Everything is fucked

Issue #06: Body in the Raw. Nudity Today.

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The museum and art gallery as public sphere in contemporary Australia is subject to significant censorship – the scope of artistic expression is limited in order to politically, religiously and institutionally guard the ambiguous and propagandist notion of ‘public morality’. Vastly problematic and transient notions of pornography, erotica, sexually explicit material and obscenity are at times employed to serve conservative political agendas. These agendas restrict the scope of contemporary artists’ work conceptually and materially. Moreover, media sensationalism and hysteria that defines certain works as ‘obscene’ or ‘morally corrupt’ leads to public bans, rescinds our right to make our own decisions and demonises artists who push boundaries — a reminder that we live in an Orwellian nanny state.

The word ‘obscene’ may derive from a combination the Latin prefix ob (against) and Greek term skēnē, a combination yielding ‘off stage’ and which pertains to ancient Greek theatre, when violent acts were committed away from the eyes of the audience or ‘behind the scenes.’1 In the sixteenth century, the Latinate obscensus entered use and meant something that should be kept ‘out of public view.’2 This private/public dichotomy is intertwined with historically and culturally defined notions of shame, modesty and obscenity, predominantly related to sexual subject matter and bodily functions. Anchored in the Cartesian mind-body split and confronting Western thought for centuries, sexually explicit material is often excluded from the sanctioned realm of aesthetic expression. Every society deems certain areas of human practice and modes of conduct off-limits, excluding them on the basis of public morality and cultural and religious customs.3

The distinction between ‘erotica’, ‘porn’, and ‘sexually explicit material’ is a problematic one – often determined by the popular dictum “I know it when I see it”.4 The definition of pornographic material has become much more open to interpretation in recent years. Barbara Creed asserts that the:

[m]ajor aim of the mainstream conventional pornographic film is to arouse the (male) viewer by depicting as many sexually explicit images and sexual scenarios as possible within a… short time frame.5

Conventions and tropes that pornography employs or chooses not to employ are often porn-specific. As pornography is rarely interested in character development, and has minimal narrative structure, there are few filmic devices or narrative strategies in place that allow viewer identification with the protagonist(s).6 Further meaning or engagement beyond the masturbatory is scarcely encouraged.

The aesthetics of mainstream pornography usually include close-up shots of genitalia, erect penises and the all-important ‘money-shot’, whereby male ejaculation is depicted to reinforce the ‘reality’ of sex. Monogamous sex and the institutional ‘couple’ are largely repudiated in pornography, as “the aim of the sexual experience is not reproduction but pleasure”.7 In For Adult Users Only, Joan Hoff notes that “[e]rotica was capable of teaching lessons and stimulating discussions about sexuality. Unlike pornography its main purpose or function was not simply sexual arousal”.8 In this light, ‘erotica’ can be seen as an intellectualised narrative containing sexually explicit material, whereas porn must be viewed as devoid of any artistic or intellectual merit whatsoever. Sexually explicit material appears to be the residual of these categorical descriptors.

Yet, differentiating between pornography, erotica and sexually explicit material is to create an artificial divide between high and low culture.9 To retain this division, the material traditionally classed as ‘erotica’ must actively recontextualise pornographic imagery within an otherwise normative narrative structure, blurring the line between porn and non-porn. To say one is ‘art’ and the other is ‘obscene’ is often merely a fluid value judgment similar to the transient and indefinable differentiation between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art. An American Apparel advertisement might be considered pornographic in the context of a XXX bookstore, and a pornographic collage could appear intellectually, rather than sexually, stimulating when its signs and codes are structurally reinterpreted. Context, then, seems crucial. Breasts, arses, provocative poses, sexual suggestion and borrowed fetish and BDSM imagery are commonplace in the advertising, fashion and cinema spheres, as Simpson and Potter argue:

It is the aesthetic which distinguishes the artistic from the pornographic, the moral which provides the societal gauge that transforms the erotic into the obscene, and the utilitarian which suggests that the members of a healthy society enjoy only pure thoughts and can have no proper use for obscene or indecent publications, images or text.10

Furthermore, there is an important link between obscenity and taboo. Social and religious groups enforce censorship measures in order to suppress cultural practices deemed ‘obscene’. These actions seem partially based on a belief that such material could possess potentially socially dangerous effects, an idea that echoes the theme of the Hicklin test. Established in 1868, this test attempted to appraise the likelihood of supposedly offending material to deprave and corrupt social mores.

