07 July 2008

Those Wacky Aussies Are At It Again

This from The Age: Just as the fracas over Bill Henson had mercifully faded away [1] [2] [3], Art Monthly Australia brought out its latest issue with a picture of a nude girl on the cover and additional nude images inside. The image, made by Polixeni Papapetrou, and depicting her young daughter Olympia*, has, predictably enough, generated a new uproar. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is once again front and center, professing to have "very deep, strong personal views" on the matter, while announcing "Frankly, I can't stand this stuff."

Australian critic Robert Nelson, who defended Henson against Rudd's diatribes, and who is married to Papapetrou and is Olympia's father, offered the following retort: "It's interesting that if the Prime Minister comments on, say the greenhouse effect, he gets expert advice first . . . I would like to know which art expert advised him on this."

It seems to me that Nelson is right here. The PM's "personal views" hardly suffice as a criteria for what counts as art or what ought to be protected as free expression. Nor, I would add, should the personal views of outraged Aussies writing in to the morality police to whom the magazine has been referred. On the other hand, it seems clear too that Nelson, Papapetrou and Art Monthly editor Maurice O'Riordan have published this cover story simply to re-ignite the fracas. And that does smack of using naked Olympia to make political hay.

In one of her less insightful moments Hannah Arendt condemned the civil rights movement in the U.S. for relying on children as part of a strategy to de-segregate public schools. Does publishing nude art photos of one's daughter in the name of free expression rise to the same level of importance as insuring poor minority kids access to decent schools. (We can set aside the question of whether the intended improvement actually occurred.) Does publishing these photos place Olympia at risk in the same way that the civil rights movement (to take just one example) did with young black kids in the American south? I am not entirely persuaded on either count. But, especially since the good guys seem to have prevailed in the Henson fracas, I feel compelled to ask ' What is to be gained here?'.
* I have to say that as is the case with Henson, I am distinctly underwhelmed by Papapetrou's kiddy pics. But, as with Henson too, I don't see any particular reason to get one's knickers in a knot about the entire thing.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Worth noting too that this 2003 series by Papapetrou was a unique collaboration between Polixeni and her husband Robert Nelson in which he painted the backdrops in which Olympia appears. In each case the imagery was appropriated - in this case it faithfully follows Lewis Carroll's painted seaside photograph of Beatrice Hatch, though it is significant that in Carroll's original, the subject looks away from the camera, signing her innocence with a finger placed pensively on her mouth, while Papapetrou has her look defiantly into the camera.

09 July, 2008 08:58  

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