Wednesday 28 May 2008

Was Bill Henson caught out by postmodernism?

In Australia we have just had a major controversy caused by an art exhibition featuring the photographic work of Bill Henson. Henson is a one of our most famous living artists and has gained widespread international acclaim. However, last week the police were called to a gallery where his latest exhibition was to be opened. For non-Australians who read this blog the key details are: Henson has for a long time included photographs of young pubescent children. In his own words he likes to express "..ideas about humanity and vulnerability and our sense of ourselves living inside our bodies and our bodies in space" and has been interested in the transition from childhood to adulthood (amongst other things).

What triggered the confrontation with police was the use of a photograph of a naked 13 year old girl on the invitation to the exhibition opening and the use of some images of the same girl on the gallery's website. Hetty Johnston an activist for Braveheart (an organization fighting against child pornography) contacted the police, the exhibition was shut down, the art removed from the gallery by police and the images removed from the website. The police are still investigating and are expected to lay charges against the artist and gallery.

I haven't written this post to comment on the work itself and have never seen it except via the media in the last week. Nor am I trying to make judgements about the artist or his motives. However, it appears that about one third of the images in the exhibition featured photographs of a young teenage boy and girl in varied poses including one of the girl fully naked with exposed genitals. If this is true then I think that there is good reason for concern.

But for me, what is intriguing about this confrontation has been the way various individuals and groups have responded. For some his work is viewed as pornography while for others it is seen as high art exploring issues that are important. Edmund Capon, Director of the Art Gallery of NSW has described his art this way:

"Henson's images are veritable symphonies of decadence and beauty, of squalor and opulence, of mysterious darkness and ominous light, of quiet obsession and subversive ecstasy."

The Prime Minister described some of the images this way:

"Whatever the artistic view of the merits of that sort of stuff - frankly I don't think there are any - just allow kids to be kids."

Hetty Johnston (Braveheart) commented:

"You can call it anything you want, but at the end of the day, these are images of naked adolescents."

Judy Annear (Senior Curator at the Art gallery of NSW) in defended Henson's work in the Sydney Morning Herald but acknowledged that his 'edgy' work can cause some people to "take a step away" from it. She suggested that:

"In the end it's only a representation. We're not being asked to agree or approve."

Postmodernism asserts that meaning or interpretation varies with the individual, circumstances and time. You can almost hear the postmodern art critic saying ‘the art might be offensive to you, but not for me’. In Annear's words, "it's only an interpretation". Postmodernism shifts the focus from the artist and the work to the viewer and his or her context. In a sense postmodernists would claim that we don’t go to a gallery to discover what an artist has depicted representationally, but rather to experience the artwork and to discover for yourself just what it might mean. The meaning is seen as in the knower not the work, and all such meanings or interpretations are relative.

Of course, while supporters of postmodernism focus on the interpreter they also see others as influencing our meanings. While not commenting specifically about art, Stanley Fish suggests that it is in interpretive communities, rather than any work (whether text, art, film) that meaning and interpretations are produced. In considering the relationship between an interpreter (e.g. a gallery viewer), an interpretive community (e.g. art enthusiasts) and a source of knowledge or interpretation (e.g. photographic art), Fish sees the interpretive community as determinative. And here is the problem for Henson. While the relatively closed community of art critics might well see his work as a “veritable symphon(y) of decadence and beauty”, others outside this limited interpretive community might just see it as pornography and as photographs that are in breach of the law. Non-members of the art community have not been prepared to accept the deconstructionist view that there is no connection between the signifier (e.g. a photo) and the signified (e.g. a naked 13 year old girl). They have asked why was this young girl photographed this way? Is she old enough to give consent? What responsibility did her parents have in this? Could these images be exploited by others?

For many outside the art community, the photos are not a representation, they are a photo of a 'real' 13 year old girl. What’s more, they might assert that the very artistic devices used by Henson (e.g. subtle lighting, poses that appear sexual to many etc) signal that the artist might just intend for the viewer to see the art as concerned with teenage sexuality and hence object to the work on moral and legal grounds. Furthermore, they might just conclude that this is exploitation and perhaps even abuse of children.

I asked the question in the title to this post "Was Bill Henson caught out by postmodernism". The outrage by the arts community is unwarranted in my view. The defence of Henson that I've hard in the media has typically been based on three lines:

* he's one of our greatest artists;
* he's been doing this for 30 years;
* it's art and so should be viewed differently.

None of these arguments have convinced me of anything, nor have they negated the concerns raised by those outside the arts community. There seems to have been long-term acceptance of Henson's work within the arts community, but things went pear-shaped when the gallery did two things. First its used one of the images on the exhibition invitation and sent it outside the tight arts community. Second, it placed some of the images on the Internet opening the images up to the whole world. This permitted new interpretive communities to examine Henson's work and draw different conclusions to the arts community. And this highlights one of the problem with postmodernism, it promotes meaning and interpretation as relative, but its adherents often seem to want to place limits on interpretive possibilities when the viewpoint is at odds with their own.

