REALM OF NOCTURNES
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