Tag Archives: nudity

Susanna and the Elders

I hate having to preach from the Bible but as there are so many evil people who call themselves Christian railing against Bill Henson, David Hamilton, Sally Mann and Jock Sturges that I am moved to such speech. The story is Susanna and the Elders, from the Book of Daniel is about a virtuous woman who is seen naked by two old men. The lustful old men try to blackmail Susanna by claiming that they saw her commit adultery with a young lover. Daniel, the judge finds inconsistencies in the old men’s false evidence and Susanna’s innocence is established. Scenes from this story were popular in art in the 16th to 18th century because it shows that nudity is not a sin and not to believe the slanders but the evidence.

Just as in the story of Susanna and the Elders, the evidence has never backed up the allegations of those people who have seen these nude photographs as pornographic. The so-called Christians who condemn these photographers are willing to bear false witness against their neighbours, slandering them without evidence.

This year’s attack in Australia on photographer on Bill Henson follows a familiar pattern. In 2005 work by photographer David Hamilton were classified as indecent by a British Court but this was left in confusion and Hamilton’s books are still legal in Britain.

In 1992 Sally Mann’s book Immediate Family, which included nude photographs of her own children, was condemned as pornographic by American Christian groups. And American photographer Jock Sturges was raided by the FBI for his photographs of nude children taken in naturist communities but the case was thrown out by a grand jury.

Australia is part of a trend in the U.S. and Britain to engaged in war crimes and to censor photographers for taking photographs of naked children because it is obscene. This moral confusion is a major difference between the Anglo-American culture and European (along with NZ and Canada). Perhaps there is something seriously wrong with Anglo-American culture. “The fascination of girls in childhood and adolescence has appealed to many English artists” Peter Webb, The Erotic Arts (London, 1982) Webb mentions photographers, Lewis Carroll, Peter Widdison and David Hamilton who all produce work focused on nude young girls.


Censorship is Offensive

Power will be asserted where it can be asserted. Censorship is an exercise in power. One person can’t change what is shown on TV, in public library books, at the NGV or Young and Jackson’s. But one person can get Melbourne City Council to censor an art exhibition because of nudity. The censorship of Cecilia Fogelberg and Trevor Flinn’s exhibition at Platform, ‘The Puma, The Stranger and The Mountain’ is an example of how easily Melbourne City Council caves in to pressure when it comes to art.

Melbourne City Council could have responded to the single complaint with the first point in the council’s Protocol on Artworks: “To encourage lively, critical debate and public conversation in an understanding atmosphere. This contributes to the perception of Melbourne as a city which manages its arts and related issues, however contentious, in an intelligent and informed manner.” (Protocol on Artworks, City of Melbourne 2005) But they did not; instead they joined in with the complaint. The perception now is Melbourne is a city which manages it art, when contentious, in an unintelligent, uninformed and knee-jerk manner.

We are, unfortunately, still in a culture war between religious zealots who believe that nudity is sinful and those who don’t hold this belief. The Melbourne City Council has showing which side of this war it is on, while pretending to “encourage lively, critical debate and public conversation in an understanding atmosphere”. Now some people maintain that Fogelberg and Flinn went too far, others that they didn’t. I think that this debate is a sidetrack; it is essentially a plea for tolerance of censorship. It is a way to avoid the real issue of why do we tolerate censorship? I find censorship offensive but Melbourne City Council would not do anything to appease my complaint because they do not believe that censorship is offensive – but they believe that some art is.

When I was looking at the ‘The Puma, The Stranger and The Mountain’ before it was censored a group of women passing commented on the nudity. But they weren’t really interested, not enough to look twice. Perhaps, Fogelberg and Flinn’s mistake was not putting up warning notices about the nudity, like everyone else does. Of course, these warning notices might have had the effect of drawing attention to the nudity and attracting hoards of school children to the art.

The Age 11th May 2008 has a report about the censorship of this art exhibition; http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2008/05/10/1210131335180.html And read my review of the exhibition in Platform & Counihan.


Unpopular Culture

Warning: may cause reader to think.

We all know, or at least, think that we know what is ‘popular culture’. Popular culture as distinct from high culture; does that the definition of popular culture implies that high culture is unpopular? Is there such a thing as ‘unpopular culture’?  If you took the warning labels seriously you would think that almost all culture is unpopular.

For example, almost all of the arts documentaries shown on the ABC and SBS about the visual arts, music or literature come with warning notices: nudity, drug references, and offensive language. Some of exhibitions that I attend come with warning labels about nudity or just things that might disturb some people.

In February of 2008 officials from the London Underground banned a poster with a 16th image of Venus by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The image was advertising an exhibition at the Royal Academy. Officials had originally said the poster breached their guidelines, which bars ads that “depict men, women or children in a sexual manner, or display nude or semi-nude figures in an overtly sexual context.” The London Underground changed their minds after MPs and other people started calling them idiots.

The Age (March 6, 2008) reports a parent’s complaint, supported by the Shadow education minister Martin Dixon, about a single word in Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. The novel is set reading for Year 7 at Melbourne’s Girl College. If teachers are not responsible enough to determine suitable reading for children then what qualifies other people to make that judgement?

Some of the CDs that I listen to have warning labels about “strong impact coarse language and/or themes”; we have Tipper Gore, Al Gore’s wife, to thank for these. Are these warning labels evidence of ‘unpopular culture’? I have a Fatboy Slim CD with a “warning: this recording contains explicit language”. The people who put the warning label there should have looked up a dictionary to find out what ‘explicit’ means but these self-righteous zombies are too self-righteous to be corrected by a dictionary. I think that they were trying to say was “this recording contains common language”.

These cultural warning labels exist because organizations have guidelines about cultural sensitivity and guidelines about suitability for juveniles. Protection from litigation is sometimes postulated, but this is dubious, as I have never heard of someone suing because they were shocked by a nude, course language or drug references. These guidelines are not based on expert opinion, such as teachers or academics, but are based on prejudices.

I don’t condone censorship in any form, including these euphemistic ‘guideless’. I don’t know of any evidence that these warnings are doing any good. But they do subtle harm, as I have shown in this entry, by prejudicial censoring, by implying danger through ‘warnings’ and by the institutional misuse of language. These institutions do not pander to my cultural sensitivity to censorship, nor to atheists desire not to be exposed their young children to images of Christian sadomasochism; the cultural sensitivities that the institutions do largely pander to are Puritanical wowser politics. The same political-religious forces that supported censorship have their opinions supported by these ‘guidelines’.


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