Issue 212, August, 2008
The Canadian Aboriginal curatorial delegation had an enlightening time in Sydney [for the Biennale]. Just before I caught my plane home, I dropped in on one of Sydney’s artist-run centres, MOP. They were closing a terrific Fringe festival that paralleled the Biennale, SafARI, curated by Lisa Corsi. I saw some very curious works in an Aboriginal, faux bark painting, style. I was intrigued because they were pushing the tradition to include some remarkably salient content: alcohol and sex. I was interested and so asked more about the artist. I was thinking about buying a piece. It echoes similar strategies that are happening and that I want to encourage in our contemporary, Canadian Aboriginal art community. Anyway, my jaw dropped to the floor when I was told that the artist, Lucas Grogan, is not Aboriginal but a white guy ‘appropriating’ the Arnhem Land rarrk style. There was no critical context explaining this rather dodgy aesthetic/political move.
The exhibition’s website nods but does not engage the problematic: www.safari.org.au/artists_LucasGrogan.htm Later in the evening, I was introduced to the artist at the closing party at China Heights. We talked at length and he gave the usual but unconvincing justifications. He seems a sincere young man who feels that his exploitation of Aboriginal cultural material is his aesthetic right, especially as it is netting him some significant sales, which he believes sanctifies his action. Some Aboriginal artists appropriate Western art styles to deconstruct colonialism. Given that they were forcibly assimilated into that culture, they clearly have the right and duty to ‘talk back’ in the ‘master’s voice’ as well as their own. The reverse, however, is not equitable. To steal the voice of the oppressed under the weak claims of appreciating the style, because it is Australian and that he is doing it ironically, exceeds credibility and propriety. He is doing it because he is empowered to do so by his community, not the Aboriginal community whose property this is.
I was surprised to find no mention of this scandal in the reviews. I was, however, pleased to learn that one of the original co-curators, Margaret Farmer, resigned over Grogan’s inclusion in the SafARI. This was an ethical action and, in the end, reminds that this is a curatorial problem even more than an artistic one. Artists should do as they please; curators, though, have more complex responsibilities. I am curious to know if the uncritical appropriation of Aboriginal art is a trend in Australian art and curation?
David Garneau Associate Professor at The University of Regina, Faculty of Fine Arts, Visual Arts Department.
‘Nude Girl Art Outrage’
In the interest of facilitating some debate around the issue of children as subjects in art, AMA publishes some of the letters in response to both the controversy related to the July edition’s cover image and the broader issue.
(The first letter was written in reply to a statement from the Australian Christian Lobby, Canberra)
To label the photo on the cover of Art Monthly an ‘attempt to sexually exploit a child in the name of art’ as some in the Christian community have done is a wilful misunderstanding of the clear intention and objective of the Editor’s purpose. Whether or not the use of the photo was appropriate is a valid community discussion, but this claim is an hysterical overstatement and a slander on the Editor of Art Monthly.
‘It is every thinking parents’ worst nightmare to have the sexualisation of children mainstreamed, as seems to be the want of some in the arts community.’ This assumes that the publication of the photo is about ‘mainstreaming the sexualisation of children’ which is by no means certain. It also overlooks the clear evidence that the photo was taken by the child’s mother, and approved for publication by the child’s family.
The description of Art Monthly as ‘a little known art magazine’ is disappointing though probably (and unfortunately) accurate: it reflects the provincialism and narrow cultural awareness of a section of the Christian constituency. I wish it were otherwise, but I am encouraged that there are members of churches (even Baptist churches!) who know of Art Monthly and have even read it (but we don’t look at the pictures!)
By all means protect our children, and demand the highest standards of care for the vulnerable, but let’s keep some perspective in the discussion and engage responsibly with the complex issues of artistic merit, freedom of expression and the need to protect community standards.
Grace and peace,
I think the painting [the cover image] is beautiful – wish I had the talent to record my children’s moments as well. Thank you. Keep punching for artistic freedom.
As a father and a citizen, I say that it’s time to stop publishing pictures of naked children. Whether an image is art or pornography depends on the community standard and is determined by the general public – exemplified by people such as me. I do not think that using an image of a naked six-year-old child to push any kind of agenda is moral. Art is not an absolute but rather exists within the context of the community.
