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Un Magazine 7.2

The controversy over Like Mike

Michael Ascroft

Top

11/27

Article

Paul Yore, <em>White Trash</em>, 2013, timber, lights, needlepoint, 110 × 118 cm, courtesy of the artist and Neon Parc, Melbourne

The National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) published a censorship guide in 2009 in response to several recent art censorship cases including the major controversy over the Bill Henson photographs the year before. The publication claims that a new era of censorship of the visual arts has arrived, artists need to be informed about the various rules and regulations, not exactly because they need to be encouraged to break them, but because they should know what to expect when pushing the boundaries of acceptability, inadvertently or otherwise, in the context. In the NAVA definition, censorship covers everything from the police removing an offending work from display, sometimes even destroying it, to less public, more officious acts of galleries, funding bodies and other organisations of various kinds spiriting work away, or pressuring artists to withdraw their work from view. But by defining censorship in terms of repression, even artists themselves can become their own censors, and so that just the thought of censorship itself is a threat to liberal society: censorship ‘is not merely a threat to an artist’s freedom but to the freedom of everyone who might experience the artist’s work’.

Even though the discussion sometimes takes on a feeling that it shares with the panicked calls for censorship themselves, the NAVA guide outlines one of the main issues that an event like the censorship of Paul Yore’s work Everything is Fucked, removed from display at Linden Centre for Contemporary Art in St. Kilda in May, and the charges he has had subsequently placed against him, brings up. Despite the irony that it occurred in an exhibition that was part of a series made in tribute to Mike Brown, who was successfully prosecuted on obscenity charges in 1966, there are some key differences between Yore’s case today and what happened to Brown nearly fifty years ago.

The art scene of the early 1960s in Sydney, in which Mike Brown was working, was newly formed as an art market boom had led to the establishment of over a dozen commercial galleries, where only a few years before there had only been two. There were also the newly opened alternative galleries like Watters and Legge Gallery in Sydney, and Pinacotheca in Melbourne, but in the wider sense the culture of the establishment was conservative.1 When Brown’s 1965 exhibition Paintin’ A-Go-Go was visited by the chief of the Darlinghurst vice squad after a complaint about the use of four-letter words and depictions of genitalia, abstract modernism by artists like John Olsen was the dominant movement within the institutions. All the same, it was the members of this commercialised world, who Brown had openly criticised in works like Kite, who were later among those who supported his defence appeal through Frank Watter’s fundraising exhibition. And happily Brown’s sentence of three months hard labour was reduced to a $20 fine.

Mike Brown, <em>You’re welcome</em>, 1982–3, paper collage, plastic toys, plastic flower & acrylic on cotton duck, signed, titled & dated on reverse, 164 × 122 cm, courtesy of Charles Nodrum Gallery

Mike Brown is however not the only artist in Australian history to have been convicted of obscenity. The second, less well known case involved Cath Phillips, a one-time artist, author and publisher, and also organiser at the Sydney Mardi Gras and the Gay Games. Following complaints about her installation Butch Maison: The Palace at Femme, shown at the 1988 Mildura Sculpture Triennial, she was charged and found guilty of ‘the promotion of a homosexual attitude’ and ordered to pay fines of $400.2 Phillips refused to pay, so she was jailed for two days.3 At the same time she was granted Australia Council funding to make new work: ‘On one hand I’m put in jail for it and on the other I’m given money for it’, she is reported to have said.4

Because Paul Yore seems to fit so readily within the present day emerging art world, having recently been exhibited at the project gallery at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, having been a Gertrude Contemporary studio artist, and even being an awarded an acquisitive textile prize on the day the Linden show was closed down, what occurred at the **Like Mike*: Now What?* exhibition at Linden still comes as a shock. The exhibition itself was opened to no controversy on 17 May. Later, a complaint was recorded at the City of Port Philip council meeting on 28 May. It was reported that local Liberal party branch member, Chris Spillane, raised the issue of offensive work on display at the council supported gallery during question time.5 Another local, Adrian Jackson, who operates a B&B in the area, claims that he called the police after visiting the gallery and seeing Yore’s work for a second time.6 On Saturday 1 June, police removed part of Yore’s installation. Following that, the director of the gallery closed the exhibition down. Jackson—referred to locally as a ‘serial pest’—commented on an article on the subject in the free newspaper The Leader: ‘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 rate-payers.’7

