The Premier, the portrait and the paedophile

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.

The Premier slinging mud (Source

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.

9 Responses to The Premier, the portrait and the paedophile

  1. Sheila (@stinginthetail) 4 March 2010 at 4:45 pm #

    what a thought-provoking article – as opposed to the hysteria-provoking reaction of ‘our’ premier. Can only imagine she’s so busy figuring out what to do with the $850million cash (+ ‘considerations) that they sold the lottery for, she didn’t have time to give the matter serious consideration, instead of joining the mob. People need reminding, we have a democracy, not mob rule.

  2. Pete 4 March 2010 at 4:48 pm #

    Interesting you mention Geddes. i’ve long thought her work is child exploitation. Then there ‘s the child abbuse claptrap served to us as the nation’s ‘Funniest Home Videos’ gah I’ve started…

  3. Andrew W. 4 March 2010 at 4:50 pm #

    Thank you for taking a story which is so blatantly based off of no actual information and giving it reason. Artists, as part of the wider community, are forever being punished for doing their job and actually questioning the world around them. The worst part is the fact that all art is subjective, and can be taken any way the audience wishes to, but when the media grabs on to a story like this the shitstorm it stirs up is usually based off of misinformation. People judge before they can actually see the artwork in question, as all politicians seem to do too. The same thing could be said of Kevin Rudd’s condemning of The Chaser with the “Make a Realistic Wish” sketch, I suppose, but you’d already know that.

    Why on earth can’t these people request to actually see the things they are being questioned on before they comment? It could save everyone a lot of embarrassment, and might actually stop the constant crushing of intelligent discussion by the millions of people who will follow whatever the radio personalities and newspapers feed to them. I’d love to actually see the portrait in question. Then perhaps I could say something as intelligent as Keneally…

  4. Amos Keeto 4 March 2010 at 6:42 pm #

    Oh c’mon, she’s a politician and that pretty much defines her every utterance whether she likes it or not. Sure, we would all like to see more logic, thought and reason from our elected officials but the reality is this rarely happens.

    Few true ‘leaders of the people’ come along and to expect that someone in her position, as leader at the arse end of the most disliked State Gov I’ve seen in a long while, would say or do anything in support of something “controversial ” is naive.

    I wish it wasn’t like that, but it is.

  5. Digger 4 March 2010 at 9:53 pm #

    …they DO have daughters of their own… and photograph them…and get hammered for it. Polixeni Papapetrou is a case in point. And yet Anne Geddes does a roaring trade in pedokitsch. She should be arrested – not for the age of her subjects, but for the crapulence of her work. The purility and prudishness of an ever increasing number of Australians is alarming and baffling, especially as it is pandered to by the sound-bite seeking mental midgets most politicians are. Maybe we should spend less time looking at whether education is providing the country with marketable assets and more time creating rounded (and not in a physical sense – this we have succeeded in all too well) individuals capable of critical analysis on a wide range of issues of their own accord… I’ll stop now before my rant really gets going.

  6. m 5 March 2010 at 12:05 pm #

    As reprehensible as child molesters are, and contrary to popular opinion, their recidivism rate in the US is about 5.5%. I assume that rate is typical world wide, and it is far lower than just about any other serious crime group. Most children who are molested are abused by people that they know, not strangers.

    I suspect that just as many of the most venomous homophobes are closeted homosexuals themselves, that some of the most vehement anti-pedophiles (forgive my American spelling) are indeed pedophiles. It is easy to hate pedophiles, and they deserve significant retribution for their crimes. But they are also human beings. They must be treated with the eye for an eye of Solomon, which was a limitation of punishment — that only one tooth be taken for a tooth, not a whole mouthful.

    Some of the worst child abusers are the politicians who use children as sword and shield to gain popularity, election and power. Who use children as a means of censoring what adults see, read, do and think. Such individuals damage the lives of all of us.

  7. Shmiko 5 March 2010 at 6:17 pm #

    OK. Second posting of blog… now I’ll reply. Submitting a painting of a notorious pedophile to an art competition is juvinile and stupid. Dennis Ferguson is of no other significance other than his crimminal antecedence. If it was Dennis Ferguson the plumber, no one would be reproducing his likeness in oils. Yet because he perpotrates sex crimes on minors, that in someway elevates him to being of cultural significance. I don’t see how simply warehousing someone in gaol for years would be a “cure” for anything, hence the requirment for convicted pedophiles to be registered. The premier was right to comment as she did and call these fools out.

  8. mike williams 7 March 2010 at 3:13 pm #

    “As reprehensible as child molesters are, and contrary to popular opinion, their recidivism rate in the US is about 5.5%.”

    Wow…that is amazing..and the source for that wild claims is….
    How anyone with a brain could peddle such a mendacious claim like that is beyond me.


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