After the Motion Picture Association of America introduced a rating system in 1968, the explosive proliferation of sexual imagery across all media led to the establishment of the Presidential Commission on Obscenity and Pornography the same year. The Commission investigated the links between public access to sexual materials and possible dangerous effects, and after extensive cross-disciplinary research, announced in 1970 that there was no causal link between pornography and criminal behaviour. Furthermore, despite their claims, studies made since are yet to prove the contrary, which is indicative of its immeasurability11 as pornographic imagery is inseparable from other sexually explicit media influences.

Nevertheless, within the museum or gallery context in Australia, sexual explicitness is either seemingly exempt from moral codes as a result of subjective factors (such as sufficient intellectual/aesthetic/artistic merit), or severely censored due to a supposed absence of these qualities. Freedom of expression is not an inviolable constitutional right as it is in the United States, where the First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees free speech. The Human Rights Act 2004 (ACT) created the first right to freedom of expression in Australia, albeit curbed by a clause stating that the right is subject to lawful restrictions a) to respect the rights and reputation of other persons or b) for the protection of national security, public order, public health or public morality.12

Australia has a long history of art censorship, some prominent cases being:

Norman Lindsay’s (1879-1969) Pollice Verso (1904) depicting a crowd of nude figures pointing towards a crucifixion was turned to face the wall at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1907.
In 1982, the Vice Squad seized Juan Davila’s (b. 1946) Stupid as a Painter (1981-2) after a complaint made by a member of the Call to Australia Party (now the Christian Democratic Party) at the Fourth Biennale of Sydney.
Traditional black censor bars were placed over the sexually explicit parts of Anne McDonald’s (b. 1960) photographs in Perspecta ’85 (1985) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
· The Art Gallery of Western Australia ordered a conservator to paint out the sexually explicit portions of Brett Whiteley’s (1939-1992) major work, The American Dream (1968-9).
Police seized a number of Bill Henson’s (b. 1955) photographs in 2008 from the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney based on the nude, pre-pubescent subjects.

After the seizure of Davila’s Stupid As A Painter, then NSW Premier Neville Wran declared that the NSW Government would amend indecency laws after ordering the return of Stupid As A Painter with an R-rating, yet no such changes were introduced. Following the Henson debacle, the NSW Attorney-General announced that the Government would amend the legislation, and, two years later, the NSW Government passed the Crimes Amendment (Child Pornography and Abuse Material) Act 2010. Under this legislation, ‘artistic merit’ is not, in itself, a defence, but rather a factor to be considered when determining the extent to which any given material is ‘indecent’ or not.

Although the gallery is able to use the defence of ‘artistic merit’ under possession laws, this is by no means applicable to the ‘producer’ of the work(s) in question. If a gallery chooses to show sexually explicit images and submits them to the Commonwealth Classification Board, only a classification can provide the exhibitor and the artist with a more concrete defence. The Australian classification system in question is also used in the rating of films – the same system that banned pivotal arthouse films such as Baise-moi (2000) and Ken Park (2002). The most heinous aspect of the obscenity laws in Australia is that an artist cannot know whether they have breached that incredibly ambiguous standard until, more often than not, a politically motivated individual has protested. At that point, it is too late. Regardless of the proliferation of sexually explicit material in mainstream media, such as the underage sexual suggestiveness of child beauty pageants (propagated by the popular Toddlers and Tiaras television show) or even that pornography shelf at your local newsagent, a museum wall is likely to come under more scrutiny in Australia, which has some of the strictest censorship laws in the Western world. In a censored cultural environment such as this, mainstream pornography and media monopolise discourse surrounding body image, sexuality, gender and eroticism without critical examination or artistic engagement. Cultural spaces are then necessarily subordinate to commercial spheres and understandings of these fundamental existential subjects.

