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Australia to look at applying classification ratings to art galleries

BlogAustralia, the land of censorship. Or is it? For me, this is a part of normal life, with every form of conceivable media being rated by one board or another. Other countries (the United States specifically) seem to look down on our nation like we're run by some form of liberty destroying robots. Yet here we are at the crossroads; art galleries are now possibly going to have classification law setup.

At the moment, media is classified, and in cases were stronger impact is found legally restricted to people over certain ages. For those of you who live in other countries, I'll give a bit of a summary (which may eem complicated - that's because it is).

The Classification Board (and Classification Review Board when a review is called) slap ratings on most forms of media in Australia. Formerly known as the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC), the board dispenses creamy bowls of restriction on films, computer games and some publications in addition to material and websites submitted by our Customs and Border Protection Service and the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) respectively.1 There is a substantial and vague law behind the body: the National Classification Code (May 20052. This all falls under the Attorney-General's department and is applied on a federal level (which is why we have so much trouble in changing the law to include an adult's only rating for videogames, but that's another tirade for later). The board is government appointed but ran somewhat independently from the government. Their decisions on media can prevent a given title from legally being sold, hired or advertised in our borders (as well as being legally imported). If the government doesn't like a decision the Attorney-General and lodge an appeal on behalf of the public, however in theory if the Review Board finds the title is still legal (in theory) that's the end of the debate. The board Refuses Classification (RC) to any title breaching our guidelines, which includes extreme (and by extreme, I mean pretty extreme) violence, sexual violence of high impact, child pornography and various sexual fetishes, among other things. The vast majority of titles that fall into this category are publications or media that isn't normally sold in this country and is picked up as Customs - it needs to be placed under the RC category to make it illegal to import. I have no problem with most of this - my issue is more at the lack of an adult's only rating for games, but again, that's for another day.

Free-to-air commercial television is similarly rated by networks based on the FreeTV Industry Code of Practice3. The ABC has their own code4 as does SBS5. Anything rated 'C' (children's) and P (preschool) must be officially rated by ACMA due to various legal restrictions on the types of advertising allowed during these programs. Subscription television (pay TV) has yet another code6 as well. Sounds complicated? You'd be right! To make it that bit more complicated that we all need, television advertisements are looked after by the Advertising Standards Bureau who maintain a number of their own codes7. These include guidelines (meant to be in line with community expectations) about what is and is not acceptable, as well as things such as 'drink responsibly' being plastered on ads for alcohol.

Music in Australia is rated by the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) and Australian Music Retailers' Association (AMRA) who slap on yet again another code8 for music. These again are able to restrict the sale of music to adult's only when the content is strong enough.

Finally, ACMA also maintains a code around internet and mobile content9.

Now that I've explained all that I can get to the latest development in our ever-changing nation of government media censorship; art. According to, a Senate commitee view of national classification is recommending that controversial artwork should be treated the same as other forms of media (as above) and have the appropriate ratings applied. They linked an older article about Bill Henson's very controversial art exhibition which displayed naked photographs of underage children. Debate is now raging on this topic, with Paul Greenaway (who runs an art gallery) arguing that art is seen "within context".

I think there's little evidence to support such a draconian approach - a one size fits all. It seems it's bureaucracy out of control.10

  • Art Gallery of SA director Nick Mitzevich

Clearly the art community isn't happy with this. They are arguing about the lack of evidence; their liberal view is strongly opposed to a government with too much power. This is the delicate balance that Australian politics is struggling to find the best spot to be in every single day; we are a liberal-democracy. We must balance the needs of the individual, their freedoms and their lives to be left away from the government controlling every little aspect. Yet without democracy perhaps life would be in chaos - to some extent we need a group of elected inviduals to rule with the majority view and run the nation effectively.

Between all sorts of cultural productions there are similarities, but the way the work is seen and understood is really very different.11

  • National Association of Visual Arts Executive Director Tamara Winikoff.

