Public First Program


Shane Elson


email Shane

+61-3-5952 5780

+61-4-1349 7828

May 2008 # 4

(Right Click here to download Audio - MP3)

Back to Editorials 2008

Art, Power and Parenting

Most parents 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.

However, for 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’. 

Sending the 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 legacy. 

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.

Recent Editorials

Al-Nakba and Optimism (MP3)

Carers, Get a Life (MP3)

Bare Chested and Beautiful: Cabbies and Viral Unionism (MP3)

Tom, GE and Bush (MP3)

William Robert and the ANZAC Legacy (MP3)

Porn, Footy and 9-11 (MP3)

The Family (MP3)

Human Rights Rally - KL, Dec 9, 2007

Chris Berg - On Yer Bike (MP3)

Political Animals (MP3)

Kids Business (MP3)

The Great Council of the 1000 (MP3)

Dud Laugh (MP3)

Sorry is Hard to Say (MP3)

Anything is Possible (MP3)

The End of the Line (MP3)

A Return to Day Zero (MP3)

K07: The Aftermath (MP3)

Cup Day & Dictators(MP3)

A Day at the Races (MP3)

Gunns and Roosters (MP3)

We are all Witnesses (MP3)

Blackwater USA-Private War (MP3)

Agents of the State (MP3)

Cousins of Gunns (MP3)

Eureka and the ABCC (MP3)

Which god? (MP3)

Run to Paradise (MP3)

SIM Cards and Generosity (MP3)

Repackaging Cigarettes and Politicians (MP3)

Body of Evidence (MP3)

Oceans of Money (MP3)

Cold Racism (MP3)

Unspoken Words Among Friends (MP3)

All Along the Watchtower (MP3)


The Bridge Keeper's Son (Feb '06)



Aquaman Meets Pell (MP3)


The Reigning Rein(MP3)


Johnny GM Seed (MP3)


When Generals Talk (MP3)


Madam Economy (MP3)


Hitchin' a Ride



ANZAC for Whom?



Jones, Race and Class Interests (MP3)


Bombay Nights



The Politics of Convenience and Liability (MP3)


Tears, Perks and People (MP3)


Technically Speaking(MP3)


Hicks, Burke and Howard (MP3)


The Free Market on a Lazy Sunday (MP3)


You Lose Power (MP3)


Rearranging the Deckchairs (MP3)


Educated Ignorance (MP3)


Young Liberals

go to Town (MP3)