones. This visual language would have been understood by most, if not all, 18th century viewers. But you may not have thought about it if I hadn’t elaborated. See how it’s done? All in eye of the beholder.

What caused me to pen a response to this was inspired by a visit to the National Gallery of Victoria yesterday. Hanging from the gallery’s fa├žade are two ginormous banners promoting the Gustave Moreau exhibition currently on show (at left – apologies – yet another in my series of embarrassingly bad iPhone photos). Both feature near-naked female figures, not to mention a very young child without any clothing – the child is an infant – many years younger than Barton’s son in the controversial photograph.

Why are the Moreau images deemed acceptable for public consumption? Is it because they’re paintings, and old ones at that? Perhaps it’s because the child has wings and so is clearly an angel/putto. Are naked women OK provided they’re above a certain age? But what of the marked lack of hair down below on the female figure on the right? Could that mean she’s pre-pubescent? What if we found out that the models used by Moreau were teen prostitutes (they weren’t, necessarily, but permit me to mess with your mind here)? Would that change the way you viewed the female forms displayed here? Would you feel differently about these images if you thought they depicted children in their early teens? And what of the salacious invitation to be “seduced by the femmes fatales, heroines, queens, goddesses & temptresses of Gustave Moreau”?

These images have been cleansed by the purifying effect of history. But consider the public response if they had been painted recently, and in a photo-realist style? Or how about if the image on the left was produced as a photograph with live models and used as a Windsor Smith shoe advertisement? Imagine the uproar.

Last but not least, what makes the following image OK (relatively speaking… Anne Geddes… urgh)? At what age do we start to become squeamish about a child or young person with a dearth of clothing?

That’s enough thinking for me. Back to the blissfully bucolic summer break.

Happy 2011 to you all.

(images: photograph by Del Kathryn Barton via The Age; photograph: ‘Twins’ by Anne Geddes)