REALM OF NOCTURNES

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

It was in­ter­est­ing, given the mood of our times, to see the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria an­nounce last year an ex­hi­bi­tion with the ti­tle The Right to Of­fend is Sa­cred. At around the same time or not long af­ter this an­nounce­ment, we wit­nessed the sin­is­ter farce of the Queens­land Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy case, in which the claim to have been of­fended be­came the ba­sis for a case that later failed in court. Surely the gallery would have to change its ti­tle?

Then there was the hyp­o­crit­i­cal and ul­ti­mately tragic at­tack on Bill Leak for lay­ing bare an in­con­ve­nient truth. That was fol­lowed by re­newed de­bate, in re­cent weeks; but sug­ges­tions that the leg­is­la­tion be changed to re­place the ex­ces­sively sub­jec­tive and self­i­den­ti­fied con­cept of of­fence with some­thing more ob­jec­tively de­fined have been met with apoplec­tic re­ac­tions from the left and claims that only big­ots would wish to pro­tect the right to give of­fence.

Yet all the while, at the NGV, the right to of­fend re­mained sa­cred be­cause, as it turns out, that right is taken to be asym­met­ri­cal. It is ac­cept­able for some peo­ple to of­fend others, but not vice versa; if you hap­pen to be­long to an of­fi­cially ac­cred­ited mi­nor­ity, you are al­lowed to of­fend any­one deemed to be­long to the ma­jor­ity, while be­ing shielded from the same treat­ment in re­turn.

It may seem odd that the left is sup­port­ing cen­sor­ship — that is, if you have for­got­ten the track record of left­ist in­tel­lec­tu­als last cen­tury — but the re­al­ity is that all ide­o­logues are cen­sors, be­cause they are sure they are right; and if you are right, why should you tol­er­ate the ex­pres­sion of mis­taken and even morally rep­re­hen­si­ble views? The case for free­dom of speech rests on the recog­ni­tion that we don’t know ev­ery­thing, that we may be wrong, that cir­cum­stances may change, and that we must leave the pos­si­bil­ity of de­bate and dis­cus­sion as open as pos­si­ble.

As many, from Voltaire to Noam Chom­sky, have ob­served, free­dom of speech has to ap­ply even to those with whom we fun­da­men­tally dis­agree. There is no more Or­wellian and ma­li­cious mys­ti­fi­ca­tion than the at­tempt to paint free­dom of speech as a right-wing cause. It is the cause of free thinkers against all ide­o­logues of the left or the right or of any form of re­li­gious zealotry or po­lit­i­cal dog­ma­tism.

Cen­sor­ship has also threat­ened one of the most distin­guished artists in Aus­tralia today, Bill Hen­son. Hen­son’s work has of­ten dealt with shad­owy bor­der­lands in the to­pog­ra­phy of hu­man sex­u­al­ity, and there were some crit­i­cisms of his use of young mod­els and their mise en scene in the work of more than 30 years ago. But on the whole a cer­tain moral am­bi­gu­ity was ac­cepted as a pre­rog­a­tive of art, and Hen­son’s ret­ro­spec­tive in 2005 was seen by thou­sands of vis­i­tors with­out any com­plaints.

At the time, Hen­son was con­sid­ered con­tro­ver­sial only in the sense in which the term is one of art world ap­pro­ba­tion, im­ply­ing that the work stands up against con­ser­va­tive prej­u­dices. But then in 2008 a real and ugly con­tro­versy erupted when his gallery made the mis­take of send­ing out a pic­ture of a young, partly naked girl as an in­vi­ta­tion post­card. All con­cerned should have re­alised that what may pass un­ques­tioned in the priv­i­leged space of a gallery could evoke a dif­fer­ent re­ac­tion in the out­side world.

But above all, the pub­lic, egged on by the pop­u­lar me­dia, was by then gripped with a new para­noia about such mat­ters, and sev­eral politi­cians made fools of them­selves by rush­ing to ex­press their moral out­rage with­out hav­ing seen the works con­cerned. All of a sud­den the wa­ters were ter­ri­bly mud­died: hith­erto, the is­sue of art cen­sor­ship had gen­er­ally op­posed bo­hemi­ans and aes­thetes on the side of free­dom to pu­ri­tans and philistines on the side of re­pres­sion; now even some in the art world were tempted by the cause of cen­sor­ship, pre­fig­ur­ing the in­creas­ingly re­pres­sive and morally bul­ly­ing mood we can feel around us today.

Noth­ing could be fur­ther from the world of ag­i­tated and opin­ion­ated me­dia chat­ter than the still­ness of Hen­son’s new ex­hi­bi­tion at the NGV. It is a large space that we en­ter, fit­tingly enough, from an­other large gallery de­voted to paint­ings of the Vic­to­rian pe­riod. The walls are hung with a sin­gle line of large pho­to­graphic works, in which fig­ures and land­scapes emerge from deep chiaroscuro, in a world of nocturnes. Even in the lit ar­eas, colour is muted to the point where flesh comes close to the qual­ity of mar­ble, har­mon­is­ing the nude stud­ies with the pic­tures of sculp­tures, each de­fined by sub­tle vari­a­tions of warm and cool hues.

Stat­ues and liv­ing fig­ures are ex­plic­itly linked in the fig­ure of the young boy sit­ting in the at­ti­tude of the Hel­lenis­tic sculp­ture known as the Spinario, the boy pulling a thorn from his foot. The best known ver­sion of this work is the bronze copy in the Palazzo dei Con­ser­va­tori in Rome, but Hen­son has cho­sen to pho­to­graph the mar­ble one in the Bri­tish Mu­seum be­cause of the affin­ity of mar­ble and flesh.

A much less well-known source today, though fa­mous in the Re­nais­sance and the sub­ject of re­cent schol­arly in­ter­est, lies be­hind the first work on the left as we en­ter: the torso of a young man with his arm hang­ing down and his face averted. The pose comes from an an­cient re­lief that once be­longed to Lorenzo Ghib­erti, known as the Letto di Poli­cleto, which in­spired Ti­tian in his Venus and Adonis, pos­si­bly Michelangelo in his Pi­eta and ul­ti­mately David in The Death of Marat. The hang­ing arm car­ries a deep con­no­ta­tion of sleep and

Un­ti­tled (200910); Hen­son’s images in the ex­hi­bi­tion dis­play a dra­matic chiaroscuro

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