Last week was quite a week in the Australian art world, with ‘keystone’ cops raiding art galleries. They’ll be burning books next. The police raided Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery - possibly the most prestigious commercial art gallery in Sydney. What interested them was the work of Bill Henson who had an exhibition opening there. People have become very polarised, and there have been threats against the gallery. In a very small nutshell, Henson is an internationally famous artist who photographs adolescents, nude.
You can read more about Bill Henson here, and more about the shenanigans on the Art Life Blog. In this post, ‘Seven Days in May’ the writer talks about the side issues that the controversy has raised. Some of these issues cover subjects dear to my own heart, and may well be raised again in posts in this blog. (‘The Art Life’ is the art blog in Sydney – you have to read it to be in the loop).
Nudity – naughty or not?
One of the questions The Art Life raises is, “Can our society take the chance that some people might consider art works with otherwise principled motivations to be porn?
I was already wanting to talk to you about nudity in art. Mostly, anyone who has been an art student, or taken life drawing classes, takes a bit of nudity in their stride. I clearly remember my first life drawing class, in first year at art school in 2002. My friend said ‘ I’m going to try to get around the back.’ and ‘I hope it’s a woman.’ Well, it was a man, and there is no back in life class. (The green image is one of my life drawings from a recent class – not there for its merit, but merely because I can’t post without a picture!) For the record, life drawing is difficult, and once you start to draw, the body becomes just shapes, & you’re concentrating on the drawing, so you don’t have time to think about the nudity.
Of course, there are famous nude paintings from art history – those have all been dragged up this week – Manet’s Olympia and Dejeuner sur l’Herbe. Most people don’t turn a hair at these. However, it has been a source of surprise to me, how varied my friends’ reaction to nudity in art can be. I blithely assume everyone is like me – but it’s not true. Some are much much more conservative. Would they think Henson’s work was pornographic. I doubt it – but I’ve been wrong before. The ‘art world’ (what is that? …..the commercial gallery system?) knows about Henson – he’s been going for 30 years – but the general public on the whole do not, it seems. But the ‘art world’ is more insular than it thinks. It appears the police hadn’t heard of Henson Does that mean they haven’t got their eye on the ball?
So, what do I think about the Henson fiasco? I think it’s bizarre that the police have become involved, and if charges were to be laid I’d think it was appalling. Nevertheless, I voted with my feet and skipped his exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2005. Too many of my contemporaries were affected by child abuse, and I can’t bring myself to support anything that might lead the perpetrators to believe it is OK.