A recent addition to absurd, sensationalised censorship in Australia is the incident surrounding contemporary Melbourne artist, Paul Yore (b. 1987). Yore’s work was exhibited in a group exhibition at The Linden Centre for Contemporary Arts as part of the Like Mike exhibition series, curated by Geoff Newton. Like Mike celebrates the iconic, boundary-breaking work of Mike Brown (1938-1997) – the only Australian artist to be successfully prosecuted for obscenity (1966-67). Brown’s work references everything from pop lyrics and pornography to psychedelica. In addition to the Linden Centre, four other galleries hosted exhibitions (Sarah Scout, Utopian Slumps, Charles Nodrum Galleries and Neon Parc), concurrent with an exhibition of Brown’s work in The Sometimes Chaotic World of Mike Brown at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne. Both a response and homage to Brown, these exhibitions recognised his legacy as an Australian artist who has directly and indirectly influenced the exhibiting artists.

On May 31, detectives raided the Linden Centre for Contemporary Art following a complaint and removed a number of images from Yore’s installation at the gallery’s Like Mike Now What? exhibition (co-curated by Jan Duffy). Yore’s installation, Everything is Fucked (2013), was seized by Victoria Police for allegedly depicting sexual acts between children, as the collages superimposed children’s faces on adult bodies. One of the sculptural collages that featured widely in the media coverage of Yore’s case features pop singer Justin Bieber’s face on a child’s body, attached to a urinating plastic penis, often pixelated in said media coverage. This collage was a small part of the large, colourful sprawling installation that included a content warning sign at the entrance to the room.

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Prior to the raid, on May 28, Adrian Jackson, Chris Spillane and Cr Andrew Bond (those most widely cited as complaining about the exhibition) were at a Port Phillip City Council meeting discussing Yore’s installation. In public question time, the meeting minutes indicate that while Spillane had not seen Like Mike Now What?, he had ‘heard’ it was ‘offensive and pornographic’ and thus suggested that the exhibition should be shut down, or, at the very least, Yore’s installation should be cordoned off with age restrictions put in place. As sponsors of the Linden Centre, he then asked the Council what action they intended to take. Mayor Amanda Stevens responded that an independent board runs the gallery and there is already appropriate signage in place.13

Spillane is a Liberal Party candidate for the local Council who has been accused of racism, describing multiculturalism as ‘failed dogma’ and a ‘waste of money’.14 Jackson was an Australian Army infantry officer for twenty-three years, and is an ex-Liberal Party member who has since run unsuccessfully as an independent candidate three times. Evidently, a conservative political agenda underpins the accusations against Yore’s work. Similarly, the ‘culture wars’ in the U.S as it pertains to taxpayer funded art was ultimately not about sexual explicitness, rather it was a ‘morality’ campaign masking an extremely conservative small government agenda.

In March 2012, an unpixellated photo taken in Yore’s studio depicting the same urinating Justin Bieber collage, appeared on Desktop Magazine’s website advertising Yore’s exhibition in the NGV Atrium at Federation Square.15 Yore’s work was also part of the WeAustralians.org debut exhibition, Manifestations of Now, which involved him living in a cave (similar to the installation created for Like Mike Now What?) for the entire fourteen-day exhibition. Yore stated that “occupying space in this way engages directly with the conceptual underpinning of the work, to see it as ongoing and durational, rather than fixed and ‘finished’ at any given point.”16 Yore reinforced this sentiment in an interview for the Linden Centre website, in which he stated that he actually repurposed many of the components used in prior works for his Everything Is Fucked installation.17 The fact that much of the material in Yore’s work had been publicly exhibited uncensored in the past, testifies to the fact that what is considered ‘offensive’ is often entirely conditional and highly politicised.