The gallery stayed closed for ten days, with no comment issuing from the management to the public or to artists involved. Yore was interviewed by the police, and there was a small protest at the gallery on the Saturday following the closure. The gallery was reopened on Tuesday 11 June with a black cloth covering Yore’s installation. The board of management had taken the work to the Australian Classification Board and elements of the work received a Classification 1—Restricted rating, suitable only for people 18 and over. The chairperson of the board, Sue Foley, explains on the gallery’s website that there had been a decision made to close Linden while ‘we worked through the complex issues which included obtaining greater clarity on the legal issues faced by Yore and the Centre and the substance of the police concerns, practical and moral rights considerations in keeping an incomplete exhibition on show with works removed by police without the artist’s consent and safety and wellbeing concerns for our staff and visitors’.8

It was nearly three months later, on 6 September, that Yore was charged with producing and possessing child pornography. By this time his exhibition at Neon Parc had opened; the director of that gallery, Geoff Newton, who curated the Like Mike exhibitions, now represents Yore. Then events repeated themselves at Sydney Contemporary art fair over 19–22 September, when Yore had another work of his pulled by the art fair management, who stated that the work was on the wrong side of the law.

More recently still, it was reported in The Age that the circumstances leading to the controversy at Linden had begun to take shape well before the Like Mike exhibition. In 2012, Linden appointed a new director to replace the acting director and long-serving curator (and co-curator of the Like Mike show), Jan Duffy. According to the article, with the new director in position, Duffy was no longer able to attend management board meetings. There are accusations of staff loyal to Duffy being bullied, of a series of formal warnings, and more seriously of gallery money being spent on legal fees as part of attempts to have Duffy dismissed. When the gallery closed after the police intervened in the exhibition, Duffy was banned from speaking to anyone, including the artists, on behalf of the gallery. She later went on stress leave. Linden, however, officially denied the accusations in the article.9

Another report by the same journalist who revealed this background, which was shared by former staff and board members, addressed the broader context of the case. What was said there reflected what has been said before in different ways on the same subject: it was the Henson case that ‘changed everything in terms of the art world censoring itself’. The high-water mark of the Henson controversy, when the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd went on his regular guest appearance on Channel Nine’s Today show and in response to the question of what he thought of the work answered that he thought it was ‘absolutely revolting’, signalled a change in attitude towards the visual arts in Australia. Perhaps even Kevin Rudd realised it, because when he appeared on Channel Ten’s The Project and repeated the same words, he also tried, falsely, to qualify the statement, saying that he had never spoken in the capacity of Prime Minister, and had only given expression to his gut feeling as a parent.10

While Malcolm Turnbull spoke up for artistic expression and civil liberties, followed by Bob Brown some days after, at the time there was generally weak or no political support for Henson. Turnbull also distanced himself from the controversy when he was elected opposition leader. With Yore, the local MP Martin Foley was reported as saying the controversy was the result of efforts by a ‘small band of moral straighteners…who speak for no one’.11 Actually, as David Marr points out in his book on Henson, along with the debate about:

Art v. Porn, Artists v. Society—there began another more complex and thoughtful debate about art, children and the perils of the modern world. So shocked were they at having to rally to the side of an artist of such stature, Henson’s defenders failed…to grasp how much the weight of the argument was with them…From coast to coast, papers were full of letters asserting the real issues at stake here: the truth of art;…the duty of artists to live within the law; the obligation of art to confront; lines crossed and boundaries pushed; privacy;…society can’t live without risk; any risk to children is unacceptable.12

The liberality of public opinion expressed in the newspapers (at least in the letters pages) contrasted with the announcement of arts minister Peter Garrett that the government would be calling on the Australia Council to create new protocols addressing the use of images of children in art that would be funded by the government. This change in the Australia Council funding is one explicit change in the administration of the visual arts, but The Age article produced a series of examples of quieter cases of censorship led by arts organisations since that time, Paul Yore’s just being a louder example. The art world has become, in the words of one anonymous curator, overly ‘risk averse’.

