I am a documentary film director. Subjects of my films have included love, sex, 9/11, indigenous fisheries, hurricanes, refugees, HIV/AIDS orphans, and visualization of God. I am best known for the Real People, Real Life, Real Sex series of documentaries that simultaneously explore the vital role of sexual pleasure in committed relationships and the problematic place of explicit sexuality in cinema. This is my "Safe" blog.

Art with a Capital A

Posted: October 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

(This essay was first published May 26, 2008 at The Art & Business of Making Erotic Films)

I would guess that many of you who enjoy reading this blog also enjoy reading Ms. Naughty’s blog, and are already aware that Ms. Naughty and I find ourselves embroiled in a vigorous disagreement over recent events surrounding the photography of Bill Henson. At the heart of our disagreement is the strong exception I take to Ms. Naughty’s invocation of the word “art” as a justification and or defence of how Mr. Henson creates his work.

Mr. Henson’s work is problematic in that he feels the best way he can explore and express his ideas is by taking naked pictures of adolescent girls; a practice generally frowned upon on the grounds that children are not capable of giving consent to such activities, and that it is inappropriate for their parents to consent on their behalf.

The truth is, I don’t know how I feel about Mr. Henson’s work habits. On the basis of the facts as they’ve been reported, I find the particulars of how Mr. Henson makes his images disquieting. I am myself a parent, and have trouble imagining delivering my own daughter to Mr. Henson’s set where she can serve as a “vehicle for expressing the things that interest [Mr. Henson] about humanity and vulnerability.”

On the other hand, I have strong libertarian beliefs about allowing the state to dictate to me or any other parent what I can or can’t decide is right for my child. I believe that the state should only intrude upon parental rights where it can demonstrate an overwhelmingly compelling interest to do so. Nothing I’ve so far read makes me feel that the state should usurp these parents’ right to guide their children’s lives in the way they see fit.

So then why would I take such exception to Ms. Naughty’s defense of Mr. Henson on the grounds that he was making art. To understand that, we have to travel back to last Summer, to what was to be the world premiere of my film ASHLEY AND KISHA: FINDING THE RIGHT FIT.

Last Summer a remarkable thing happened. ASHLEY AND KISHA was slated to screen as part of the Melbourne Underground Film Festival. But on the night of the screening two armed police women were sent to the theater to make sure it did not play. The Australian government had determined that the film was not art, and as such, was unfit to be seen in public.

One might ask, on what basis had the government made this determination.

There were no allegations that the subjects of the film were underage. In fact both were not only of the age of sexual majority, but were also old enough to enter legally binding contracts. There was no allegation that the subjects had not consented; indeed, of the film’s 52 minute running time no less than 35 minutes was devoted to an interview with the subjects, including testimony to their own positive feelings about participating in the film.

There were no allegations that the subjects were engaged in unhealthy, unwholesome, or inappropriate acts, sexual or otherwise. Indeed, the subjects were a committed couple, and the sex acts that were documented as a part of the film were no different than the sex acts in which this couple engaged when out of view of the camera. In short, there were no allegations that the activities involved in making the film were in any way illegal, anti-social, or even in bad taste.

No, the sole allegation was that ASHLEY AND KISHA was not art, and therefore it was not suitable, in fact, not legal to screen the film, at a cultural event, in front of an informed and consenting audience of adults.

Think about that. Armed police were sent to stop the screening of ASHLEY AND KISHA, not because laws had been broken in the creation of the film, not because it was about to be screened in view of persons who had not consented to view it, but because the government did not consider the film to be art, and since the film was not art it was not considered worthy of the sorts of protections that other works enjoy. The government did not considered the film to be art, and so the government was perfectly within its rights to stop a group of adults from viewing it.

Of course there’s nothing surprising about the government’s determination that ASHLEY AND KISHA and other of my films are not considered art. Going back to the landmark 1934 case U.S. v Ulysses, the “intent to arouse” has been cited as the crucial distinction between sexually oriented work that will be allowed into polite society, that is to say art, and work that must be suppressed. Indeed, you can hear the clear echo of Justice Woolsy’s ruling in the justification offered for Mr. Henson’s photography, in John Cameron Mitchell’s expositions on his film SHORTBUS, in the BBFC’s decision to give an R-rating to DESTRICTED and for countless other contemporary works that purport to challenge our views on representation of sexuality. Time and time again, the reason given that sexually provocative works are to be considered as art, both by their creators and by censors, is that these works are not made with “the intent to arouse.”

By contrast, my films gleefully embrace the erotic power of sexual imagery. They accept, even rejoice in the fact that a normal, healthy, human response to seeing people who are in love making love is to want to make love. My films are purpose-made to challenge the authority of the state both to make distinctions  between erotic and non-erotic depictions of sexuality, and to suppress work on this basis.

My films convey an emotional gravity people simply don’t associate with films that are so unambiguously and enthusiastically erotic. We regularly receive mail telling us that people have come to the end of one or another of our films with joyful tears in their eyes. Because of this sentimental treatment of sexuality and eroticism, my films do not fit easily into the standard porn rubric. They are often understood as a sort of “anti-porn”; films that hold both the pornographer and the censor up for ridicule.

But if my films are understood as “anti porn” I would also hope they are understood as anti-art.