The Justin Bieber component of Yore’s imagery seems to be examining the sexualisation of children in a larger social context, with a focus on mass consumption and the commodification of bodies and young persons’ in particular. The collage as a whole is far more complex, embodying sentiments of excess, frenzy, spectacle, violence, darkness, appropriation, kitsch, phallocentricism, queerness, and as Yore states on the Linden Centre website: ‘reflect[s] the ways in which one experiences the world, as a distorted, fragmented, fluctuating set of systems, signs and codes’.18

The Linden Centre remained closed for nearly two weeks after police seized the works, offering no explanations to Yore, curator Geoff Newton or the other artists. Regarding artistic censorship, Simon and Potter note:

Arguably there is a need for major institutions to stand up for freedom of expression by publicly defending the material they choose to exhibit if they come under attack. By providing for a reasoned and intelligent public discourse in such circumstances, they enhance the public appreciation, understanding or at least tolerance of ideas and expression.19

The Linden Centre has, perhaps pragmatically, yet at the expense of justice and intelligent discourse, ignored these responsibilities following victorious conservative Jackson’s comments to the Leader newspaper:

Mission accomplished – the kiddy art exhibition is now closed. Next step is getting the Linden Gallery to be self-funding instead of behaving like a parasite on ratepayers. Currently $100,000 PA is spent by Port Phillip Council on maintenance and equipment in the Linden, which has been a ratepayer owned building for the last twenty-five years or so.20

Following an anti-censorship protest at the site on June 8, the Linden Centre re-opened its doors on June 11 and sectioned off Yore’s work with signs advising patrons that the work was awaiting classification from the Australian Classification Board. Again, there was no explanation provided as to why the work was not being shown. The following week, the Linden Centre re-opened Yore’s installation to the public with an R18+ rating, however, the components of the installation seized by police have not been returned and are still part of the ongoing child pornography investigation. The Linden Board commented on the (arguably vandalised) remains of the installation, stating, “the publication contains depictions of a bona fide art installation which appears to have genuine cultural and historical context.”21 This judgement was based on the content in isolation from the supposedly ‘pornographic’ components that were seized.
Paul Yore, EVERYTHING IS FUCKED, Installation view, 2013 Image: John Brash

Paul Yore, EVERYTHING IS FUCKED, installation view, 2013
Image: John Brash

On 6 September Yore was charged with one count of possessing child pornography and one count of producing child pornography – charges which he intends to fight at the forthcoming hearing and potential trial at the Melbourne Magistrates Court in November. The irony of the seized works paying homage to the only Australian artist to be successfully prosecuted for obscenity seems to have been lost in translation and Yore’s charges likely prompted the new Sydney Contemporary art fair to remove Paul Yore’s work from their exhibition later that month. Fairfax Media reports that Yore had altered the installation, which repurposed many materials from his Everything is Fucked work, to the satisfaction of lawyers for the art fair and his gallery but was removed at the insistence of the founder of Sydney Contemporary, Tim Etchells.22 The announcement was made just hours before the VIP opening by the chief executive of Sydney Contemporary, Barry Keldoulis, who stated that:

We support artists and their need to express themselves and … explore their concerns, however we need to work within the law especially in an environment like this where the general public is invited in.23

Although the sexual imagery in Yore’s works re-uses pre-existing sexual imagery which is available freely and commercially within Australia’s censorship regime; the fear arises from the conception of the art gallery as a public sphere that legitimates motifs – sexually explicit or otherwise. Interestingly, a number of artists in Australia who have encountered censorship have re-purposed pre-existing sexual imagery. Juan Davila used clippings from comic and art books and Mike Brown used found images from pornographic magazines.

