June 21st 2008

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: 'Peak oil': Apocalypse now?

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Whither the Nationals?

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS: What happens after cheap credit, oil and food?

SAME-SEX RELATIONSHIPS: Rudd grants special rights to same-sex couples

FAMILY POLICY: Home truths about working families

EUTHANASIA: Assisted suicide: safeguards or naivety?

NATIONAL SECURITY: Soviet bloc espionage: setting the record straight

DEFENCE: Should Australia have nuclear defence capability?

CHINA: Beijing muzzles protests over Sichuan earthquake

UNITED STATES: Is Obama equipped to lead the free world?

CULTURE: How political correctness threatens Australian culture

ART: The downward spiral of modern art

Barack Obama's oratory (letter)

Why cutting Australian emissions won't work (letter)

Baby imports? (letter)

Short-term stupidity (letter)

CINEMA: New Narnian epic Prince Caspian surpasses expectations

BOOKS: INKLINGS OF HEAVEN: C.S. Lewis And Eschatology, by Sean Connolly

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The downward spiral of modern art

by Kevin Donnelly

News Weekly, June 21, 2008
Bill Henson's recent exhibition of photographs of naked children has prompted many people to say enough is enough, writes Kevin Donnelly.

Not surprisingly, the seizure in late May of Bill Henson's photographs of naked children, some depicting a child under the age of 16 in a sexual context, has caused a cacophony of indignation among Australia's cultural cognoscenti.

In response to the accusation that the photographs are indecent and, to use Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's description, revolting, Henson's supporters argue that they are works of art, that critics are wowsers and that the episode represents a dark day in Australian culture.

Reality check. There are restrictions to artistic licence, and in any civilised, moral society there comes a point when the rights of artists have to be balanced against the law and public conceptions of what is decent.

Henson photographs

Take the Henson photographs that were to be exhibited at the Sydney gallery and put them on the internet or somebody's laptop and those responsible, if caught, would be charged with child pornography.

Put the photographs of an under-age girl between the covers of Playboy or Penthouse and, not only would it be illegal, but the public would have every right to complain.

Presenting young girls in such a vulnerable and voyeuristic way is especially wrong given the way children's sexuality is being commodified and exploited in advertising, marketing and popular culture.

The innocence of childhood is lost as prepubescent girls play with Bratz dolls, buy adult cosmetics and are dressed as vamps.

Such are the concerns about the way childhood is being exploited that, earlier this year, the organisers of the Australian Fashion Week bowed to community pressure and agreed to ban those under the age of 16 from appearing on the catwalk.

But, the argument goes, it's art, not pornography. As such, the normal rules do not apply and admiring a picture of a young naked girl when it is in an art gallery, as opposed to men's magazine or adult internet site, is acceptable.

At a time when everything - from toilet bowls to empty rooms to bags of rubbish - is defined as art, such an argument might carry some weight. After all, if art is whatever you wish it to be, then it is impossible to draw the line between what is and what is not.

Based on this approach, Piss Christ, notwithstanding its sacrilegious and offensive nature, is acceptable as it is artistic. Examples such as showcasing dead bodies in various stages of dissection, and hundreds of assorted teeth on a board are also okay.

Fortunately, not all have swallowed the nihilistic cant of the postmodern. Art can be defined as having certain characteristics and qualities. Art, to use Keats' words, tells us that: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty."

Art deals with human emotions, predicaments and the world around us in a profoundly moral, spiritual and aesthetic way. Art is uplifting and helps us, to use the words of another English poet, William Blake, "To see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wild flower".

While I have not seen the photographs in question, a number have been reproduced in the print media. It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but most viewers, I think, would agree that images of naked, under-age girls, silhouetted and standing provocatively are unacceptable.

It is also critical, at some stage, to stand firm. Over the years we have had several cases involving censorship and art, the most famous involving D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover and the later controversy surrounding the satirical magazine Oz.

Based on the idea of a slippery slope, each decision to uphold the rights of the artist has led to a downward spiral in terms of what is considered acceptable.

The result? A world surrounded by crass, vulgar and obscene images. Maybe it is time to say enough is enough.

- Dr Kevin Donnelly is an education consultant and author of Dumbing Down (available for $24.95 from News Weekly Books). This article is from the Herald Sun (Melbourne).

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