Ratings plan a kick in the arts
Artists are “appalled” at a suggestions art should get a classification scheme, similar to that used for movies, television and video games. A Senate committee has recommended one be introduced for controversial artwork such as the images of nude children produced by Bill Henson. Here, Tamara Winikoff gives us her perspective.
The question of where the visual arts should sit in a national classification scheme was one of the matters considered by the recent Senate Inquiry into the National Film and Literature Classification Scheme.
Currently, though, artworks are not required to be classified as a matter of course - the Classification Board can call in artworks, especially in response to a complaint or alternatively artists can choose to seek classification themselves if they wish to be clear about their legal status.
It is self evident that the large proportion of artworks is highly unlikely to cause any ripples of discontent. However, there are artists who intend that their work should be challenging and the catalyst for introspection or indeed public discourse. In such cases it is usual that the art industry itself will exercise its judgement in providing warning signs for public exhibitions. The digital environment presents new challenges, and online tools for parents to exercise restraint are warranted.
Freedom of expression is a right hotly defended in liberal democratic societies though Australia is the only one where this is not enshrined in law. Most in the arts sector would take the position that only work that is illegal should be unavailable to consenting adults. For children it is accepted that forms of protection may need to be applied in relation to certain subject matter, especially sex and violence. It is worth noting that almost never has an artist been prosecuted for any offences in relation to their artwork.
In Australia, decisions about classification are guided by four key principles in the National Classification Code: that adults should be able to read, hear and see what they want; minors should be protected from material likely to harm or disturb them; everyone should be protected from exposure to unsolicited material that they find offensive; and the need to take account of community concerns both about depictions that condone or incite violence, particularly sexual violence and also the portrayal of persons in a demeaning manner.
While these principles seem to stand up well to the scrutiny of the Senate Inquiry, it has made a number of recommendations.
There is the general proposition that “to the extent possible, the National Classification Scheme should apply equally to all content, regardless of the medium of delivery”. While this is open to interpretation, it may have implications for artworks. In addition, there are two specific recommendations that: “the classification of artworks should be exempt from application fees” (because this comes at considerable cost both in time and money); and “the Australian Government should pursue with relevant states the removal of the artistic merit defence for the offence …of child pornography”.
In law it has been recognised that work produced for scientific, artistic or educational purposes is understood to have a special intention and therefore the law allows for certain lines of investigation to legitimately be undertaken. Any change to this principle needs to be examined with a high degree of caution least we start gagging valuable forms of satire, parody and social, philosophical or ethical inquiry.
Before any decisions are taken, it would seem wise to wait for the second line of inquiry being conducted at the Federal Government’s behest by the Australian Law Reform Commission. Due to deliver its report in January 2012, it is likely that this will produce a much more rigorous set of findings, given that it is an independent body comprised of a team of legal experts and will consult far more widely than the Senate Inquiry.
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