Art and Ethics

Child Images Cause Controversy Down Under

By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, JUNE 8, 2008 ( Artistic freedom and ethical standards are at the center of a debate in Australia after police recently confiscated photographs at an art exhibition.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported May 23 that authorities seized images from the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney of naked children in sexually suggestive poses.

The photographs were taken by Bill Henson, whose work, according to the paper, has generated controversy for a number of years.

The images of 12- and 13-year-olds were declared as “revolting” by Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, reported the Australian newspaper May 23.

“Kids deserve to have the innocence of their childhood protected. I have a very deep view of this. For God’s sake, let’s just allow kids to be kids,” declared Rudd.

Concern over the exhibition was raised by Sydney Morning Herald columnist Miranda Devine. In an article published by the Sydney Morning Herald on May 22, Devine commented on the erosion of community standards and how it is impossible to shield children from a culture laden with sexual imagery.

Public opinion is beginning to show concern over this trend, and Devine noted that at the national level there is a current Senate inquiry into the sexualization of children in the media.

The police action, and the prime minister’s remarks, soon came in for criticism from members of the art world. A letter signed by artists, writers and others in the media industry decried the events, saying they damaged the nation’s cultural reputation and risks “a repressive climate of hysterical condemnation,” reported the Age newspaper May 28.

Limits to license

Some commentators, however, supported the confiscation of the photos. Author Kevin Donnelly, writing an opinion article in the Age on May 25, argued that in any civilized society there are restrictions on artistic license and that the rights of artists have to be balanced against law and what the public considers to be decent.

Donnelly also noted that if the photographs that were confiscated were to be put on the Internet or somebody’s laptop, those responsible would be charged with child pornography.

“Presenting young girls in such a vulnerable and voyeuristic way is especially wrong given the way children’s sexuality is being commodified and exploited in advertising, marketing and popular culture,” he said.

In the end, however, police announced they will not prosecute Hanson over the photographs, which are now expected to be returned to the gallery, reported the Australian newspaper June 6.

Concern over contemporary art isn’t limited to the use of pornographic photos. Last year Carol Strickland, art writer for the Christian Science Monitor, authored a three-part series on what is wrong with Western art.

In her first article, dated Dec. 19, Strickland commented that modern art isn’t only shocking people, but it also leaves them cold. This is happening because it either targets our senses or our mind, but not both simultaneously. As well, she noted that a good deal of recent art is pervaded by a juvenile jokiness, cynicism and commerce.

Heart, mind and spirit

Strickland recommended instead the creation of art “with significant form that communicates ideas and emotions to the heart, mind and spirit.”

The second part of the series, published Dec. 20, called for art that grabs our attention, but not only in a sensationalistic way. “Good art grabs our attention, then deepens our engagement with multiple layers that expand our knowledge of the world and ourselves, and make us see and feel and think in different ways.”

These are sentiments shared by Andrew Frost, writing an opinion piece published by the Sydney Morning Herald April 19. He commented on a number of recent art exhibitions in Sydney. One of the works of art on display asked spectators to stick their heads into a garbage bin to see a video.

“The experience made me realize that what I would really like to see is a masterpiece,” said Frost.

Many claims are made in the name of contemporary art, he added, saying it is challenging this or undermining that. The reality is that most of it plays safe, said Frost.

“I have no problem with being asked to put my head in a bin; I just ask that once it is in there I can see or experience something that has the desire and ambition to vault over the everyday into some place new and exciting and really challenge its audience,” he concluded.

Contemporary art has lost its connection with beauty and spiritual values, commented Roger Kimball, co-editor of New Criterion magazine, in the June-July issue of the magazine First Things.

“By universalizing the spirit of opposition, the avant-garde’s project has transformed the practice of art into a purely negative enterprise, in which art is either oppositional or it is nothing,” he said.

One of the problems in modern art, Kimball explained, is the excessive faith in the power of human reason and technology that has made it difficult to maintain the traditional vision of beauty as united to being and truth.

He observed: “When human reason is made the measure of reality, beauty forfeits its ontological claim and becomes merely aesthetic — merely a matter of feeling.

“Without an allegiance to beauty, art degenerates into a caricature of itself.”

Truth and beauty

On the question of art The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes: “Indeed, art is a distinctively human form of expression; beyond the search for the necessities of life which is common to all living creatures, art is a freely given superabundance of the human being’s inner riches” (No. 2501).

The Catechism goes on to say, “To the extent that it is inspired by truth and love of beings, art bears a certain likeness to God’s activity in what he has created.”

More specifically on the question of moral standards in art, in its 2006 plenary assembly, the Pontifical Council for Culture looked at the theme of beauty and evangelization. In its concluding document the assembly commented that we are often faced with the situation of decadence, where art and culture hurt human dignity.

The document observed, “Beauty itself cannot be reduced to simple pleasure of the senses: this would be to deprive it of its universality, its supreme value, which is transcendent” (Section II.1).

Given that our perception and expression of beauty requires education and is dependent on human subjectivity, the council’s conclusions warned against letting beauty being reduced to ephemeral aestheticism or allowing itself be “instrumentalized and made servile to the captivating fashions of consumer society.”

In his 1999 letter to artists, Pope John Paul II acknowledged that society needs their contribution to society for the growth and development of the community. The Pontiff noted, “Obedient to their inspiration in creating works both worthwhile and beautiful, they not only enrich the cultural heritage of each nation and of all humanity, but they also render an exceptional social service in favor of the common good” (No. 4).

The Pope also warned, however, saying that they must carry out their task, “without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves.”

“There is therefore an ethic, even a ‘spirituality’ of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people,” John Paul II added. Artistic freedom, then, needs to be lived in relation to a deeper ethic and ideals, or else it runs the risk of degenerating into decadence.

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