Oh no, those evil artists have done it again! Have they no shame? No morality? Do they not have children of their own? I’ve just heard on the radio that somebody has dared to paint the convicted paedophile Dennis Ferguson (who looks creepy even in a suit) in this year’s Archibald Prize. And I’ve just heard the ever-bizarre tones of our Premier, Kristina Keneally, condemning it. Which means that instead of reacting with common sense or leadership, she’s chosen the predictable demagogue option, throwing fuel on the fire of what will presumably be yet another tabloid firestorm over a work of art.
The term “firestorm” seems particularly appropriate given that an alleged paedophile, Fred Rix, just had his house burned down. It’s not yet clear whether it was arson, but surely it would be a remarkable coincidence if it wasn’t.
Now, I am as supportive of long sentences for paedophiles as the next person. While it’s worth remembering that they’re often the victims of abuse themselves, and consequently have major psychological damage, there’s no escaping the fact that paedophiles visit this damage, tragically and selfishly, upon innocent children, perpetrating a truly despicable cycle.
But here’s the thing. Firstly, Rix hasn’t yet been convicted. I’ve no idea whether he should have been or not, but that’s for a court to decide, not an arsonist. And secondly, because we’re a civilised society, we have neither the death penalty nor endless sentences. Sometimes, like Ferguson, paedophiles get released. And then we have to work out what to do with them. And trying to kill them, or threatening to assault them as happened with Ferguson, reduces the perpetrator to the same moral level as the paedophile. There are few clearer examples of two wrongs not making a right.
And that’s why painting Ferguson, and moreover Brett Collins, who took the unpopular but principled stance that he should be able to live free from harassment now that he has done his time, is in fact a perfect subject for art. Because Ferguson, you see, is there, in the background, and we can’t just hope he’ll go away. Nor can we all just get him moved elsewhere, like the residents of Ryde did. If he does his time, he gets freed, and has to live among us.
Hopefully, he’s been cured. Certainly, he shouldn’t be allowed near children, and definitely, he should be monitored. But he has to live somewhere – it’s how the system works. And that’s why if the painting itself is any good, it would be a great thing for it to be hung, because it’s potentially a fantastic piece of social commentary. Far more thought-provoking than the endless paintings of AGNSW board members that seem to make the cut most years.
The Rix incident demonstrates precisely why it would have been great to hear the Keneally hosing down the usual paedophile hysteria here, not contributing to it. And to be fair, I was glad to hear her acknowledge that the gallery shouldn’t be stopped from hanging the work, and that pushing the boundaries is a legitimate part of what art does. That’s a pretty big concession for a point-scoring politician to make, especially one who is as badly in need of positive publicity as she is.
But the rest of her comments seemed ridiculously mawkish. She says she won’t be going to see it, but would be happy to see the other paintings in the competition. Now, what does this mean in practice? I was at the Archibald opening last year, and Nathan Rees did the honours. If Keneally attends this year, and the Ferguson portrait is hung, is she going to insist on a curtain being placed over it so she doesn’t have to see it, like they used to do with nudes in Victorian times? How profoundly embarrassing.
She says it “goes too far”. How, exactly? Has she any more detailed analysis than the usual metaphor of crossing an arbitrary line? I very much doubt the artist, whoever they are, approves of what Ferguson did, and I’ve every confidence that Brett Collins doesn’t. Did Andy Warhol display approval of Mao’s Cultural Revolution when he painted him? Is this portrait somehow going to embolden paedophiles into thinking that if they fiddle with kids, they might get hung in the Archibald Prize someday?
It’s so rare that a leader refuses to take the easy bait when they’re asked to condemn controversial works of art. Malcolm Turnbull defended Bill Henson’s artistic freedom when the police marched into Roslyn Oxley and seized his photographs, but from a cynical perspective, his hand was forced because he owned two of his works. If only more of our politicians would actually try to influence public morality, instead of being beholden to it. If only they would say that some issues are morally complicated, and that it’s unwise to rush to judge.
They do this sometimes, of course, but usually only when they’re defending themselves. Kristina Keneally has been adamant about her own team’s right to innocence before being proven guilty of anything. But she was happy to rush to judge an artwork she presumably hasn’t clapped eyes on, and now asserts she “simply didn’t need to see”.
If artists only painted subjects we all approved of, their work would be so boring that it would have very little reason to exist. Anne Geddes would win every portrait competition. If art makes us think, then it’s successful. This painting issued Kristina Keneally an invitation to think about the complex issue of how we deal with paedophiles who have done their time and have to live in our community – a question which, as the person who ultimately runs our criminal justice system, she is directly responsible for answering. It’s extremely disappointing that she declined it.
Update: Here is an image of the portrait, which was not available at the time of writing. The artist’s name is Trevor Hotten.