Artists at risk of treason and sedition laws?
Image: Thanks to Nicholson Cartoons and Peter Nicholson.
Stop acting like an artist, and especially, stop critiquing Australian society if that includes the Howard government. You may be accused of Treason or Sedition. Some people already are, in underhand communication coming from the Prime Minister's office.
And so the story of the Kingdom of John Winston goes on ... the office of the Prime Minister received a letter this week. Of course the letter was one of probably tens of thousands of letters going through the mill of his dutiful staffers.
But alas - for some mysterious reason the letter, probably from one of Howard's staunchest supporters, found its way into the public arena. The 'passing on' of this letter raises a serious question: Why was this letter made public by the Prime Minister?
The letter referred to the artwork of Artist Michael Agzarian, more specifically, to a digital photo-montage he created, where the Prime Minister, former Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, and current Immigration Minister Senator Amanda Vanstone are depicted side-by-side with their lips stitched (see below).
So, someone in the Prime Minister's office passed on this letter on to the Department of The Arts. It was a clever move, because questions were raised about the funding that underpinned the exhibition that showed the digital montage. But rather than assume a link, the second question needs to be asked: What is the link between criticism of funding for an art exhibition and the type of art it displays, and if that art delivers a critique of government, should its funding than be influenced by that government?
Do not underestimate the treachery of this move. And above all, do not forget that it was the office of the Prime Minister, John Howard, who passed on this letter to the Department of the Arts.
Below is the ABC Report detailing the Michael Agzarian letter affair. The report is followed by an analysis of the trial of Christ by SMH reporter and lawyer David Marr, and an article about implications of the proposed sedition laws for artists, by Monash University's Faculty of Art and Design lecturer Robert Nelson.
ABC ONLINE NEWS
Friday, November 11, 2005. 12:23pm (AEDT)
Manipulated portraits of the Prime Minister and two of his senior ministers on display in a regional art gallery have been labelled treasonous but they will not be coming down. The digital images of John Howard, Attorney-General Philip Ruddock and Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone with their lips sewn up are on display at the Wagga Wagga Art Gallery.
Artist Michael Agzarian has been told the Prime Minister's office received a complaint alleging his works were treasonous. The complaint was referred to the Arts Department, which then contacted the gallery to ask if the show was government-funded. It was not funded by the Government but by the local council and Charles Sturt University (CSU).
Agzarian says the events are still a worry. "I suppose that's the part that a lot of people are concerned about, and so am I: that if there was an implication there was concern about the funding," he said. The Wagga gallery's manager says the complaint is the only one received about the images from 4,000 visitors to the exhibition of work by CSU staff members.
Agzarian says the images of Mr Howard, Mr Ruddock and Senator Vanstone were created to highlight the plight of refugees. "The idea came from my alarm at seeing actual detainees doing this to themselves," he said. "They get to a country and they're detained and I think injustly (sic) in a lot of cases, and I think these people are just speaking out."
Agzarian says the reaction from the department is concerning for freedom of expression in Australia. "It just seems ironic that this happened to myself," he said. "I was speaking out in response to my beliefs and my experience and someone takes offence to it.
"As I said, I don't want to blow things out of proportion but we've just got to keep en eye on it that these things don't happen slowly. "There's a sort of deterioration of things we take for granted here."
by David Marr
November 5, 2005
Christ would have little chance against the new sedition laws, writes David Marr. And look what happened to him.
THE stench that hangs around sedition cases goes way, way back to the greatest trial in our history, the one that has loomed over our world for a couple of millennia. "Anyone who is 'relaxed and comfortable' about the proposed anti-terrorism legislation might care to read Chapter 23 of Luke's Gospel," Canberra's auxiliary Catholic bishop Pat Power said this week.
"Jesus is dragged before Pilate accused of sedition. The trumped-up charges are laid but Pilate returns a not guilty verdict. The accusers become more insistent, so the cowardly Pilate orders a review, sending Jesus the Galilean off to be examined by Herod. The new trial simply shows up the shallowness of Herod's character.
"The upshot is Jesus' eventual crucifixion and two old enemies, Pilate and Herod, becoming good friends.
"It is amazing how anti-terrorism measures bring together unlikely allies!"
Christ's trial had in spades elements that would emerge time and again through the history of sedition trials: dodgy evidence, lies, duplicity, and a judge who goes with the mob knowing in his heart he's condemning an innocent but troublesome man.
Paul Barnett, former Anglican bishop of North Sydney and an ancient history lecturer at Macquarie University, says: "The gospels all agree, Christ was crucified as King of the Jews. So sedition and treason were the presenting cause for the Romans to crucify Jesus of Nazareth."
Note the presenting cause: What makes Christ's the prototype of so many trials that followed was the use of sedition as a device for persecution. The underlying offence for which Christ was arrested and tried by the Sanhedrin on the night of April 6 in AD30 (approximately) was blasphemy. But as they explained to Pilate next morning: "It is not lawful for us to put any man to death."
