To celebrate this year’s 60th anniversary of The Blake Prize, Art Life editor Andrew Frost was invited to speak on a panel on the topic “why do images cause controversy?”
I’m going to describe some images. I don’t have to show them to you because you already know them; the execution of a Viet Cong solider in a street in Saigon; a naked girl staggering down a road after a napalm attack on her home, her face contorted in pain and anguish; a man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square, shopping bags in his hands, a lone figure against a formidable force of death; a few seconds of video of a woman dying after being shot during a protest march in Tehran, her last moments captured on a mobile phone. And finally, an image with no people in it, just a reminder of what once was: the entrance of Auschwitz, the words Arbeit macht frei on the rusting gate.
These are examples of images that are loaded with meaning. We feel that we understand their context and intention, communications and coverage of an event, or a series of events, which speak to our collective understanding of history, to our sense of moral rightness and what, despite the horror, we believe is a meaningful communication. We invest a sense of truth in the photographic image even though we also know that photography and video is manipulated in various often imperceptible ways. Yet even with that understanding photography above all other forms of art, or media, is regarded as essentially truthful.
Let’s see if we can define a few ideas about the way images can provoke controversy, anger and even hatred. By image I mean visual communication – the static frame of the photograph and the painting, the moving field of the video, the media that delivers it to us. For me, that is an image.
I’m a writer whose usual subject is art and the examples of provocative images I just gave are not of art but of reportage, photojournalism – and their context is very different to that of art. Certain photographic images become iconic representations of moments in history and their power draws from this collective memory. Some images like the photos of American soldiers going ashore on D Day or the death of an infantryman in the Spanish Civil War are familiar to us perhaps, but their urgent meaning has been drained by time. Images of the moon landing, Harold Holt appearing to bow before Lyndon Johnson, De Groot cutting the ribbon on the Harbor Bridge with his sword, these have now faded away into history, their original context and meaning almost forgotten.
Art by contrast functions in a different way. Representational arts like figurative paintings aren’t thought to be truthful in the same way that photography is, but if we adjudge an artwork to be good, then it is thought of as honest. To be honest is a value that we want art to aspire to – that it won’t trick or lie to us, that it will say something truthful about beauty, human experience and aspiration. This is an idea that has long fascinated me because it relates to the value we put on art as a practice of cultural communication quite separate sometimes to whatever it was the artist intended. Art has many iconic images, most of them religious in nature, while many of the secular iconic art images relate to moments in time – ages past in portraits of royalty – or cultural moments quite recent – say, Andy Warhol’s soup cans as signifiers of the 1960s. Works that were once controversial in their own time invariably become respectable additions to the collections of museums – Marcel Duchamp took a porcelain urinal, signed it and entered it into an art show as a joke that changed the way many thought about the practice of art. Forty years later the urinal was editioned and sold off to collections.
Recent years have shown us that in Australia art works have the capacity to become controversial. I don’t really want to go back over the history of those debates – or unnecessarily remind ourselves of the Blake’s own recent controversies – but I can address them here in quick shorthand – those art works became controversial because they were thought to be somehow beyond the moral limits of social acceptability, either by intention or by accident. Either way they were unacceptable.
It is thought that truthful images are unmediated – dishonest or deceptive images are manipulated and distorted. Hot button issues in our culture – the debates on the status and agency of children, the questions of racial, ethnic and sexual identity, the issues of religious autonomy, the protection or destruction of the environment – all of these subjects have been chosen as the subject of art works and have caused eruptions of inarticulate anger directed at those that made them and those who chose to exhibit and distribute them. The fact that it was almost impossible to untangle the web of issues that surrounded the Henson Affair, from vilification of the artist and his intentions, the gallery, the politicians and the moral guardians who got involved – there was no better example of how the meaning of art gets lost in the heat of the moment.
One of the biggest illusions we live under is the idea that we live ideology-free lives. Australians see themselves as mostly separate to the forces that shape us; things like politics and leadership are thought of as separate from the moral certainties called “common sense” or “common decency”. It’s not that people don’t engage with politics or the ethical questions that form the basis of cultural debate, it’s that their expression becomes confused and tangled with assumptions about the intentions of others. Sometimes it seems to me that the tradition of liberal democracy will end with a rule of common sense that will extinguish the freedoms that form the very basis of that tradition. A belief in the need to limit the freedom and rights of others has become the central tenant of our culture.
If you believe as I do that art has a role in questioning these ideas and assumptions, then to engage with contemporary art is an act of good faith. This doesn’t mean that this kind of art gets a free pass, that we have to be uncritical and accepting, or even forget that no matter what subject an artwork is about it remains an aesthetic experience, it’s a simple recognition that art has many functions. For my own part, the only time I get angry about an art work is when I suspect the artist is trying to be deliberately controversial while not being very clever about it. There’s nothing worse than being lectured on an issue by someone who knows less about an issue than you do – but to believe that art can only be judged retrospectively in 50 or 100 years for its true value and legacy – and that to engage with the world as it is now is an abdication of art’s true role [the creation of beauty] – that is to me a deeply conservative and reactionary misconception of what art is.
I’d like to conclude with an observation, a thought and a wish. The observation is that we seem incapable of escaping our own circumstances, that somehow the gatekeepers of cultural dialogue are keeping the doors firmly shut. Perhaps controversy is the only way to force an issue. The thought is this: in a way controversies over images are second order problems – they are symptomatic of the failure of our culture to tolerate any dissent or deviance from that ill-defined concept of Australian identity and values. Why is this so? And what can we do about it? To be honest, I don’t know, but what I think we can do leads me to the wish: When we are faced with the horrors of the world, something primal rises in us, something very ugly and old that wants to vent its rage. When the recent bombing and massacre in Norway occurred there was a moment when that ancient need for retribution seemed just and right but instead the Norwegian Prime Minister, Jan Stoltenberg stated that “We meet terror and violence with more democracy and will continue to fight against intolerance.” My wish is that our own leaders would respond in the same way, with kindness and compassion and solidarity with the beliefs that created the democratic principles of our society, that the debate and commentary on those values would retain the same acceptance of an individual’s right to speak, and that when the next inevitable controversy arrives, we can begin to understand it for what it is.