When Melbourne artist Paul Yore set out to participate in an exhibition called Like Mike Now What? He can’t have realised that he would end up at the centre of the most significant art censorship controversy since the bill Henson scandal of 2008.
Australian artists under the age of 40 might have thought the days of charging artists for obscenity have been consigned to the history books. But perhaps a more censorious era is returning. While the bill Henson controversy is now half a decade away, government and police action against art continues in periodic spurts. Earlier this year, Australian classifiers banned a movie from screening at Sydney’s Mardi Gras Film Festival. And only a fortnight ago, Paul Yore’s show was raided and Yore pulled in for questioning by Victoria Police.
Yore’s installation at the Linden contemporary Arts centre was prepared for a show paying homage to pioneering Australian artist, whose riotous pop-inspired collages can currently be seen at Melbourne’s Heide Museum of Modern Art. Yore’s offending work was a brown-inspired collage entitled Everything is Fucked, which featured Justin bieber urinating from a dildo into a sink. Fittingly, brown was himself prosecuted and convicted for obscenity in 1966, in a turbulent period of Australian culture that also saw the editors of Oz magazine prosecuted and sentenced to jail.
Everything is Fucked is hardly the most risque thing to be found at a public gallery. but should Yore be charged and convicted of the offence of producing child pornography, he could spend a maximum of ten years in jail. As the National Association for the Visual Arts’ tamara Winikoff observed in a recent article for artHub ‘here is a young artist hauled up by the cops for cutting out and sticking together a montage.’
The visual arts community has reacted with concern. Fairfax journalists Sonia Harford and Dewi cooke have been covering the issue extensively; they’ve gathered negative reactions from a range of artists and civil liberties figures. For instance, prominent artist Juan Davila told The Age that ‘in my view, his so-called pornographic collages belong to the language and domain of art. Many artists, critics and academics could attest to that.’ ‘On what grounds has he been criminalised?’ Davila asked pointedly. ‘Why does our society live in a moral panic?’ the Linden centre, meanwhile, remained closed for more than a week, and when it reopened on tuesday, featured a black curtain pulled over Yore’s installation.
The mention of that dreaded phrase ‘child pornography’ inevitably leads to comparisons with the bill Henson case of 2008. At the time, despite a firestorm of public controversy, Henson was eventually not charged by New South Wales Police. But what prompts police investigations of art exhibitions in the first place?
Generally, police raids on art exhibitions are the result of complaints, not from gallery visitors or the general public, but from people with a political agenda. According to Associate Professor brian Simpson of the University of New England’s School of Law, ‘these things don’t come up spontaneously and I’m sure that most police officers, the last thing they’d want to do is raid art galleries.’ Simpson is referring to the fact that the original complaint that brought Yore’s Linden exhibition to the attention of police emanated from the murky local politics of Melbourne’s Port Philip council. According to this article by Mark Holsworth in Crikey, the complaint to police was made by Adrian Jackson, a local hotelier who has documented ties to local Liberal Party branch member chris Spillane.
In a comment written on the website of a local newspaper, Jackson posts:
‘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 25 years or so.’
Jackson’s friend Spillane has also recently been looking into the Linden centre, turning up to Port Phillip council meetings and putting some questions to local councillors. According to the council’s minutes:
‘Chris Spillane asked about a current art exhibition at the Linden centre for contemporary Arts in St Kilda. He stated that while he hasn’t seen the exhibition himself, from what he has heard about the exhibition, it is offensive and pornographic in nature. He suggested that the exhibition should be shut down or, at the very least, there should be more appropriate signage warning of the contents, age restrictions in place, and this section of the gallery should be cordoned off. He asked, as sponsors of the gallery, what action the council intends to take?’
Have Paul Yore and the Linden centre become unwitting targets in a new outbreak of Australia’s culture wars? For many on the political right in Australia, public funding for the arts is a hot issue. For instance, a well-connected think tank, the Institute for Public Affairs (IPA), recently argued that the commonwealth should ‘end all public subsidies to sport and the arts’.
IPA researcher chris berg has been attacking arts funding in recent weeks. In an opinion column for the Fairfax newspapers, he took aim at a recent performance of Mikala Dwyer’s Goldene Bend’er at the Australian centre for contemporary Art. Outraged at the public funding of a work he claimed was ‘faux-radicalism’, berg wrote a stinging critique of the ‘indulgent and mundane’ performance. It took a lengthy twitter exchange between myself and berg to establish that he hadn’t seen the show. But berg is less interested in journalistic ethics than in taking a few easy pot-shots at the public funding of the arts. ‘Taxpayer funding protects artists from their audience,’ he writes (rather ironically, given he wasn’t in the audience). ‘That it tends to produce more rubbish than genius is a feature, not a bug. The system is designed to favour indulgent, unpopular work over appealing work.’
What we’re seeing here is the politicisation of the arts by right-wingers, with a view to attacking the basis for public funding for culture. These arguments are easiest to make about unpopular or challenging art such as Paul Yore’s, so that’s where the first stones are being hurled. As Van badham pointed out in The Guardian, Australia’s forthcoming federal election provides commentators like berg with an opportunity to beat up on arts funding. ‘As predictably as asylum-seeker bashing, we must also endure the triennial exhibition known as the Australian right Making a Political boogie Monster out of the Arts,’Badham quipped Local Victorian MP Martin Foley says the Linden raid does not reflect the views of the majority of his diverse electorate. ‘A small band of moral straighteners in the St Kilda community, who speak for no one, were able to raise sufficient panic and concern that this matter was taken seriously at a bland council meeting, and then given that leg up followed a complaint to the Victoria police,’ he wrote in an email. ‘If this is politicisation of the arts and the emergence of a local variety of our own cultural wars, then the first win goes to the forces of reaction.’
The University of New England’s brian Simpson says there is a risk that police actions of this kind could have a chilling effect on artistic expression. Simpson, who has researched the legalities of the bill Henson case in an academic article, told Arts Hub that ‘artists are there to confront us, they’re there to make us think about these issues.’ ‘If you start searching and raiding and arresting people for doing that, it’s quite reasonable to expect that many artists will put off from doing that.’This article was initially published by ArtsHub