Agentleman, as Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said, is someone who never hurts another person’s feelings unintentionally. One would like to think it was in this sort of spirit that Unknown Land is preceded by a warning that visitors may find some of the titles and annotations of two centuries ago lacking in tact by contemporary standards; one would hope it was not out of fear of the newly invented crime of giving offence.
The prospect of hurt feelings being transformed by litigation into a lucrative cash payout has recently evaporated in the profoundly implausible Queensland University of Technology case, but this paper’s cartoonist Bill Leak has faced demands to prove his innocence of an inherently nebulous charge. This is an extremely disturbing development, with serious implications, as many people realise, for artists, writers and intellectuals, and indeed for a democratic society.
The foundation of our legal system, after all, is the presumption of innocence. If I claim you assaulted or defrauded me, the burden of proof is on me, not on you. Here, though, it seems, as in accusations of heresy or witchcraft, that the burden of proof has been reversed: it is now apparently enough for me to claim you offended me and it is up to you to prove you did not, or perhaps that you did not intend to, or that it was for a greater good. Or of course you could succumb to the implicit blackmail and offer me a cash settlement to go away and drop the charge.
What is very clear in both these cases, even beyond the principle of the presumption of innocence, is that being offended is too subjective a matter to be dealt with by the law. Assault, fraud and other charges are capable of proof; offence is not. It is self-defined and, as we have seen, can be exaggerated, hysterical, frivolous or an outright scam. There must be laws against incitements to hatred and violence, but they should have nothing to do with personal claims of being offended or affronted because these are clearly an invitation to abuse.
Once inside, the Art Gallery of Western Australia’s exhibition offers a fascinating view of the first decades of the Swan River Colony, as the site of what is now Perth was originally called, and of the various other settlements in the early history of the west. Perth was not the first colonial outpost in the region: King George’s Sound, in the south of the state, had been visited by ships from Sydney Town from the end of the 18th century, and in 1826 the colony of NSW established a settlement there, after repeated visits by French seafarers had raised the prospect that France might seek to establish its own colony.
Finally, in 1829, the colony of Swan River was officially proclaimed, and intended, like South Australia later (proclaimed 1836), to be a free settlement without convicts, although 20 years later the settlers found themselves obliged to ask for convicts to provide a labour force. Initially though, the idea of a free colony of honest settlers was an important attraction. The new Unknown Land Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth. Until January 30. territory was to be a land of opportunity, unburdened by a heritage of vice and crime.
The exhibition is largely made up of small works, often drawings and watercolours, largely by amateur or semi-amateur colonial artists. Melissa Harpley, the gallery’s curator of historical and modern art, clearly has done much valuable work in assembling and displaying this important material, although unfortunately it is nearly impossible to look at these subtle works properly because of the chatter of a relentless taped voiceover throughout the exhibition.
One of the easier pieces to read even under these difficult conditions is George Pitt Morison’s painting of the foundation of the new colony. The picture was painted in 1929 to mark the centenary of the original event and, although hardly a great work of art, it is a memorable image, partly because of its quirky elements: as the governor proclaims the foundation of the new colony, the young woman on the right readies an axe to strike the first symbolic blow in cutting down the tree next to her;
An extensive view of Perth, Western Australia with a group of natives in the foreground (c 1846) by George Nash, left; Sketch of Perth and Melville Waters with Mount Eliza from the main street of Perth, Western Australia (1839) by Charles Wittenoom