As a young art student it was clear to me that nudity and sexuality in contemporary art followed a set of rules that was as easily understood as pornography’s rubric. This is especially easy to observe in “art films”; sexuality must only be present in an explicit way if it is commentary on the ambiguities, or better yet, deficiencies of the human conditions. A recent example is the movie SHORTBUS wherein unsatisfying , failed, or unhealthy sex is presented in explicit detail, pleasurable sex is presented in passing, and transformative sex goes unseen.

There is nothing wrong with exploring sexuality within this well accepted art rubric. It’s a safe way to explore sexual imagery without actually challenging any of the taken for granted notions about the right and proper way to present sex as art.

Not so with ASHLEY AND KISHA, or any of my other films. As much as my films are made with the hope of confronting the way that sex is presented in pornography and suppressed by the state, my films are made to confront the way that sex is presented in art.

In my films there is no ennui, no cynicism, no boredom or brutality, no disenfranchisement, disconnection, or disaffection. These are the proven cinematic devices used to signal “But this is art,” – devices I intentionally banish from my films. I want to create a sexual and cinematic environment devoid of the familiar landmarks found in art,and scrubbed clean of the familiar hiding places that allow people to watch lovemaking with clinical detachment.

In my films the human condition is a joyful condition. In my films human beings revel in their ability to connect with one another; physically, mentally, emotionally. In my films people know what they want and get what they want. My films are idealistic, passionate, and compassionate. In short, my films are a refutation of everything that art, and especially art films have tried to teach me about love and sex. Where art is expected to be cool and detached, my films are lush; where art is expected to be coy, my films are frank; where art is expected to celebrate pain, my films celebrate pleasure.

But these films are also a refutation nearly of everything I was taught about the art game.

What I was taught is that what can be said is more important that what is seen; what can be argued is more important than what is felt; and that anything anything anything can be art, so long as the “artist’s statement” is sufficiently clever. (Of course the trump card is “You are simply too unsophisticated to understand why this is art.”)

Well guess what? I’m calling bullshit.

I’m calling bullshit on the fraud and the fakery, the mannered ugliness and studied brutality. I’m calling bullshit on the clever artists statements, cunning manifestos, wine and cheese receptions, director’s Q&As, panel discussions. I’m calling bullshit on all of it.

I’m calling bullshit on the fact that the same night police were sent to prevent the screening of ASHLEY AND KISHA the cultural elites were across town at ACMI watching DESTRICTED, and chattering about it as if the film was anything other that a crass publicity stunt, calculated precisely in accordance with cultural norms, and challenging nothing.

I’m calling bullshit on being told I have to choose between the chardonnay sippers and the talk show hosts. I’m not picking sides because they’re on the same team.

I’m calling bullshit on the cheap provocation, with everyone lining up for their meager share of another 15 minutes of media fame.

I’m calling bullshit on the fundraising letter that will go out from the right and the golf-clap that will rise up from the left.

I’m calling bullshit because after it’s all over, nothing will have changed. (After it’s all over, loving, consensual sex  between adults, shown as the most joyful of human pleasures will still be among the most radical and subversive subjects a photographic artist can focus his camera upon.)

But mostly I’m calling bullshit on the silly idea that art is a justification.

Art is vocation. Art is avocation.  As entertainment, or hobby,  or even  mere whimsy, art is important. But in an era when everything from toilet bowls to bags of trash are called art, if you want to defend a grown man spending his time with naked 12 year-olds and taking pictures, you’re going to have come up with a better reason than art.

Tell me you just don’t think it’s a big deal; that we are entirely too hysterical about all this stuff.  I’ll listen. I may or many not agree, but I’ll listen.

Tell me you’re not sure how you feel about Mr. Henson and the parents who provide him with his “vehicles”, but you feel cautious about handing the decision about what a parent should or should not do over to the state. I’m all ears; and once we’ve hashed that out we can discuss parental notification laws.

But do not tell me it’s okay because Bill Henson was making art; I’m no more ready to accept that than to accept that Ed Gien’s art making excuses, justifies, or even mitigates what he did. You do something criminal, you get punished. You do something reprehensible, you get shunned. You make some art along the way, that’s a footnote.

Do not tell me it’s okay for a middle-aged man to spend his time taking naked photographs of 12 year old girls, so long as he’s making art. My family and I live every day of our lives on the wrong side of this unanswerable and meaningless question about what is and what is not art. We know what happens when the state says “No, that’s not art.” We live every day with the possibility that we will be deprived of our livelihood, our property, our freedom because somewhere someone in a position of power might ask this question about our films, and then answer as they see fit.

Lastly, I’ve seen in the last few days that some of the photos in question are now available to be seen online, but with the naughty bits covered by black bars. This is quiet possibly the low point in this whole farcical episode, and to illustrate my point, I would propose that we conduct another thought experiment:

Let us suppose that a photographer were to create photographs of children that even the most liberal of minds would readily recognize as evidence of child abuse. Now let us suppose that she were to display these photographs with the naughty bits covered with black bars so as to render the photos devoid of the sort of details that are commonly use by art critics and censors to distinguish between what is art and what is not; the sort of details the Australian Office of Film and Literature insisted that I remove from DAMON AND HUNTER before they would declare it to be art, and allow it to be screened at the Sydney International Gay & Lesbian Documentary Film Festival.

Would these photographs be provocative? No doubt. Challenging to our sensibilities? I’d hope so. Would they be art? Maybe, but it doesn’t matter. The photos would be evidence of a crime and the people who made them would be criminals.

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