Saturday, April 20, 2013

On Photography - An Angry Country?

Much has been written about the 2008 seizure of Australian artist Bill Henson’s photographs, and their subsequent restoration to his Sydney dealer, innocent, along with the artist, of overwrought allegations against them.

Child protection campaigners labelled Henson’s images of a nude thirteen year-old pornographic. Art critics argued the images were, well, art. Ultimately the independent Office of Film and Literature Classification gave the images a PG (Parental Guidance advisory) classification, and State prosecutors advised the child pornography charges against the artist would not succeed.

Watching an art gallery’s contents emptied into a truck on television I was grateful to whoever had thought the operation through: the police seizing artworks weren’t visibly armed. Later, as Henson’s photographs disappeared from the walls of Australian public spaces I wondered for how long?

There is, rightly, a great deal of sympathy and support for child protection campaigners. And like any other special interest involved in the political process those campaigners are expected to vigorously prosecute their agendas. However, as noted by sociologist Frank Ferudi and others, populist policy actors of all colours who adopt child protection agendas as their own simply cannot be trusted to act upon anything except self-interest, in the end. There have been some notable witch hunts in modern times that have ended without any beneficial outcomes at all, save for the self-advancement of those involved.

Worse, rapists have had their sentences cut, and victims brought to tears and bewilderment as newspapers seek to increase circulation with name and shame gambits. Criminal investigations, especially those involving crimes against children, have not been well served by regimes of continuous speculation. And there is evidence - for example the labelling of corporations as pedophiles - that the current panic over child protection serves only the political ends of ivory towers. Frank Furedi wrote:

Mention the word ‘child’ and people will listen. Raise the moral stakes by claiming that a ‘child is at risk’ and people will not just listen but endorse your demand that ‘something must be done’. For instance, campaigners against poverty understand that they are far more likely to gain sympathy for their cause by focusing attention on what is now called ‘child poverty’. It is as if abstract socio-economic injustices are simply not compelling enough on their own terms: they have to be recast as something afflicting children

Everyone treats the ideal or at least the word freedom seriously. Everyone pays lip service to it...This does not mean, however, that freedom as a lived experience is not under threat. It absolutely is. Many of our core freedoms, especially freedom of speech, are being undermined by a political class that doesn’t trust us to live freely. But here’s the thing: such is the value still attached to the idea of freedom that now even attacks on freedom get dressed up as an expansion of freedom. Even the killing of freedom is disguised as freedom.

It seems fair to say that contemporary Australian creatives: artists, photographers, writers, publishers, film makers, polemicists, poets, and their audience, regard each other with suspicion. Photographs, web pages, television programs, newspaper articles, internet cartoons, broadcast pranks, speeches and even privately expressed opinions have all been discussed, dissected, boycotted, divested and otherwise sensationally prosecuted during the past few years.

There is a mood to compel the media to act for the public good, an expansion of media regulation to include public interest tests put to parliament (but defeated), a looming general election contested in part on issues of public interest and in part upon issues of free speech.  Where once free speech and public interest seemed inextricable, polemic is inexorably wedging them apart.

Newspapers’ circulation has fallen off a cliff.  Newspaper journalism is routinely outsourced overseas, our commercial TV networks are two-thirds owned by foreign banks, our commercial radio networks caught in spirals of cost-cutting and falling audiences. And Australians have turned their collective backs on government-approved and financed Australian films.

It is as if people can only bear to see and hear what is already known and agreeable.

The speed at which issues are churned online is overtaken only by the almost instantaneous coagulation of opinion around them. The occasional scholarly article lamenting, for example, media coverage of climate change issues, is liked and twittered and decontextualized and resignified at breakneck speed, contested and deconstructed and decried at length and likely to be of historical interest only long before any old fashioned op-ed or editorial response appears in the next edition of a daily tabloid or weekend broadsheet.

The sclerotic nature of internet discourse has been noted by many, an interesting counterpoint to what is  otherwise imagined as fluid lines of communication. To venture an opinion, for example on a blog, is to risk deletion. Anything you say can be held against you. Simultaneously, anything you say can be turned into something else - fixed! Somehow, it all seems to make sense, even if your original post had nothing to do with cats.

Durning the past few years Australians have campaigned for sackings, boycotts, internet filters, seizures, closures, divestments, damages, apologies, corrections, and even arrests over cultural artefacts, published words, pictures, videos, sounds, that for one reason or another became controversial. Alongside the large mass media outlets other, lesser, publishers have come under pressure: notably film festivals but also art dealers and even the management of assorted privately owned and operated public venues, like those hired for controversial Dutch politician Gert Wilders and British climate-change sceptic Lord Monckton.

But while there is a mood to allow the display of those publications, artworks, photographs, books, magazines, films, ideas, only if they are in the public interest, there is next to no clarity about what the public interest might be. Outrage has replaced clarity in so much of public discourse we can start to think about crossing out lucky and substituting angry in front of country.

At the very moment the freedom of unlimited communication beckons we rush to shackle ourselves in chains of mindless rage.

The previous post on this topic is here

1 comment:

  1. There is evidence to suggest that rage/anger is related to fear and anxiety, and anger is a form of control for people who feel that they have no control over the situation they find themselves in. Maybe anger being expressed is indicative of a loss of personal autonomy in the face of an ever increasing vigilance of human behavior, so that by attempting to protect others we are limiting ourselves, which is I suppose much of what you are articulating in this article. Opinion is an interesting word in the face of academic discourse, for opinion is often considered as personal view not backed up by rigorous research or evidence and looses its legitimacy as powerful communication.