The organisers of Sydney Contemporary also removed five of Tyza Stewart’s paintings from display, citing similar legal advice contravening NSW crimes legislation; news that was overshadowed by the removal of Yore’s installation. Stewart’s work is about gender binaries, norms and socialisation and often depicts Stewart’s child-like face over naked bodies with genitalia that is either noticeably gendered or absent, sometimes in sexual positions. Yet again, mainstream pornography and media are allowed to monopolise discourse surrounding body image, sexuality, gender and eroticism because critical examination of these ‘distasteful’ human realities through artistic engagement is seen to legitimise the imagery that already inundates us. The nonexistent logic in this bizarre unspoken assertion is so pervasive it seems impossible to penetrate.

The “is it art or pornography” debate reflects a long history of censorship and an equally long history of subjectively politicised debate over what is ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ art. Censorship in Australian art is not restricted to sexually explicit material, as demonstrated by the exclusion of several photographs by South African artist, Jodi Bieber (b. 1966) from the annual Vivid Festival in Sydney this year (May 24 – June 10). Bieber’s images were originally displayed onscreen near the Museum of Contemporary Art, and later removed from the exhibition as they depicted dead children and a bare-breasted woman. Bieber withdrew all of her work from the exhibition in protest, posing the question: “How are your children going to be when they go out into the real world, if they’re not allowed to experience or see or make up their own mind about what happens in the world?”.24 In September Bill Henson withdrew works from next year’s Adelaide Biennial after a South Australian police officer wrote to every MP in that state, the Premier and the director of the Art Gallery of South Australia expressing concern at Henson’s planned inclusion based on the assumption they would include underage, nude subjects. The images selected for inclusion were purportedly of clouds, doors and landscapes.

Contemporary Australian art galleries create a political public sphere which contradictorily professes to be interested in new, intimate, authentic and immediate forms of expression, yet does not shift and expand to allow for them. Far from encouraging fresh artistic production and relevant contemporary subject matter, art that challenges the anthropology of images (in collage works, for example) or contains subject matter that is institutionally guarded on the ambiguous basis of ‘public morality’ will be conditionally omitted, censored and vilified. Institutional censorship undoubtedly results in creative self-censorship, which is immeasurably detrimental to the scope and ideological development of both contemporary art and thought in Australia.
Paul Yore, EVERYTHING IS FUCKED, Installation view, 2013 Image: John Brash

Paul Yore, EVERYTHING IS FUCKED, installation view, 2013
Image: John Brash

Paul Yore’s hearing was scheduled for November 25 when this article was written, it has since been postponed until January 10, 2014.

Read more

Dewi Cooke. Raided art given R rating.The Sydney Morning Herald,June 15 2013.
Barbara Creed. Media Matrix: Sexing the New Reality. Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin, 2003.
Beau Donelly. Port Phillip poll: I’m no racist, claims anti-multiculturalism Lib candidate. The Weekly Review: Bayside, October 22 2012.
Susan Gubar,and Joan Hoff. For Adult Users Only: The Dilemma of Violent Pornography. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.
Dana McCauley and Wayne Flower. St Kilda art gallery raided by police after displaying pornographic images involving children. The Herald Sun, June 01 2013.
Kerstin Mey. Art and Obscenity. London: New York, NY: I.B. Taurus, 2007.
Shane Simpson, and Richard Potter. Restrictions on Freedom of Expression.
Collections Law: Legal issues for Australian Archives.(The Collections Council of Australia Ltd., 2010).
Andrew Taylor. Sydney art fair removes Paul Yore work. Sydney Morning Herald. September 19, 2013.
The Port Phillip City Council. Ordinary Meeting of Council: Minutes., (Council Chamber, St Kilda Town Hall, 28 May 2013).
Paul Yore. Like Mike Exhibition: Curator/Artist Interviews. Linden Centre for Contemporary Arts website: http://www.lindenarts.org/exhibitions/2013/
like- mike.aspx (accessed May 30 2013).
Paul Yore. Q&A: Artist Paul Yore. Desktop (March 2012)

Full notes and bibliography, including websites on http://audreyschmidt.wordpress.com/2013/12/26/everything-is-fucked/

