Police raided Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney, Australia last Thursday, just hours before the opening of an exhibition featuring new works by acclaimed contemporary artist Bill Henson. Australian news media report that 21 photographs of a naked 12-year-old girl and a 13-year-old boy have been seized from the gallery. 41 images have been removed from its web site. Indecency and obscenity charges will be brought under state and federal laws.
We know the art-vs.-pornography, censorship-vs.-free-speech drill. Political and sociocultural authorities are now locking horns in fury. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has weighed in, calling Henson’s photographs “revolting” and “devoid of artistic merit”. (Rudd was described as being “out of touch with everyday Australia” by opposition leader Brendan Nelson.) The art community is outraged and prominent arts figures have accused the Prime Minister of hypocrisy. Child protection advocates, determined to be offended, are calling for Henson’s criminalization.
I don’t know where I stand on this issue — particularly as it involves children and art whose status continues to be subservient to political ideology. But I do hope it opens up a serious and heated debate (not another theatrical cockfight) about what it means to be a citizen of a certain civilized state. As capital globalizes and we morph into “one world, one dream”, it is important to ask what it means to be an Australian vs. American vs. Chinese vs. Danish vs. Dominican. Citizenship has distinct rights and privileges, as well as moral standards and social responsibilities. What should we be able to see in public and in private?
Michel Foucault famously theorized that what exists has been allowed to exist. Jacques Ranciere writes about the “distribution of the sensible”, loosely defined as the system of divisions and boundaries that define what we as a society can perceive through our senses. As a New Yorker, I’ve grown accustomed to the post-9/11 police strategies of “If You See Something, Say Something”. It’s time we also say something about that which we do NOT see, what we collectively elect to leave out, eliminate, mutilate, conceal, or render extinct. The works we take down and the silences we administer define our humanity just as powerfully as the paintings we leave up and the speeches we amplify.
LEFT – “Amor Vincit Omnia” (translated as Love Conquers All), 1601, Caravaggio; RIGHT – One of Bill Henson’s seized photographs. (Black bar added by Australian news site.)