Australian authorities took down Bill Henson’s purportedly pornographic photographs from his gallery, Roslyn Oxley9, on May 22, and the battle between public good and private expression continues.
On the right: Prime Minister Kevin Rudd leading the charge with: “I think [the photographs] are revolting… kids deserve to have the innocence of their childhood protected.” On the left: the arts community, led by playwright Michael Gow and writer Alison Croggon, armed with an open letter asking politicians to rethink their positions. (Apparently novelist John Coetzee and actress Cate Blanchett are now among the signatories.)
Taking a broader perspective, Richard Phillips wrote in wsws last Friday about the scapegoating of Bill Henson and the ensuing witch hunt:
Rudd and the rest of the Labor leadership have seized on the Henson issue as a diversion from mounting social tensions resulting from the rapid rise in the cost of living and growing hostility—just six months after its election—to the Labor government… Rudd Labor is trying to develop a political constituency among the extreme right, Christian fundamentalists and other disoriented layers to use as a means of intimidating and suppressing critical thought…
Another perspective to consider is the gallery’s role in supporting their artists. The owners, Roslyn and Tony Oxley, have largely complied with authorities. Following the police raid, this “Media Statement” went up on their website, essentially acknowledging self-censorship.
I cannot claim to know their full position on this. And I understand they are facing death threats and criminal charges — sincerely, who can blame them for compliance.
But I am disappointed and confused about Roslyn Oxley9’s silence. As of this writing, their website’s “NEWS” section still has NOTHING about the debates unfolding around Henson — a story that could become the Australian counterpart to the Robert Mapplethorpe controversy (to name just one) in American art.
Ironically, this is in their website’s “About The Gallery” section:
Since 1982, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery has been committed to the advancement of the most serious and innovative forms of contemporary art.
Through its exhibition program the gallery has supported work that is challenging and at the forefront of contemporary art practice.
The gallery’s silence suggests there are limits to such commitment and support. The obvious gap between what they say and what they do is troubling. This is NOT an attempt to prescribe. This is an attempt to raise a broader question: What role should a private gallery (i.e., no public funding) play in advocating for critical thought and expression — particularly in an increasingly conservative sociopolitical climate?
(See blixity’s previous post on this.)