In societies that have long prided themselves on liberty of expression, something of late has begun gnawing away at the concept of artistic freedom.
In Australia it is apparently now impossible to discuss the photographic art of Bill Henson without reference to the police seizure 18 months ago of works from his exhibition and the ensuing controversy.
In a case of high drama repeated as farce, Waverley Council recently attempted to ban nude images from Sculpture by the Sea.
Over in London the Metropolitan Police succeeded in removing an installation with the image of a naked child from the exhibition Pop Life.
And in Zurich, Roman Polanski remains under house arrest after two months in jail pending proceedings for extradition to the United States on 32-year-old charges of unlawful sex with a minor.
What all these situations have in common is the attempt to restrict artistic freedom in the name of so-called "morality" — in particular, to play on widespread fears for child safety in order to bang the drum for censorship after a long period of laissez faire.
At first sight the Polanski case doesn’t fit the pattern. The overt issue here is not his work but his behaviour half a lifetime ago. Some of Henson’s supporters, whose personal conduct has never been questioned even by his worst enemies, have been quick to distance themselves from the controversy over the film director.
Perhaps they should think again. The banging of this particular drum is never good news for art. The timing of Polanski’s arrest in Switzerland is suspicious to say the least. He has been working openly in Europe for three decades since he fled the US believing the judge to be prejudiced against him. Samantha Geimer, the victim, has expressly and repeatedly said that she does not want him prosecuted. In 2002, when he was awarded the Best Director Oscar for The Pianist and accepted via satellite, it seemed that he had been brought back into the fold.
So why have the Swiss moved on Polanski now, arresting him at the Zurich Film Festival — to which he had been invited to be honoured for his life’s work? It can’t surely be anything to do with his current project. He is working on his film of Robert Harris’s The Ghost, with Pierce Brosnan in the role of a Blair-like former British Prime Minister who is rather too close to the CIA. The director’s incarceration from September onwards halted post-production during the crucial two months in which the presidency of the European Union was at stake, and continued as the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war began in London. But let’s not let ourselves get into conspiracy theories.
The bigger picture is centred on the United States, since the action of the Swiss authorities coincides with the mounting right-wing campaign against President Obama and his supporters in the intelligentsia and the film world.
Hundreds of the great and the good have now signed petitions and spoken out in Polanski’s support. They include writers Gore Vidal and Paul Auster and film industry veterans Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Jeanne Moreau and Whoopi Goldberg. Should the extradition go ahead, not only will Polanski be subjected to trial by media, a green light will be given to the biggest witch-hunt in Hollywood since the days of McCarthyism. The frothing demagogues of Murdoch’s Fox News are at it already. The appalling Glenn Beck has managed to hitch the attack on Polanski to his campaign against Obama’s healthcare legislation, saying on air: "We’re the young girl saying no, no help me, and the government is Roman Polanski."
The Murdoch media empire has a hand in the current right-wing attacks on the arts. Its influence is feared by governments, political parties and even by some in the arts world itself.
The recent police swoop on the Tate Modern in London occurred at a time when Gordon Brown’s Government was desperately and unsuccessfully trying to retain the favour of The Sun, and the gallery was bidding for an increased share of government funding. No one in government or gallery management opposed the removal of the Richard Prince work Spiritual America. A couple of weeks later, it was announced that the Tate would receive the £500 million it had requested for its planned extension.
Certainly there is confusion over the issue of censorship. At Sculpture by the Sea in Sydney, it was left to artist Paul Trefry to defy the barmy council ruling against his sculpture of a nude child. He was supported by the exhibition organisers, but they hadn’t been the first to take up the cudgels.
There have been a few wobbles among Polanski supporters, too. Emma Thompson, one of the early signatories of the petition for his release, has withdrawn her support, claiming to have been convinced by campaigners against child abuse at her son’s university. Undoubtedly huge pressure will be exerted on others.
The confusion is understandable. Child abuse has become a matter of huge public concern in recent years. But the problem in all these cases is that legitimate fears about child safety are being harnessed to attempts to erode the place that art has won in modern society. No sane person seriously believes that people will view nudes in an exhibition and molest minors as a result. The anger of campaigners against child abuse would be better directed not against artists but against institutional concealment of the abusers of the kind revealed in the recent 700-page report on the Dublin archdiocese, which shows that the police, the judiciary and ecclesiastical authorities have colluded for years in protecting sexual predators within the Catholic Church. It was published in The Irish Times under the headline: "Church ‘routinely covered up’ child sexual abuse for 30 years".
Let us not confuse the moral issue with the artistic issue. Morality by definition is not absolute or unchanging, and the acceptability of erotic or sexually explicit images changes as society changes. In the Benthamite view, the foundation of morality is "the greatest happiness of the greatest number". Taking the views of the greatest number into account, art institutions recognise public concerns to the extent that they often screen sexually explicit imagery with a notice warning that some people may find the exhibit offensive. Picasso held that it was right to protect the "ignorant innocents" from contact with art but that’s very different from opening the door to censorship.
Morality is not the business of art. As the philosopher Herbert Read put it: "Moral values are social values; aesthetic values are human values." Art pushes the boundaries of our understanding of the human condition. It captures vulnerability, possibility, beauty. That is precisely what Henson’s work does, and it’s why he stands in an honourable artistic tradition of fascination with images of adolescence, dating back at least to Caravaggio.
Politicians like Prime Minister Rudd who cannot comprehend this should stay out of the discussion, however much they wish to curry favour with the gutter press. When they attack artists they open the door to the sort of municipal idiocy we saw at Sculpture by the Sea. With their knee-jerk statements they subscribe to the agenda of the Moral Majority — which is, in essence, deeply reactionary.
It’s the same agenda at work in the Polanski case — and that’s why defending Polanski is entirely consistent with the defence of artistic freedom.
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