Artists and institutions are increasingly self-censoring provocative and subversive work to secure audiences and funding while dodging protests and controversy. To avoid having to respond to attacks on freedom of expression from broader society, it appears that artists and institutions are sidestepping the issue altogether by choosing not to put these works before the public.
Artists are constantly making editorial decisions as they navigate their practice. What they choose to exclude from the public sphere is invariable determined by factors that might be as simple as the accessibility of materials, or based on complex theoretical considerations. Once the work is made, the artist must consider how it will be encountered. So, artists are constantly making editorial decisions about what is excised and what remains. Indeed, this process of refinement and resolution is often thought of as a necessary process for producing ‘good’ art.
But this does not occur within a vacuum. The social, political and economic context in which a work is produced and in which it is displayed will no doubt influence these judgments. That is not to say that artists are doomed to replicate the hegemonic norms of any given society; historically, many artists have used their art to challenge dominant ideologies. Art both reflects and influences the dominant culture within which it operates. . An artist’s response to these conditions will also be informed by the prevailing conditions of the time, at both the societal level and within the ‘art world’.
In spite of the many progressive developments that have occurred in recent decades, I can’t help but feel that we live in a more conservative cultural climate than existed even a generation ago. On the other hand, it could be argued that our society is more polarised than it has been for some time, with the gap between ‘left’ and ‘right’ or ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ ever increasing. The difference now being that these conservative forces wield significantly more power in our contemporary culture, and openly call on the state to back their positions. From the court case involving Paul Yore to the formation of the National Program for the Excellence in the Arts to the furore around Bill Henson’s work we need not look far to find examples of state intervention into freedom of expression within the arts. These are not the catalysts in themselves, but rather the symptoms of a bigger cultural and political shift.
Self-censorship is one such chilling effect that arises from this prevailing cultural condition. The following images are works that I was willing to produce, but which I have not been willing to show until now. These are works that I have censored due to their sexual nature. My work is of a sexual nature. These are the images that I have deemed too explicit, confronting or ‘pornographic’ even for an eroticised practice like my own.’ I carefully consider and contextualise the images of nudity and sexuality that I exhibit to encourage a particular kind of reading. However there is no way to ensure that the viewer reaches this reading, or agree with it when they get there.
In the contemporary Australian context the nude figure has become increasingly linked to the sexualised body, so exhibiting a nude of any kind could be read as eroticised. I don’t believe that this link is universal – it is contextual. I’ve had people openly respond to my nudes in Australian galleries before with disgust or avoidance, but I’m not certain that it would receive this kind of response in art galleries in many other countries.
In Australia images exploring sex and desire are commonly seen as pornographic, even when they appear in artworks clearly intended for artistic contexts. This point was driven home for me when an image of one of my works appeared without my knowledge on an erotic website. I was searching for a reference to my work in a publication, and Google revealed that the work in question had also appeared on a Tumblr page full of pornographic images of young men. Through this recontextualisation, I too could see how the image could be read in as pornographic. The Internet can be a problematic space; it can decontextualize provocative or subversive images and thus redefine them. We arguably see more art online these days than we do in gallery spaces, so the solution isn’t to limit the visibility of these works on the Internet, but to develop a sensitivity to the original context in which a work was intentionally exhibited.
If someone disapproves of my work when viewed or understood in an appropriate context such as an art gallery then I take no issue with their critique. Rather than try to shut it down or have it censored, in this context it is possible to enter into a discourse about the work: explain what you don’t like about it. Discuss where you think the work fell short or went wrong. Express your disapproval. Unless it is a breach of law, leave the State out of it. The threat of state censorship is often one of the greatest incitements to artistic self-censorship, which is a much more insidious form of censorship. When the state silences a voice, there is often evidence of this process of censorship on public record. As the practice of self-censorship becomes more and more widespread there will be few traces to show that the shift ever occurred.
My final reason for not exhibiting or publishing these works until now comes from a desire to remain able to function within the contemporary gallery system. I want to continue to exhibit my work, and risk-averse contemporary galleries are not going to stage an exhibition that could threaten their funding sources or upset key stakeholders. This system, as it stands, encourages artistic self-censorship, and a significant sociopolitical shift will be needed for this to change.
Born Shepparton, Victoria. Lives and works between Kyabram, Victoria and Melbourne, Victoria. Drew Pettifer is an artist and academic who currently lectures in Art History...