(further, in reply to Editor’s email)
I have been an on and off reader of Art Monthly for a number of years. It’s a fabulous magazine. But that’s not why I am writing this. I hated the madness leveled at Bill Henson. I was thrilled by your gutsy response. While the cover wasn’t to my taste (nice shot but perhaps a bit cute for me) it demonstrates that one corner of the art community is not going to be intimidated by populist hysteria. Well done!
Your editor claims there was ‘hysteria’ over the Henson issue. I don’t know where he was, but there certainly wasn’t any in the media. When it comes to protecting the innocence of a child, who is not in a position to appreciate the real ramifications of their actions, ‘hysteria’ would be justified against the likes of people who like to look at naked children. You people are displaying ‘hysteria’ in demanding that you must have your total freedom to display anything to do with child nudity at all costs. Your editor claims that he ‘couldn’t really understand the furore’. It’s simple; the vast majority of society sees the necessity to protect its children against people who like to view them in the nude. If Mr O’Riordan wants to have total freedom to express himself, let’s see depictions of Mohamed in various offensive (to the vast majority of Muslims) poses in your mag. He wouldn’t dare!! That same fear should be the same feeling he should have towards offending the vast majority of society in general.
You can shit on a pizza and call it Art – but is it? Creative freedom Vs the world, decency and moral value. Extremes are always not the way to go – please don’t take this magazine to the equal, yet opposite extreme.
Just letting you know that I believe Art Monthly has acted with dignity and as any reputable art magazine should – to demonstrate that art and artists are fulfilling a duty to uphold the bastions of free speech and to act via thoughtful and creative motions when that freedom is threatened. Otherwise, art publications just end up on the coffee table along with all the other trash.
Regards and solidarity,
Dear Mr O’Riordan, The fear of the many or the will of the few? Sir Winston Churchill once said that the best argument against democracy was to spend five minutes with the average voter. This would be the same average voter that says ‘pre-adult disrobed = child porn = threat to my kids = knee jerk / jail / deport / ban. These are the same common clay as went along with (if not supporting as such) the Inquisition and the Salem witch trials. They mean well, but then the road to hell is paved with good intentions. From what I read in the popular press, your publication is being lambasted for your recent cover picture. I’m sure you are aware that you have chosen to set yourself in the firing line, and I respect your decision. While I doubt that the informed debate that your piece might have been intended to raise will reach the ears of your detractors, I congratulate you on the effort and the (assumed) sentiment. I found the cover not particularly inspiring, but an interesting comment on the simplicity and conceptual vulnerability of youth, for what it is worth.
Regards, James G
Dear Maurice O’Riordan, I read the news article and some of the reader comments which accompanied it on news.com.au. They reproduced the current issue’s cover, but placed a large black rectangle covering most of the girl. Looking at the cover here on your site, I want to say that I see nothing wrong with the image. My congratulations and best wishes go out to you and your magazine’s staff for taking this stand. Globally, there is such fanatical outrage over any photos of people under 18. I have heard of one case where parents took photos of their newborn baby’s first bath. The film processor notified the police who directed child protective services to remove all children from the home and put the parents through pedophile hell. I do wish people can return to sanity to see innocence and natural beauty for what it is.
Ms Stephany Jean Waelder, Texas
I’m not an art person, I have to be honest. But even the noob I am could not see anything sexy in this pose. It’s clearly not the photographer’s intention to make an erotic or even sexy picture. Really, I tried to find any erotic sense in this, but I failed. To see anything erotic in this, I guess you must have the mindset to see it that way.
This whole discussion is ridiculous. It’s not only a severe limitation of the legal boundaries inside the framework artists will have to operate within, it’s also a disgrace in general. If this picture will be the new standard for what’s to be considered sexually offensive and what’s just a picture of a naked child, things can really get very freaky.
Gert C. van Ravenzwaaij, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
My attention was drawn to the cover of the July issue of AMA magazine while listening to your [the Editor’s] interview on ABC Radio today. I am writing to you in support of your stance and that of your magazine with regard to the controversy ensuing publication. ‘Hysteria’ is the word you used to describe it, and I agree. I have been discussing this topic on an Internet forum with mixed reactions. The topic can be found here:
From what I’m reading so far, it seems the public are more willing to debate this issue than to become hysterical about it.
Sincere regards, Charmaine Louise