  1. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, derivation from ‘stage’ may be a ‘folk’ etymology. The term has also been related to scaevus, left-sided, inauspicious, and caenum, mud, filth. See Oxford English Dictionary, “obscene,” http://www.oed.com accessed 9 October 2013.
  2. Kerstin Mey, Art and Obscenity London and New York, NY: I.B. Tauris, 2007
  3. Ibid., 5.
  4. ‘I know it when I see it’ was famously used by United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart to describe his threshold test for obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184, 1964.
  5. Barbara Creed, Media Matrix: Sexing the New Reality, Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin, 2003, 62.
  6. Ibid., 62.
  7. Ibid., 63
  8. Susan Gubar and Joan Hoff, For Adult Users Only: The Dilemma of Violent Pornography, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989, 28
  9. Barbara Creed, Media Matrix: Sexing the New Reality, Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin, 2003, 74
  10. Shane Simpson and Richard Potter, “Restrictions on Freedom of Expression,” Collections Law: Legal issues for Australian Archives, Galleries Libraries and Museums, http://www.collectionslaw.com.au/chapter-25-restrictions-on-freedom-of-expression Accessed June 13 2013
  11. For a more recent and comprehensive review of the literature on the connection between pornographic material and sexual violence, see Tamara Addison, Mary Koss and Neil M. Malamuth, “Pornography and Sexual Aggression: Are There Reliable Effects and Can We Understand Them?” Annual Review of Sex Research 11, no. 1,2000: 26-91
  12. Ibid
  13. The Port Phillip City Council, “Ordinary Meeting of Council: Minutes,” Council Chamber, St Kilda Town Hall, 28 May 2013, http://www.portphillip.vic.gov.au/28_May_2013_Ordinary_Meeting_of_Council_Minutes.pdf accessed June 3 2013
  14. Beau Donelly, “Port Phillip poll: I’m no racist, claims anti-multiculturalism Lib candidate,” The Weekly Review: Bayside, October 22 2012, http://www.theweeklyreviewbayside.com.au/story/411868/port-phillip-poll-im-no-racist-claims-anti-multiculturalism-lib-candidate/ accessed May 30 2013
  15. Desktop Magazine, “Q&A: Artist Paul Yore,” http://desktopmag.com.au/features/qa-artist-paul-yore/#.UlSWx9JaV8E accessed May 30 2013
  16. Paul Yore, cited in ibid.
  17. Paul Yore, “Curator/Artist Interviews,” Linden Centre for Contemporary Arts, http://www.lindenarts.org/exhibitions/2013/like-mike.aspx accessed May 30 2013
  18. ibid
  19. Shane Simpson and Richard Potter, “Restrictions on Freedom of Expression,” Collections Law: Legal issues for Australian Archives, Galleries Libraries and Museums, http://www.collectionslaw.com.au/chapter-25-restrictions-on-freedom-of-expression Accessed June 13 2013
  20. Dana McCauley and Wayne Flower, “St Kilda art gallery raided by police after displaying pornographic images involving children,” The Herald Sun, June 01 2013, http://www.heraldsun.com.au/leader/central/offensive-art-involving-justin-bieber-collage-creates-controversy-at-st-kildas-linden-centre-for-contemporary-art/story-fngnvlpt-1226655013041 accessed June 2 2013
  21. Dewi Cooke, “Raided art given an R rating,” Sydney Morning Herald, June 15 2013, http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/raided-art-given-r-rating-20130614-2o9vk.html#ixzz2X6VugeN7 accessed June 16 2013
  22. Andrew Taylor, “Sydney art fair removes Paul Yore work.” Sydney Morning Herald, September 19 2013, http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/sydney-art-fair-removes-paul-yore-work-20130919-2u2ap.html#ixzz2h8SvyCKd accessed September 22 2013
  23. ibid
  24. Jodi Beiber, quoted in “Photographers withdraw from Vivid over censorship claims,” ABC News, May 26, 2013, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-05-26/photographers-withdraw-from-vivid-over-censorship/4713460 accessed June 1 2013