That's when they started accusing Christ of sedition, saying: "We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, saying that he himself is Christ a King." (Luke 23:2)
The accusation played on two Roman fears. The first was the fear of another tax revolt like the one that erupted a few years after Christ's birth, when Judea first became a Roman province. The second was a fear that this man was trying to displace the local king.
How would Christ fare in Australia? The Goverment has promised to look at its sedition provisions again, but as they stand now, Christ could be charged under section 80.2(1) as a person who "urges another person to overthrow by force or violence: (a) the Constitution; or (b) the Government of the Commonwealth, a State or a Territory; or (c) the lawful authority of the Government of the Commonwealth". Violence isn't the key; preaching is enough.
The Apostles would be in trouble too. Section 30A(1) would see them charged as members of an unlawful "body of persons which advocates or encourages the carrying out of a seditious intention". Again, there need be no violent outcome to their teaching. Sedition is merely the crime of urging. That peace continues to reign in the nation is no defence.
No exchange between accused and judge is more famous than Christ's reply to Pilate's question "Art thou the King of the Jews?" He answered: "My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence." (John 18:36)
Convinced by this, Pilate went out to the crowd and declared: "I find in him no fault at all." But the crowd was not satisfied.
For the past few centuries, convictions for sedition have depended on proof of intention. Sedition had to be deliberate, although this is not the case under the Government's counter-terrorism proposals. What gives them their reach is the plan to convict preachers, for instance, for being reckless about the impact of their words. Penalty: imprisonment for seven years.
Christ had it worse. Several times Pilate tried to release him, but each time the crowd begged for his execution. With the polls against him and threats in the air, Pilate buckled. "Then delivered he him therefore unto them to be crucified. And they took Jesus, and led him away."
Down the centuries, the sedition laws would deliver many martyrdoms. Daniel Defoe and Ben Jonson were imprisoned for sedition. Moliere's play Tartuffe was banned for sedition. Robert Burns was so rattled by threats of sedition that he wrote his political verse under another name. The American rebels attached First Amendment guarantees of free speech to their new constitution to overcome the law of sedition.
Mahatma Gandhi spent years in the slammer for sedition. It was always the favoured weapon the British used against independence fighters. A generation later, Joe McCarthy turned sedition laws against the American left. Among the charges Nelson Mandela faced was sedition.
Sedition's use in Australia has been just as political. Peter Lalor and his followers at the Eureka Stockade were charged with sedition and the editor of the Ballarat Times was found guilty of sedition for praising the revolt and spent three months in prison.
Australia wheeled out sedition laws to break the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) in World War I and to imprison communist union officials such as Lance Sharkey after World War II. Sedition charges were even laid in Queensland against anti-Vietnam War demonstrators in the 1960s.
Setting out this "long and undignified" story at a meeting this week to protest John Howard's proposals, lawyer Chris Connolly put it in a nutshell: "The clear lesson from the history of sedition laws is that they are used routinely by oppressive regimes, or are used by more liberal regimes at times of great national stress.
"Their use is nearly always the subject of considerable regret at a later date."
by Robert Nelson
November 12, 2005
The society which constrains its artists will be the poorer writes Robert Nelson.
I don't want the honour of being the first Australian to end up in jail over the contents of an artwork. I'm the official supervisor of a graduate student who created a devastating satire of Australia's involvement in the war in Iraq.
In a series of paintings exhibited at Flinders Street railway station during the war, Anurendra Jegadeva interpreted reportage of the Iraqi invasion of Melbourne. According to his pictures, the foreign military operation had penetrated as far as Box Hill and Glen Waverley.
Under the proposed laws on sedition, a witty artist like Jegadeva could be suspected of deliberately undermining Australia's foreign security measures.
His satire comes perilously close to a literal definition of sedition, which means any form of communication intended to provoke rebellion against government authority. Under infamous regimes that worried about sedition in the past, people were executed for much less than deploying the content of such paintings.
The false reportage in the work denounces the first-world attack on Iraq. For the forces on the front, it mischievously and insidiously represents our military involvement as unfair as opposed to necessary. This intentional subversive denigration of Australian security is mildly seditious.
You know - and I know - that it's totally harmless and in fact very funny. But with only a small change of mood, Jegadeva could be seen as "urging disaffection against the Government of the Commonwealth" which has been put forward as seditious in the new provisions of the law.
According to the proposed Schedule 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Bill 2005 which handles sedition, the prosecution could establish that the work is "for a purpose intended to be prejudicial to the safety or defence of the Commonwealth".
A person commits an offence if assisting, "by any means whatever, an organisation or country at war with the Commonwealth". And of course the nation is perpetually at war with terror.
If accused, the artist would have to prove himself innocent. It all sounds pretty scary.
