begin exercising power over their children by using the ‘fear
factor’. “Don’t touch. You’ll get burnt” or “Don’t play with
that. It / you will break”. While these types of directives
often have very practical and necessary applications, they do
remain a fairly central theme as we try and guide our children /
teenagers / young adults through the complex maze we call life.
many parents there comes a time when all we can do is hope that
we’ve given them enough of a common sense education that when
they venture beyond the door and into the world they will do
their best to not only survive but thrive and prosper.
While I can’t
claim to be the best parent in the world I do think I have done
my best to instil some form of moral, social and ethical
responsibility in my children. While we all let each other down
from time to time, we do our best, live with our regrets and get
on with life as best we can. Pity I can’t say the same about the
way our governments and those in authority choose to behave.
The most recent
evidence that all is not well is the Bill Henson hurrah. While
I’m not going to pass judgement on the ‘disputed’ artistic merit
of his work, I do believe that the current commentary seems to
lack a certain depth. Perhaps breadth would be a better
descriptor. In the main the issues being discussed come down to
individual moral or ethical dilemmas. What the public discussion
seems to mask is the broader issue of control over individual
choice and the use of public space. This to me is a much more
important issue in the long run.
I believe that
the Henson matter shares much in common with other recent acts
by the ‘state’ to exert power over both bodies and public
perceptions of bodies and how they should be controlled. If
nothing else, the thing I have learnt most from parenthood is
that letting go of power is the most difficult thing to do.
Particularly when you believe “I know best”.
If we place the
Henson matter in the same frame as the so called “intervention”
in the Northern Territory and other recent ‘raids’ on public
displays of art, we find some disturbing trends.
While couched in
terms of preventing sexual abuse in remote communities, the
“intervention” was directed at a minority population that is
disadvantaged, remotely located from most of us, who lacked the
media skills and other resources to adequately put their case
and above all, is portrayed as being totally “other”
(Indigenous, black, poor, uneducated, backward, drunk,
predatory, uncontrollable etc. etc.).
There have been
many recent instances within the art world in which exhibitions
have been cancelled, closed, confiscated and defunded simply
because the artists chose to present representations that
fore-grounded the “otherness” of their subjects and confront us
with the reality that despite our “power” the reality of the
“other” remains intact.
To broaden out
this line of thinking even more, we find that there are numerous
examples of the state attempting to not only exert power over
some type of “other” but often trying to justify the deployment
of that power by couching it in “moral” or “ethical” rhetoric.
We have had
“wars” on dole bludgers, single mums, gays, tax cheats, fare
evaders, parking space hogs, druggies, sex workers, bikies,
hippies and most other forms of “otherness” one can imagine.
Some “wars” I would strenuously endorse because they materially
affect the personal health or collective health of us all. But
if you look closely at the most prominent examples of the “wars”
you find they are more about control by deployment of coercive
power rather than attempting to find a solution to the root
cause of the ‘conflict’.
military and police into the Northern territory won’t change the
material circumstances of the communities. There will always be
predators and they are just as active in the suburbs of
Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne as they are in outback towns.
Perhaps the main difference is that in the big cities they have
a larger available stock of potential victims. But we didn’t see
an “intervention” in Kew or Artarmon or Kambah. Too many good,
nice, upstanding ‘white’ folks in those suburbs I suppose.
When it comes to
art, we see images of real wars, like those being executed in
the West Bank and Gaza, Iraq and Afghanistan being torn down,
closed, or otherwise being denied public space to show the real
damage being done “in our name” to people we will never know.
The hurrah over
the Henson exhibition has a more sinister undertone to it.
Forget Rudd and Nelson’s ‘tut tutting’ and Garrets gutlessness,
the bigger issue is about testing the limits of state power and
finding ways in which our society can be re-formed in the image
of a few rather than reflecting the grand and wonderful
diversity it contains. In order to privilege the latter, power
must be divested to the people and this, in the minds of some,
is a very dangerous thing.
To let go of
power means letting go of prestige, position and feelings of
respect. It means that you never quite know what the outcome
will be and it leads to fear of the unknown and that which we
know but don’t understand. Most of us respond to this situation
by trying to find ways to exert our power and control our
environment. Indeed, some devote their lives and fortunes to
trying to control their environment. In the end, they, like the
rest of us end up just as dead as we do. In the meantime they
cause misery to others, never quite fulfil themselves and end up
achieving very little good but leave pain and suffering as their
Being a parent
is not an easy thing but like my children I too am growing up
and trying to understand the diversity and uncontrollability of
life. So rather than focusing on totalising control, I will
guide, as best as possible, those I’m responsible for but will
always take time to enjoy that which I don’t fully understand
but which enriches us all. Even if we choose to look or not.