Comparing the number of artists in the past that have been charged with obscenity and other offences to the number of successful prosecutions suggests that any artist would be unlikely to be convicted of charges brought against them. In the Henson case, for example, the people who spoke out against artists seem to understand that the works themselves were not part of real life in the same way the acts of criminals are—but they seem to hate as some objectionable privilege the freedom of expression that artists are given, that they can use for their own profit. The problem was that they saw Henson exploiting innocent children to make his photographs, and then exploiting common decency in order to sell them.

The counter argument is neatly put by Robert Nelson: ‘a nation that values free speech must also protect artistic freedom’.13 Nelson—who was personally involved in the second phase of the Henson controversy when photographs taken by his partner Polixeni Papapetrou appeared on the cover of Art Monthly magazine—has argued that whoever does the complaining in these cases should have to make an argument about the plausible risk that the allegedly offensive work has, in terms of real rather than potential harm, before authorities get involved in censorship. This is to preclude citing moral offense as a reason to censor, and to make room for counter arguments that could be based on separate definitions of art and of pornography. But there is plenty of disagreement about whether this separation can be made and handling complaints about child pornography by making risk assessments, like, to use his example, assessing the real and potential risks of sustaining a sporting injury or of riding a bike along a road, might be too optimistic to be taken seriously by governments.

In fact, the Yore case is just another example of police censorship in Australia that seems to occur arbitrarily.14 What can make sense however is the context, because it also seems like the predictions made in 2008 came true: the censorship battles of the past were part of the various movements that led to the establishment of a liberal culture, while the censorship battles of today are about disciplining the art world. Whatever the results of this or that intended or unintended action that together make up this current controversy, the message from on high is that artists and their supporters need to fall into line; too bad no one told Paul.

Michael Ascroft is an arts writer based in Melbourne.


  1. Richard Haese, Permanent Revolution: Mike Brown and the Australian Avant-Garde, 1953–1997, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2011. 

  2. Daniel Moore, ‘Promotion of Homosexuality Obscene: Magistrate’, Sydney Morning Herald, 16 August 1988, p. 12. 

  3. Alison Carroll, ‘A History of Moral Censorship and the Visual Arts in Australia’, in Moral Censorship and the Visual Arts in Australia, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 1989. 

  4. Martin Portus, ‘“Obsenity” leads to a commission’, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 November 1988, p. 3. 

  5. Ordinary minutes of council, City of Port Philip council website, 28 May 2013, p. 13. http://www.portphillip.vic.gov.au/28_May_2013_Ordinary_Meeting_of_Council_Minutes.pdf 

  6. Comments, ‘Child porn—or art censorship by wannabe Tory pollies?’, Crikey!, Mark Holsworth, 5 June 2013. 

  7. Ben Eltham, ‘The new censorship: a campaign against arts funding?’, Arts Hub, 13 June 2013. 

  8. Sue Foley, ‘A letter from the Chair’ Linden website, http://www.lindenarts.org/media.aspx 

  9. John Elder, ‘Claim gallery staff bullied into quitting’, The Age, 13 October 2013, http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/claim-gallery-staff-bullied-into-quitting-20131012-2vfp2.html 

  10. David Marr, The Henson Case, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2008. 

  11. Ben Eltham, ‘The new censorship: a campaign against arts funding?’, Arts Hub, 13 June 2013. 

  12. David Marr, The Henson Case, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2008, pp. 61–62. 

  13. Robert Nelson, ‘Creepy? Perhaps, but it’s not porn’, The Age, 24 May 2008. 

  14. Alison Carroll, ‘A History of Moral Censorship and the Visual Arts in Australia’, in Moral Censorship and the Visual Arts in Australia, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 1989, p. 8