Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Learning from history

Compared to a display in a sex-shop window by Port Philip Councillor Andrew Bond, parts of Paul Yore's photo collage Everything Is Fucked at St Kilda's Linden Gallery were seized by local police on Saturday after a week of controversy in the local press. No charges have been laid, although News and Fairfax media are speculating loudly about "child pornography offences". Link. Link. Link.

The police raid came a month after LNP Queensland Senator and Shadow Attorney General George Brandis passionately defended both free speech and artistic freedom in an address to the Sydney Institute on May 7. ALP State MP Martin Foley, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Arts, used his Twitter account to "oppose Liberal Party taking us back 60 years". Liberal State MP Clem Newton-Brown tweeted back "I'm curious @martinfoleymp as to whether you are still defending the works of this artist today?"

The police raid came nearly one year to the day after the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee tabled its "Report on the Review of the National Classification Scheme: achieving the right balance" in the Australian Senate.  Chaired by the former Liberal Senator for Tasmania Guy Barnett, the committee examined the role of Australia's national classification scheme (NCS) in the visual arts and the application of the NCS to works of art and the role of artistic merit in classification decisions.

I'm quoting the Arts Law Centre here because the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee's actual report seems to have disappeared from the Australian Senate's website.

The Australian Arts-Law centre commented:

Despite the media hype, the Committee did not recommend the classification of all artworks by the Classification Board. Fundamentally their approach appears to be "business as usual" but encourages artists to take a responsible self-censorship approach

The committee commends the actions of artists who have sought classification of their work prior to public exhibition or display. In the committee's view, obtaining classification assists in ensuring that audiences can be provided with appropriate advice (and, where necessary, warnings) regarding the nature of the artwork.

To this end, the Report notes that the cost of classification of artworks is problematic for artists and recommends that classification of artworks should be exempt from classification fees (Recommendation 7) 

There is a process for applying for a fee waiver outlined on the Classification Board's website.

The Commonwealth Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 defines Australia's classification and censorship system as a cooperative scheme between all the States and Territories of Australia. Enforcement of the scheme is through a Classification Enforcement Act enacted by State and Territory, with the Australian Classification Board (ACB) acting as a national clearing house.

The ACB was asked to review photographs by Bill Henson seized from  the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Paddington in 2008. The Board said its review found nudity in the photographs was "mild and justified".

Most artworks would not need to be classified to be exhibited in Australia. An exception  is for what the ACB calls submittable publications - those which contain material that would cause them to be restricted to adults if they were classified. This includes material that is unsuitable for a minor to see or read, or material that is likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult.

Artists, curators and galleries may submit works to the ACB to be evaluated, for a fee. The fee may be waived at the Board's discretion.

A NSW working party on Child Pornography observed (pdf)

Artists found to legitimately exercise artistic purpose should not have their work legally defined in the same way as the horrific images that pervade the Internet of child sexual abuse. To do otherwise is to undermine the gravamen of the exploitation and abuse of children that does occur in the creation, possession and dissemination of child pornography, both in Australia and overseas. (p22)

The Australian classification system provides certainty, and protection from political agendas,  for artists, curators and galleries involved in the planning of a public exhibition of works which may be controversial. It is lamentable, and kind of contemptuous of all the hard work done in this area over the past two decades, that the Linden Gallery management followed an ultimately failed policy of both assuming an exemption from the classification regime, and simultaneously issuing a self-assessed advisory, outside of the national framework, to visitors.


  1. I made a mistake with the date of the Report on the Review of the National Classification Scheme: achieving the right balance, it was 2011 not 2012, so it is nearly two years to the day since the report was released. Just occurred to me that Guy Barnett hasn't been in the parliament for a while.

  2. I'm absolutely sure that the artist intention was to instigate more discussion about the sexualisation of children. What I found more disturbing is images of little girls who are forced by their parents, usually their mother to dress as adults or worse, a Barbie Doll. See:

  3. Don't think it is possible to have a rational debate about that right now. Perhaps the Royal Commission into cover ups for child rapists will clarify the issues and wake people up a little. Not holding breath.