You can read a Sydney Morning Herald article about the exhibition here.

Tuesday 20 May 2008

C.S. Lewis: Two letters to which he did NOT reply

Anglican Media published a brief piece this week on the letters of C.S. Lewis. The article was written by Greg Clarke and spoke about (among other things) the amazing record Lewis had as a correspondent.

Lewis received a stunning number of letters daily - perhaps akin to the number of emails we each receive now. Lewis, unlike most of us, read them and answered them seriously and courteously. Whether it was a reader’s complaint that a character in The Screwtape Letters could not have seen Bus 73 from where he was standing in London (VIII, p.1562) to comments on the comic reading habits of children (VIII, p.1178) - Lewis thought adults were hypocrites about this - he penned a genuine reply.

But here's a scoop. I have at least two letters to which C.S. Lewis did not reply (the letters shown in the images below).

It seems that the power of Lewis to invite response lives on. These young students from Ontario Canada seem to have been so gripped by the writing of Lewis for children that it moved them (and perhaps their teacher) to include him in a "quilt that they are making of pioneers". It seems they weren't aware that he died in 1963. They sent letters to him at CASE (New College) presumably because we ran a conference on C.S. Lewis in 2007. It seems an old link led them to our College website. Perhaps the 'Meet CS Lewis' section that contained a description of Lewis and his work, led them to conclude that C.S. Lewis 'Today' is at New College. Of course I will write to these two children pointing out that Lewis couldn't answer the letters himself.

I could say a lot about how some children do research and read on the Internet, but I have a piece that partly addresses this topic to appear in the next edition of Case Magazine which will be available in about 3-4 weeks - "Truth and the Internet". I also have a related previous post on this blog that might be of interest.

One key thing that the letters also demonstrate is that Lewis was a remarkable apologist whose legacy for the gospel of Christ lives on!

More information on all three volumes of the The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis can be found at these links:

Volume 1 (2004)
Volume 2 (2004)
Volume 3 (2007)

You can also read Greg Clarke's short review of Volume 1 here

Thursday 15 May 2008

Time and the family

I wrote a blog post back in April titled Loss of mealtime: Is it important? In this post I discussed research data on family mealtime that indicated family life was changing. Of course there are many other indicators we could use to assess how families are changing.

Some might quickly respond that change isn't always bad either. And, it's probably worth saying up front that the Bible doesn't seem to dictate a set recipe for daily family life - you'll be hard pressed to find guidance on how many meals we should have together as a family, how much time should be devoted to play and so on. But there is teaching about our responsibilities as parents and the priority that we need to place on the nurture, care and teaching of our children. And while I don't see a picture in the Bible of families giving up useful work to blissfully waste time together, there is a clear message in Scripture that it is within the family that children are primarily nurtured and taught about God. As part of everyday life children are shaped and marked for a life of obedience to him (Deut 6:4-25). The Israelites were not only to obey God's commands, decrees and laws, they were to understand and demonstrate that they loved the Lord with all their heart and with all their soul and with all their strength. They were also to teach Gods commands, laws and decrees to their children as part of life in all its forms. God's word was to be an important part each individual's life and that of family life together.

However, if families spend little time together this is made more difficult. Numbers of people have commented that modern life seems to be working against families spending time together. Recently, the principal of Presbyterian Ladies College (Sydney), Dr William McKeith, commented on the impact of work on family time. He suggested, as I have in other posts, that the mad pace of modern life is having a negative impact on families. He cited an Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) report on how Australians use their time which indicates that "..we are spending less time playing, sleeping, and eating and drinking, but longer working." The ABS survey shows how patterns of time use have changed and indicates that people are becoming increasingly time poor and that working non-standard hours and bringing work home is having an impact.

His personal comments on the pace of life ring true:

"We can feel it and see it all around us. Hairdressers are often open into the night, international banks are conducting business on combined southern and northern hemisphere time, emails and text messages find us day and night, seven days a week.

"When we adults are busy filling our days and nights with more and more work, where are all the children? Might I suggest that many of the social and emotional challenges confronting our young people are grounded in the work patterns of we, their parents. Parents are not available to supervise the use of the internet and video games, to check on the appropriateness of friendships, to visit the school, to welcome the child in from school. We are tired, stressed, irritable much of the time. Some parents will seek out ways of avoiding contact with their children in order to minimise their exposure to these feelings."

A more worrying feature of the report cited is that according to the ABS survey approximately 25% of children (17 and under) have a parent living elsewhere (perhaps interstate or overseas) and that there are increasing numbers of children in boarding schools who rarely see their parents.

Dr McKeith concluded:
"There is a tension between hours and patterns of work and family values and the care of our children. As a force for the protection of family values and community welfare, government has a role to play. I suspect that in the interests of our children we are well overdue for a realistic appraisal of how we are balancing our work and family lives."

