07 July 2008

The art empire strikes back


One of the things that we learnt from the recent Bill Henson controversy is that there appears to be an orthodox position that artists assume on the the whole "What is an acceptable image?" thing.

That position has been characterised with a great deal of effort by artists in saying, "There has to be exploitation," for an image to be deemed unacceptable.

So what happened this week? A magazine called Art Monthly Australia has run a cover with a nude 6 year old girl on the front. Ostensibly to make a point about the Bill Henson controversy.

I'll be the first to admit, folks, that this country, and perhaps a lot of the western world is a smidge hysterical when it comes to pornography involving children. I don't actually believe that the connection between child pornography and paedophile behaviour will ever be found.

And the requirement for a nude photo to be exploitative in order for it to be porn is so goddamn subjective, I'm actually concerned about pretty much all artistic behaviour at this point.

Having said all that, doesn't it appear to the average onlooker that a 6 year old (she's now 11) has been exploited in order to make a point?

Doesn't this mean that Art Monthly Australia has crossed the line with a flying leap and is therefore guilty of child exploitation?

More to the point, given that this photo was made by the child's mother, doesn't this make her complicit in child exploitation?

After all that, the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd has waded in after spotting a way to appeal to the lowest common denominator by exploiting our anti-child pornography hysteria. Is he guilty of exploitation by milking this in the theatre of public opinion?

(My 2c: We thoroughly deserve exploitation over this)

Last but not least, in The Age today, the artist's husband (who just happens to be an art critic at The Age) has weighed in and criticised the PM for speaking out on something that he doesn't know any thing about, namely art.

This is all fucked for the following reasons:

1. The guy is a major art critic for a major Australian daily newspaper. Therefore, venturing any opinion, explicit or implied in his wife's work has a conflict of interest. He simply cannot occupy the aggrieved husband's position and therefore has to keep his mouth shut.

2. His comparison of this fiasco to the greenhouse effect is quite possibly the worst hyperbole ever by an artist:

"It's interesting that if the Prime Minister comments on, say the greenhouse effect, he gets expert advice first," Monah (sic) University Associate Professor [Robert] Nelson said. "I would like to know which art expert advised him on this."

3. "I would like to know which art expert advised him on this." An ad-hominem attack is not beneath this guy, even though he's an art critic and a university professor. Furthermore, if he's comfortable implying that the PM is a philistine, then what hope is there for the rest of us art consumers?

4. Nelson wears many hats during this which doesn't help. Hiding behind his academic one does him no favours, although Margaret Cook of The Age should take most of the blame for this. Attempting an argument from authority is a somewhat ham-fisted approach, n'est-ce pas?

5. Dissecting the above quote further, we now have evidence that the arts world, or at least the visual arts world, sees the consumer as an inconvenience. The performing arts do not. Theirs is a world where the consumer is king, whereas in the world of visual arts, the consumer is treated pretty shabbily when the artist refuses to consider their own audience.

6. Further to 5, as an arts consumer, I frankly (by and large) don't care about the artist's intention. I'm concerned with how visually appealing an image is. What's lost on Associate Professor Nelson is that most art consumers feel exactly the same way. And some of us are sick of being dictated to by those who think that they know better.

If there was ever any more evidence required that artists have lost touch with the rest of us, it is this. Ironically, it is on an issue where the rest of us have lost all sense of perspective (I speak of society generally) and become hysterical over the merest suggestion of someone getting their rocks off on kiddie nudity.

17 comments:

Greg said...

It's worth noting that this periodical has a circulation of 5,000.

I imagine they will get quite a little bump this month, providing a timely shibboleth service for the non-Facebook crowd.

It disturbs me that the parents would draw their 11 year old child into a media stunt, including having her vociferous defence of her mother broadcast on the telly. Frankly, I don't care what an 11 year old thinks about her parents publishing nude photos of her when she was six. The parents should have to justify their behaviours themselves.

Ah well, when it's all blown over Art Monthly will continue to exist on public sponsorship and philanthropy. For sheer gall, no-one can tell you "just shut up and give us the money" quite like arts wankers.

Dikkii said...

Once again, your shibboleth call is spot on.

The parents should have to justify their behaviours themselves.

They should, but I'm think that only the mum can comment. Which is only appropriate, really, as shedidit. Mind you, I haven't heard a thing from her yet.

Dad can't - because as an art critic, it is entirely inappropriate for him to comment. Of course, the art world doesn't, as you identified once before, have any idea as to what the words "conflict of interest" mean.

Which leaves junior. We have the ages of consent, drinking, smoking, voting and all those others for various reasons. In short, it means that her views count for squat, because in the eyes of the law, she does not have a clue about what's going on. So why is the media bothering with her?

Dunc said...

So what's the position on the use of images of naked babies in just about every advert for baby-related products?

