Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the art gallery and start looking at Norman Lindsay paintings, a fellow called Maurice O’Riordon has provoked a fresh outcry over photographic works of art depicting naked children. He has done this by publishing such a photograph on the cover of the taxpayer funded magazine he edits called Art Monthly Australia. He claims that he has done so in an effort to “restore some dignity to the debate” and to “validate nudity and childhood as subjects for art”. What nonsense. If he didn’t know the uproar he would cause then he is too stupid to be trusted with public money.
Of course, it is the purpose of art to be confronting, contentious, even at times offensive, and Maurice O’Riordon surely knows that. I suspect that he has deliberately set out to be controversial, either in an effort to make some sort of “artistic statement” of his own or simply to promote the magazine. After all, there is no such thing as bad publicity, and when it comes to creative endeavour it can be a case of the more controversial the better.
Despite all of the debate over whether such photos are art or pornography, that is not really the point. Bill Henson and Polixeni Papapetrou are not threats to society. However, those who really are a threat to society will see these artworks as affirmation of what they believe and validation what they do. At its core, art is supposed to convey a meaning. In this case the message is that it’s OK to persuade kids to undress for the cameras. That may not have been the intention of the artists, but that is the undeniable result.
Art, in all its manifestations, is both a mirror to our society and an influence upon it. Great art has great power. But the fact is that art is a two edged sword and as such art can either shine a light, or it can cast the darkest of shadows. It is more than a mirror; it offers not only a reflection but also a reinforcement of what we see in ourselves. Artists who play with the dark shadows cannot step away from responsibility for what they are doing, simply because it is “Art”.