While there are families living in poverty for whom there is no possibility of reducing hours of work if they are to cover the essentials of life (food, basic shelter and daily needs), for many families there are options for reduced hours or for more flexible work arrangements. Dr McKeith suggests that the process used for making life choices may need to place a higher priority on the needs of children and the impact on family life more generally. The issues surrounding why parents are working longer hours are complex, but it would seem that we make daily decisions about careers, the size of mortgages, overseas holidays, private schools, entertainment and so on, that have economic and human costs that are (at least in part) borne by our families. And yet, for many of us, there is freedom to make other choices.

There seem to be two key parts to the impact we have on our children:

* the wisdom of the choices we make as parents and the example we provide - the patterns we set for work and life are the most significant example that will influence how our children see life/work balance (of course some of us saw the example of parents and made better choices later in life, but none of us want to be model negative examples);
* how much time we spend with them and what we do with the time that we share - What do we teach them and how we do it? Primarily our goal is to teach them about God, encourage them to follow Jesus and help them to understand how this should shape their lives. As Proverbs 22:6 teaches, our early training makes a difference for life - "Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old he will not depart from it".

Of course, I think we can achieve the above even in the midst of busy lives, but we need to constantly assess the choices we are making and the way we spend our time. The key is to constantly ask ourselves two questions: What impact are my life patterns, choices and use of time having on my relationship with God? What impact is my life and the way I use my time having on the spiritual welfare of my family?

You can read Dr McKeith's full Sydney Morning Herald opinion piece here or a version that appeared in the Brisbane Times here.

You can also read a more recent blog post on family life on my Literacy, families and learning blog HERE that has relevance to the content of this post

Tuesday 6 May 2008

New data on marriage, education and gender: So what?

While the statistics on marriage success don't seem to have improved (about 50% of marriages still fail), there has been an interesting change identified by researchers at Monash University's Centre for Population and Urban Research. We have known for some time that the likelihood of marriage appears to be related to a variety of factors, one of which is the interplay of gender and education. For example, men with university qualifications were more likely to be married in the past than men without a degree. This wasn't previously the case for women. However, the trend data for women has shifted in the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data from the 2006 census. Highly educated women are now also more likely to be married than women without university education.

Carol Nader summarised some of the key changes in an article in the AGE (7th April, 2008):
  • In 1996, women with post-school qualifications were less likely to have a partner in most age groups.
  • By 2001, this had started to change.
  • By 2006 a greater proportion of highly educated women had a partner than those with no qualifications.
  • This was most marked for those in their 30s. By 2006, 61% of women aged 30 to 34 with at least a degree were married, compared with just 53% of those with no post-school qualification.
  • The same trends have continued for women aged 35 to 39. 68% with at least a degree were married, compared with 60% of those who had no qualification. The trend continued for women in their 40s.

It is not clear what this might mean but it is interesting to speculate. Why is it that in an age where many women see marriage as a loss of freedom that those women with presumably the most freedom in secular terms are choosing to marry in larger numbers? Women with university degrees, presumably better employment prospects, and higher income who would be seen as in the best position to live independent lives are choosing marriage.

In a Radio National interview on the 8th April, Genevieve Heard, a research fellow at Monash University's Centre for Population and Urban Research, suggested that:

"What is surprising about these data, is that it's always been assumed that more educated women are at the vanguards of change, that they are rebels, if you like, with regard to traditional steps like getting married. In fact, these data show that they are in fact behaving that they are in fact behaving in a more conservative manner. It was as if those with the most choice in these situations are in fact choosing the most conservative route."

I'd like to think that more woment are discovering the joys of marriage and lifetime commitment, but I suspect this is not the case. My own take on this is that what is happening with marriage is linked to other trends with women, work and families. As women have tried to juggle education, careers and personal life, they have found it increasingly difficult to have everything. Women (and indeed couples) have delayed having children to establish careers, save for houses, travel etc. But now as increasing numbers of 'X' generation women have decided that it is time to have families they have sought security in their relationships. As a result, marriage is seen as a good option for educated women who seek some stability and security.

It seems likely to me that many women are adopting the type of economic approach to marriage talked about by Donald Hay and Gordon Menzies in Case #12. In the economic approach to marriage couples approach it as a set of business decisions to be made; they evaluate the best way to utilise their human capital for the purposes of child rearing, 'nest' building etc. They look for an efficient specialisation of their skills, resources and use of time for mutual benefit. The rise in the number of bizarre pre-nuptial agreements shows how extreme examples of this thinking has strange outcomes.

In contrast the Bible teaches that marriage is instead a covenant relationship where "the covenant reflects the 'inner' being of the couple" (Hay & Menzies 2007). The contractual economic approach to marriage is about two parties fulfilling their obligations for the mutual benefit of the partners, whereas the covenantal approach is about unqualified commitment to one another. Marriage in the biblical sense requires lifetime commitment "for better and worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part." The contractual approach seeks gains, benefits and efficiencies, whereas the covenantal approach starts with a deep commitment of self-giving love and is for life.

I hope that I'm wrong about these trends, but I suspect that I'm right.