Art and censorship – not a good mix
Early this morning, I was going to join in the chorus of those decrying the censorship of photographic artist Bill Henson, some of whose work has been seized today by New South Wales police from an exhibition about to open in Sydney. (Hey, I just did.)
I think Henson's persecution by politicians, the media and various self-appointed guardians of our propriety and moral rectitude is appalling. This instance of censorship in art has the stink of moral panic about it. I was even going to link to this image to make a point about nudity in art and context. But I've been watching this debate brew online, and the response in the 'art community', as it has been so billed, and I think others, especially the crew at Sarsaparilla, are doing a sterling job of highlighting this case.
Instead, I've decided it is as important to highlight the case of political censorship of an artist here in Melbourne, revealed in this morning's Age.
Van Thanh Rudd's painting has been pulled by the Melbourne City Council from its intended inclusion in an art/artist exchange with Vietnam. Due to be exhibited in Ho Chih Minh City next month, the painting depicts Ronald McDonald bearing the Beijing Olympics torch running past a self-immolating monk from that infamous incident in the nascent period of revolutionary upheaval in Vietnam.
Not that the case of Van Thanh Rudd's artwork being censored has not received attention – perhaps being the nephew of the Prime Minister can get you the front page of The Age. However, there hasn't been much reaction in the online arts community about this case, from what I can see. (Perhaps because Henson has a greater arts-profile, and the severity of the issue in Sydney has caught everyone's attention and earned Henson more online coverage.)
The City of Melbourne claims they pulled the artwork because it does not "fit in with the purpose of the arts grant program, which was to show the lives of young artists in Ho Chi Minh City", and that "legal assessment had also indicated it might infringe trademark and copyright provisions". The main criticism of the Council's interference and censorship in art was that the Council, under Mayor John So, is very sensitive of criticisms of China and actively stifles criticism of China's human rights record, and is sensitive to highly political art in the first place. There is some merit to this argument, based on the Council's track record, and this is cause enough to criticise the Council's political censorship of art.
What I can't help but wonder, though, is how on earth the Council assumed that Van Thanh Rudd's work would not be political, when his whole reputation as an 'activist artist' and his previous works speak for itself.
However, what really galls me is the assumptions the Council seems to have made about what an artist of Asian descent – Van Thanh's mother is Vietnamese – will or won't make art about. Reading between the lines, I think the council expected some insipid 'Joy Luck Club' inspired story of growing up Vietnamese in Australia, or 'returning to the mother country and seeing how my contemporaries live - culture clash' type experience being recorded in paint, and that just gets my goat.
It makes me sick that arts administrators, grant bodies, publishers and others still expect artists and writers of Asian descent to churn out such material for their own cultural expectations and market demands.
Artists and writers of Asian descent have just as much chance of creating highly political art works – or not – as any other culture workers from whatever backgrounds. Just as they are likely to continue memoirising their cross-cultural experiences, and tapping the rich political veins in Australia's migrant experience.
The City of Melbourne stands condemned for its political censorship of art, as well as its other recent censorship of art – whether because of public nudity or because the artist criticised one side or another in Middle-East conflicts.
If you wish to show Van Thanh your support, you can write to him, as i did this morning, via his website. You could also criticise the Council for its decision. And don't let this issue go away just because Henson's predicament as grabbed all the attention for now.