Bronze Dog said...

The way I tend to look at visual art: If you're bringing it out into the public, you have to keep the consumers in mind. About the only place I think artists can safely get away with doing the art for their own sake would be stuff like avant-garde galleries, on an experimental basis.

Art isn't supposed to be an ivory tower.

Dikkii said...

G’day Dunc:

It’s interesting that you mention babies. There’s this photographer over here named Anne Geddes whose work gets a solid workout in the greeting card space – her schtick is primarily naked babies. I’ve been thinking that her work has been totally immune from comment up to this point, which is very interesting.

Mind you, our tubthumping anti-child porn thought police have been totally quiet on her, even though it would appear, ostensibly, that this satisfies all requirements – babies (who are unable to consent), nude, images sold for profit. I put it down to the fact that most babies all look the same, compared to older humans. Plus, the media might be shooting themselves in the foot if they go after a photographer whose work is widely regarded as “cute” and not yet “offensive”.

On the flip side, Geddes herself has remained quiet on this whole controversy – does she now have a case to answer?

Dikkii said...

Welcome back, BD:

About the only place I think artists can safely get away with doing the art for their own sake would be stuff like avant-garde galleries, on an experimental basis.

There’s probably nothing wrong with this. I think, though that even here, artists have a duty to cater to their audience, and not expect their audience to adjust to them. Even consumers of avant-gardism would expect some degree of respect from artists, I would think.

Art isn't supposed to be an ivory tower.

Ramen to that, although I think that art is quite possibly the worst example of “ivory towerism” there is.

Dunc said...

If you're bringing it out into the public, you have to keep the consumers in mind.

Ack! "Consumers"? Art isn't pet food.

I have to say, I don't agree with the idea that an artist has a duty to the audience of any kind. An artist should feel free to express themselves through their art in any way they like. If you want to exhibit your own faeces, go right ahead.

Of course, if they want to make a living at it, then they have to produce stuff that somebody wants to buy. And there is no requirement that anybody else should have to respect their art.

There is a big difference between being an artist and being commercial artist.

Art is like writing. Some people are very good at it, and do it for a living. Some people are really crap at it, but enjoy doing it anyway. Would it seem reasonable to you to say "if you're bringing your Kirk / Spock slash fanfic out into the public, you have to keep the consumers in mind"?

Dikkii said...

I have to say, I don't agree with the idea that an artist has a duty to the audience of any kind. An artist should feel free to express themselves through their art in any way they like. If you want to exhibit your own faeces, go right ahead.

Well maybe. There's nothing wrong with this - in fact, it has been done before. I would consider this entertaining. Though, notice that I said "I". There's an enormous Saturn-sized world of difference (with rings) between me finding this entertaining as a "consumer" (or viewer/punter/whatever you want to call it), and an artist dictating to us that their work is entertaining.

In the performing arts, the opinions of the audience are valued. In visual arts it's quite often ridiculed. I don't see why visual artists can't treat their audience with more respect.

So I might just respectfully disagree with your words: "I don't agree with the idea that an artist has a duty to the audience of any kind."

I contend that, commmercial or otherwise, an artist should at least treat their audience with some respect. It's good enough for the performing arts - why not visual, too?

There is a big difference between being an artist and being commercial artist.

Maybe, but as soon as their work hits the gallery wall, they're all the same. If an artist doesn't give a stuff about their audience (I still like the word "consumers" - it's what they are) then why bother bringing their work outside the house in the first place?

Would Trekkies upload their fanfic if they weren't seeking an audience? More to the point, would a Trekkie label their audience as philistines if they hated it? I'm not sure that they would.

Art is like writing.

Well, technically, writing is an artform...

Dikkii said...

Actually Dunc, I might add to my previous comment that that I write this blog with an audience, or potential audience in mind.

I try to make it entertaining, and at least slightly readable. I don't always succeed, but even though this blog is about my often ridiculous opinions, my first thought before I put something up is "Will someone find this interesting/entertaining?"

If I took the approach of some visual artists, I just wouldn't care about this. I'd just write any old thing and if you didn't like it, well you'd be a philistine, full stop.

The musician in me, I guess.

Brendan said...

Re The critic's comment about which expert Rudd consulted. Art is subjective, I figure that makes everyone an expert. I'm sure Rudd just consulted himself.

Dikkii said...

That's right Brendan. Which makes the critic a goose, I think.

Dunc said...

I might add to my previous comment that that I write this blog with an audience, or potential audience in mind.

Well, that's entirely up to you. I'm sure most artists (at least, most commercially successful ones) do exactly that. My point is that they (and you) have no obligation to do that.

