The recent outcry over allegedly pornographic photographs of children exhibited as works of art seemed to settle down after the police took sensible advice from a number of quarters – including the legal profession – and saw that prosecution would be inappropriate.
But the flames have now been stoked again by a picture of a child on the cover of the magazine Art Monthly Australia.
In considering this issue, it is worth asking what works of art are for – but that question is often obscured by another that is both shallow and misconceived: is the framed object a work of pornography or a work of art? The fact is that works of art may be pornographic and pornographic objects may be works of art.
And works of art can be offensive in other ways than by being pornographic. They can be incitements to violence and insurrection, to sadism, torture, murder, lewdness and causing inconvenience to the Pope. All of these provocations have from time to time been offered, and indulgently protected, as works of art.
The right question to ask is this: why do most people believe that, up to a point, there should be a domain of public entertainment in which we are invited to contemplate things that we might consider offensive – perhaps even intolerably so – if they were thrust upon us in the context of ordinary life?
Not everybody goes straight for the wrong question. One of the popular responses to the right one is to say that works of art are all play-acting or its pictorial equivalent – that what is represented is not really there and not really happening. Works of art are essentially representations and therefore harmless. The blood is all tomato sauce; the performers, although apparently at each others’ throats, are really the best of friends.
There are two things wrong with this response. The first is that it’s not true. Many works of art are perfectly real, and some are noxious. The other is that even if it were true, it would not explain why works of art are granted a dispensation different from ordinary episodes of pretence and play-acting.
We often condone representations, pretences and deceit in everyday life. It is of course not a good idea to frighten the bank teller with a toy gun or to amuse Airport Security with quips about the bomb in your suitcase, but make believe in general often gets away with murder without needing to call upon a "work of art" defence.
Turning back to the wrong question, the most popular answer given by pundits from the art world is to say that works of art are endowed with a mysterious virtue called "aesthetic quality", and that aesthetic quality always and absolutely trumps.
Another is to plead that the artist didn’t mean the work to be pornographic. We can be reasonably confident in most cases that when a patient dies the physician didn’t mean it to happen, and deserves a break, but artists are not in the same way above suspicion. Whether they meant it or not, they carry the can.
The right answer to the right question goes something like this. The art world’s recognition of an object as a work of art is effectively a public invitation to a public audience that selects itself on the basis of a common understanding. At the core of this understanding is the idea that works of art are things that should be contemplated in a distinctive way.
The mode of contemplation appropriate to works of art is one of radical detachment from the usual imperative by which we respond to the promptings of moral, political or practical interests.
To contemplate with detachment is ideally to explore all of the possible responses to an object from every imaginable point of view, and to temporarily disregard the imperatives to action that determine our behaviour in everyday life. When appraising a surgeon’s cut, what matters is that it is in the right place. To treat it as a work of art is to say that other considerations – should it be seen, for example, as an assault upon the temple of the soul? – are also entertained.
The art world’s reasons for recognising something as a work of art may not always be the right ones, but that is not the point. The Prime Minister’s reasons for appointing certain persons as high court judges may not be particularly good, but we nevertheless agree to treat the office and the office-holder with respect.
Detached contemplation offers insights that may be radically unexpected, not all of them qualifying as virtuous. Opening one’s mind is a little like opening Pandora’s box – there is no guarantee that it will always be good for us. We may come to wonder as we watch Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will whether Hitler was after all a hero of legendary status, or it may give us the creeps. The point about works of art is that our freedom and autonomy depend upon the availability of opportunities to expand our minds. To lack detachment is to surrender to the compulsions of obedience, habit and custom.
There are risk-averse societies in which detachment is discouraged. Fortunately we do not live in such a society. Nor do we live in a society in which it is considered appropriate to offer up public executions as works of art. There are limits to detachment. A line must be
drawn somewhere; but not always, and not necessarily, in the place where it is drawn
in the practical world of competing interests.
Some people will convince themselves that if detachment from the compulsion of particular interests is really what works of art are about, then the art world had better be abolished. There have always been such people, and they will justifiably remain unpersuaded by aesthetic claptrap such as that of the anarchist Laurent Tailhade: "What do the victims matter, if the gesture be beautiful?"
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