Many people in the arts are concerned. The National Association of the Visual Arts (NAVA) is anxious that the proposed legislation may jeopardise freedom of expression and artistic action.
It believes that the Government has failed to demonstrate a need for its new sedition laws and argues that the laws "will affect unfairly painters, cartoonists and other visual artists (as well as journalists) who have nothing to do with terrorism".
It wants to remove the sedition clauses from the bill or at least ensure that artistic statements are specifically excluded as grounds for prosecution.
Jegadeva's intentions are not seditious to any degree but enlightened and humorous. But artists run special risks when they enter the political domain.
They can't automatically assume the defence of freedom of speech because they don't have a simple message and their work isn't simply a matter of opinion.
Their political messages are tricky - they deceive your expectations with slightly fraudulent words or images, till you realise the satirical intention. They wreak a kind of semiotic mischief where sensitivities run high.
Suppose a person simply says: "I don't think that we should wage war on Iraq, After all, the Iraqis aren't invading us." It's clearly not seditious but only a matter of opinion. Even in times of war, a person has the right to be a pacifist and urge the nation to seek a diplomatic solution to armed conflict.
But artists can't easily adopt that economical and logical voice. A simple humanitarian call for peace doesn't make for art; and you don't look to artists to express common sense, even when you hope that they might bring something heartfelt to something morally necessary. It's either going to be bland or pompous.
If the artist elaborates - as if rolling out an essay on the theme - you feel that it's no longer art.
Art is about animating ideas. It gives you a way of feeling about things, possibly things that you already know or think you know, but through paradoxes that you don't know.
Your position on Australia's defence policy may never change as a result of looking at an artwork and you probably wouldn't entrust your moral or political outlook to an artist, even if the artist wanted to thrust one upon you. You don't go to a gallery to learn about current affairs, even though some contemporary works touch on topical themes.
Artists hate the idea of preaching towards any kind didactic purpose. They have no interest in the mantle of instructor and think of teaching the public as pedantic and patronising.
It's true that many artists engage with ideology and produce poignant works, full of dialectic and moral indignation. But it's never simple.
Even when sharp and angry, their work is always slightly puzzling, enigmatic, maybe a bit capricious or bizarre. For the public, it's easy to get the wrong idea.
Even when they have a lot to complain about, artists hardly ever come across as righteous. They seldom unequivocally campaign for a specific ideological purpose. Yet often, their works are tinged with subversion and iconoclasm.
Subversion differs from sedition, because it applies to any institution, not just the Commonwealth Government in times of threat. Subversion is closely allied to blasphemy, because it ridicules some pompous institutional framework and seeks to undermine the conceptual stranglehold that the institution has.
An example is Tom Forsythe in the US, whose deprecating images of Barbie got him into strife with the aggressive legal department of Mattel Inc, the wealthy owner of the Barbie trademark.
In another age, Damien Hirst would have been burnt at the stake. His work The Last Supper, currently on display at the NGV International is blasphemous. It's also very amusing and slightly tragic. It consists of 12 mural-size prints resembling the labels used for prescription drugs.
Hirst enlarges these designs and tampers grotesquely with the pharmacology. The popular brand names are in fact normal household foodstuffs, chicken, mushroom, omelette and so on.
The manufacturer is presented with snazzy credible logos: "Hirst" or "Hirst Damien" and the like. It then occurs to you that the pills are a food substitute, which confounds food with eating disorders or dietary trauma and the elimination of mealtimes.
The work becomes subversive when you contemplate the title. The Last Supper makes a conscious allusion to the Lord's table, when Christ announced to his 12 disciples that he was going to be betrayed and killed. This is the ritual of the Eucharist or Holy Communion, which is repeated each Sunday in church.
By restaging this awesome rite Hirst apparently damages two powerful institutions, the one religious and the other scientific or commercial. Confounding the two incommensurable systems yields diabolical insight.
In the sacred ceremony, a mysterious transformation of the foodstuffs occurs through the agency of the Holy Ghost. By the invocation by the priest, the elements are transubstantiated, so that they become symbolically akin to Christ's body and blood.
When Hirst identifies this mighty sacramental agency with the materialist bathos of pill-popping for weight loss or culinary laziness, he achieves a double insult.
First, the sacramental and sentimental moment of Christ's last meal is seen as the basis of contemporary fantasies of converting food to something more salutary than an ordinary meal. And second, the pharmaceutical industry that profits from making life more and more artificial is projected as deeply unscientific.
You can't create that kind of conceptual electricity with words alone. It needs an artist to invent the idea and use the imagination naughtily, at the risk of being a bit offensive to good citizens.
Artists have this unique privilege and use it wisely. If they lose the confidence to manipulate the truth towards subversive ends, we are the poorer and our society the more stupid.
The Last Supper by Damien Hirst is in BritPrint, at the NGV International.