I do take your point that it's a bit of a stretch to completely disregard your audience and then call them philistines for not liking your stuff. I also take the point that if they're exhibiting publicly, then they are presumably looking for an audience of some kind - but I can't eliminate the possibility that that audience consists of only half-a-dozen specific people. I guess what I'm finding off-putting is that you seem to feel (correct me if I'm wrong here) that you're part of the audience they should respect, whether they like it or not. Maybe they're just not aiming at you, or indeed anywhere near you.

The big difference between the performing arts and the visual arts in this respect is that the performing arts need as many bums on seats as possible for every performance, whereas the visual arts only really need one buyer per piece. If your target market is "people with way too much cash who think they're better / smarter than everybody else", then calling anyone who fails to appreciate your oeuvre a philistine is a just smart marketing strategy.

Dikkii said...

My point is that they (and you) have no obligation to do that.


I guess you're right about this. But while they have no "obligation" per se, I also have no obligation to be polite to shop assistants, say hello to fellow employees or say good bye before hanging up the phone.

I'm just going to be considered thoroughly objectionable if I don't. (Which is not the sole reason why I'm polite to shop assistants etc, incidentally)

These are social norms that I guess create a "social obligation", rather than a legal or ethical one.

I guess what I'm finding off-putting is that you seem to feel (correct me if I'm wrong here) that you're part of the audience they should respect, whether they like it or not.

Or potential audience, you are correct. Sure, they may not be aiming at me, or even near me, but I'll assert my right to call them for what they are if I fall into the great unwashed category that they might refer to as philistines.

Imagine for a moment that my art was to be deliberately rude to people, knowing that there is a small core audience of people who get off on people being rude to them.

You'd still have the right to call me an arsehole. I'd still have the right to call you a philistine - although in the context of this art, it wouldn't exactly be cutting edge.

The difference is that I would be an arsehole. You wouldn't necessarily be a philistine.

And at the end of the day, I don't think that I would have shown you much respect at all - which is what this is about. (Indeed, a case could also be made that I'm also exploiting you, slightly, for the sake of my art - the fact that it might not be commercial ceases to be relevant in this example)

...the visual arts only really need one buyer per piece....calling anyone who fails to appreciate your oeuvre a philistine is a just smart marketing strategy.

Yeah, this is correct. The low volume, high mark-up, make it uncomfortable for the punters thing works for some manufacturers - Maybach won't even let you in the door of their dealerships without a reference.

I suppose that while you might reserve the right for a visual artist to not be welcoming of a new potential audience, I reserve the right to call them elitist, irrational, unfriendly, rude, hypocritical, conflicted, dictatorial and other stuff where they're obnoxious about it.

Dunc said...

I reserve the right to call them elitist, irrational, unfriendly, rude, hypocritical, conflicted, dictatorial and other stuff where they're obnoxious about it.

Yeah, fine - I've got no problems with that. As I said above "there is no requirement that anybody else should have to respect their art" - and I'll add that there is no requirement that anybody else should respect them either.

Imagine for a moment that my art was to be deliberately rude to people

Isn't there an entire TV genre dedicated to this premise? Plus there's the obnoxious "wind up phone call" radio schtick, which has always put sand up my ass.

In short, arseholes are arseholes, and you'll get them in every walk of life - there's certainly nothing unique about the visual arts in that respect. To be honest, I don't think your characterisation of those working in the visual arts is fair - I think you've focussed exclusively on the behaviour of a tiny but noisy subset who get lots of press and extrapolated it way too far.

Dikkii said...

I certainly hope that you are right, Dunc, although the way that the who's who of the Australian art world has closed ranks around Henson doesn't lead me to believe that this is a "tiny but noisy subset who get lots of press".

Let's assume, though, that these "artistic extremists" are a small but vocal minority. Does this place pressure on "artistic moderates" to speak out lest they be tarred with the same brush? And by their silence to date, can we assume that "moderates" condone the attitudes of the "extremists" who are being heard presently? Is there not the risk that potential consumers of paintings might opt for, oh I don't know, another plasma screen TV instead after all of this? Should art critics who say stuff this embarrassing be ignored, just because they're members of a "tiny but noisy" minority of "extremists"? Is it acceptable for an art critic to comment at all where there is a clear conflict of interest?

I might be guilty of extrapolating it way too far, but as I've pointed out here, there are too many issues to ignore.

In short, arseholes are arseholes, and you'll get them in every walk of life - there's certainly nothing unique about the visual arts in that respect.

This is true, however, artists have been sacred cows among the media for way too long and it really is about time that they were held to the same standards as everyone else.

I go after other arseholes as well. Why should I ignore artists?

Dikkii said...

By the way Dunc, I do applaud you for what appears to be speaking up on behalf of "artistic moderates". Now if only some more of them would add their voices to the chatter.

Dunc said...

I go after other arseholes as well. Why should I ignore artists?

A fair point, well made.