Funny that, that's the argument used by those who oppose and adult's only rating for videogames. People argue that as games are more interactive and therefore the violence contained within them is of stronger impact. The art community argues their form of art is different within context, and the way one engages in traditional art is different to screen media or written publications. Is this snobbery? Is this elitism? Is this just an industry desperate to be the last bastion of human creativity not ruled by our elected overlords?

This has wider implications too, what about high school students in art classes? If an exhibition was restricted students would not be able to attend, even if it was for educational reasons. The government is therefore potentially limiting the exposure of our budding artists to inspiration. Will schools be outlawed from displaying and teaching on restricted work? Where does it end?

I've read a lot of comments over the last few years, particularly in the United States where people elsewhere in the world cannot comprehend our rating systems. This isn't about its complexity (which I fully understand just about anyone not following) but about its ability to resrict what media we can engage. I've grown up knowing I'm not meant to watch certain films until I was older, knowing that certain late night violent television shows are not meant to be watched by me. To me this is normal - very normal. Yet now as an adult I find myself in a country increasingly reliant on censoring media; there are games I cannot legally play here. There are films being banned that aren't morally abhorrent, there is now talk of a voluntary internet filter being setup with the country's largest Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to ban various websites from lists not made public by ACMA. Now there's this.

I think it’s dangerous... it’s the start of danger when you have a government effectively saying, this is what we will allow you to see, and this is what we will not allow you to see. Fortunately they have very little power these days because we can see anything we want… as long as we’re prepared to break the law. And what you’re doing is turning people into criminals.

I'm not a big art fan, I don't regularly go to art exhibitions but I don't want to see creativity stifiled by a government keen to tell everyone exactly how to behave. There's another somewhat similar debate raging at the moment with plain packaging for cigarettes, with the government asserting that packets (which mind you are already not able to be shown at the counter in supermarkets) will be less attractive and make health warnings somehow even more prominent (despite full colour ads on the back with various disgusting images of health problems caused by the product). There's a large debate about this as well - with some arguing the government are going too far in trying to control what people do. The tobacco giants argue that illicit trade, trademark rights and a lack of evidence in support of the change are the main three problems.

I don't smoke, but I am starting to question whether this move and others being made towards tighter legal restrictions on the way adults live their lives are really the right direction we should be taking as a nation. How long will it be before we have electronic devices strapped to our wrists that go off when we do something 'not in line with community expectations'. Personally, if someone, somewhere in Australia really really wanted to check out the "gay zombie porn" in L.A. Zombie in 2010's Melbourne Film Festival, my expectation is that they went in and watched it. They couldn't though; it was the first film banned at the festival since Ken Park in 2003 (keeping in mind that normally the festival does not actually have to have any title rated)12. I don't really care what people do in their homes to an extent. Films and other media such as these harm no one, while I don't really want to watch it I don't care in the slightest if there are people that do. As long as I don't have to watch it with then, there's no harm done to me at all. It's about time we got to have choice back into our Australian lives.

Alex Williams has taken undergraduate classes in cinema studies and politics, and despite no longer continuing to do so at this point in time likes to rant about things related to these (especially both) that he finds stupid in Australia. When he's not wondering why he's not legally allowed to play Mortal Kombat he's very busy with his Nintendo 3DS. He is interested how long even that will stay legal to play due to the possibility his eyes will explode from the new 3D effects.


  1. Classification Board

  2. National Classification Code (May 2005)

  3. FreeTV Industry Code of Practice

  4. ABC Code of Practice

  5. SBS Code of Practice

  6. Subscription Broadcast Television - Codes of Practice 2007

  7. 'Codes we Administer' - Advertising Standard Bureau

  8. Labelling Code of Practice For Recorded Music Product Containing Potentially Offensive Lyrics and/or Themes

  9. Internet Industry Codes of Practice - Codes for Industry Co-Regulation in Areas of Internet and Mobile Content (pursuant to the requirements of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992)



  12. The Age

  • Posted by Alex

Australia to look at applying classification ratings to art galleries


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