The Sensible Sentencing Trust and the art of portraiture

The opinions of the Sensible Sentencing Trust feature prominently in the news yet again. This time the big-business media are turning to their favourite advocacy group to solicit their opinions on art.

One of the images from Jono Rotman's exhibition at the Gow Langsford Gallery

One of the images from Jono Rotman’s exhibition at the Gow Langsford Gallery

When an exhibition opened in Auckland of photographic portraits of members of the Mongrel Mob, the Trust sensed this was a matter for them to handle. They had done their homework. They had discovered that one of the men portrayed in the exhibition was due to appear on a murder charge in a month’s time.

And that’s as good as a conviction, as far as the Sensible Sentencing Trust is concerned. Never overly concerned with little matters like the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty, the Trust swung into action, fully supported by the fawning media.

“An art gallery is facing a backlash for showing an art exhibition of gang members, including one charged with murder. The family of the man shot dead is outraged,” began a report on TV1 news April 29.

“Why are we making heroes out of this subculture that is not a socially acceptable culture? It’s disgraceful,” says Ruth Money, for the Sensible Sentencing Trust, in the report. The Trust’s Facebook page invited supporters to bombard the art gallery’s Facebook page with comments denouncing the exhibition.

Bull Chief, Apsaroke (Crow), ca. 1908. (Library of Congress Edward S. Curtis)

Bull Chief, Apsaroke (Crow), ca. 1908. (Library of Congress Edward S. Curtis)

In the days before the invention of photography, the European art of portraiture was largely limited to portraying kings and queens, military generals, landowners and other very wealthy individuals, and similar ‘socially acceptable cultures.’ In those times, the social function of portraiture was indeed to bestow hero status on the individuals portrayed – and only those with sufficient funds to employ an artist could buy this status.

That changed with the popularisation of photography about 150 years ago. Suddenly, pictorial images became relatively cheap and quick to create. Photographic portrait artists were not limited in their choice of subjects to the well-fed faces of the moneyed classes. They could, and very soon did, turn their lenses on a wider array of humanity. For the first time in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, images began to appear of people from the labouring classes and non-European peoples. Photographers set out to capture these faces never before seen in art, and bring them to a wider public. In doing so, they created a priceless historic and artistic record and opened a whole new field of portraiture.

Head of a peasant in a peaked cap (1885) Van Gogh

Head of a peasant in a peaked cap (1885) Van Gogh

Such was the interest created by these images that painters too got in on the act, and created some very fine paintings – some heavily influenced by photographs, or making use of photographs in the process – of individuals other than the European ruling classes.

Tahitian woman and boy (1899) Gauguin

Tahitian woman and boy (1899) Gauguin

Courbet, Millet, Van Gogh and others painted portraits of ordinary peasants and workers. Gauguin painted Tahitians.

Ena Te Papatahi of Ngapuhi (1902) C.F.Goldie

Ena Te Papatahi of Ngapuhi (1902) C.F.Goldie

In New Zealand, the foremost example of this phenomenon in painting was the work of Charles F Goldie, whose portraits of Maori rangatira and others at the nadir of Maori history are valued today as a historic record (despite the various contrivances introduced by Goldie to bolster his depiction of the ‘dying race.’)

As the subjects of portraits changed, so too did the social function of portraiture. No longer concerned exclusively with aggrandising the status of the ruling class, the artistic content of portraiture, and photographic portraiture in particular, increasingly became the commonality of all human beings. Portraiture became democratised – to a certain degree – both in its choice of subjects and in its appeal to a wider public.

These are developments that the Sensible Sentencing Trust have not yet caught up with. Either that, or they yearn for a return to the old days of portraiture, where the subjects of portraits were exclusively ruling class ‘heroes.’ In any case, as the old saying goes, any old stick will do to beat a dog, and the Trust is well-practised in using a variety of old sticks to flog their reactionary campaigns.

The Sensible Sentencing Trust (SST) was set up by Hawkes Bay businessman Garth McVicar in 2001 to campaign for harsher sentences, reduced eligibility for parole, and especially, curtailing the right to bail for persons accused of crimes.

They specialise in contacting families of murder victims and other people who have been victims of violent crimes, and drawing them into their campaigns. Thus the family of Christie Marceau, tragically killed in 2011 by a man later acquitted of her murder on the grounds of insanity, became the front people for the SST’s “Christie’s Law” campaign, which sought to restrict the right to bail.  Ken and Rita Croskery, parents of Michael Choy, a pizza-delivery worker murdered in 2001 by a gang of young people, attended numerous hearings over more than a decade to oppose parole for each of the six people jailed for the attack, as part of the SST’s campaign to tighten eligibility for parole.

The Trust is sometimes presented as a campaign for ‘law and order,’ but this is not accurate. From the beginning they have supported vigilante justice, arguing that the normal legal protections are putting ‘the rights of criminals’ above the rights of society. The Trust began with protests against the conviction of Mark Middleton for threatening to kill the man who had murdered his step-daughter. They are presently campaigning for a register of sex offenders to be made publicly available, to enable on-going vigilante hounding of people convicted of sex offences after they are released from prison.

The pro-vigilante character of the organisation was most clearly revealed by their campaign around the case of the murdered teenager Pihema Cameron, a 15-year-old Maori youth. Cameron and another boy had been tagging a garage door belonging to businessman Bruce Emery in January 2008. Emery armed himself with a knife and chased the youths more than 300 metres down the street, before stabbing Cameron and killing him. Emery was charged with murder, but convicted of manslaughter, and served only two years in jail before being released on parole.

In this case, McVicar and the SST campaigned for leniency towards the killer. “I didn’t think he should have gone to jail,” he said when welcoming Emery’s early release on parole. Emery was a “different type of offender… That young offender [Pihema] had been doing graffiti before and Emery had been becoming extremely frustrated with it.”

By a curious transformation, the victim in this crime became “the offender” in the eyes of the SST, in order to justify their support for the vigilante.

One can only feel the deepest sympathy for the victims of violent crimes and their families who are caught up in this situation. Their terrible grief is hard enough to bear in the first place – without the Sensible Sentencing Trust feeding on it, cynically manipulating it, and then drawing it out over years of parole board hearings and press appearances in pursuit of their reactionary, anti-working class goals. The SST itself bears the responsibility for the continuous re-victimisation of the victims of violence.

Among the comments in the heated discussions on various Facebook pages relating to this exhibition there are a few calls for vigilante actions against the gallery, very few noting the pernicious role of the SST in inflaming the discussion, but many noting the merits of the exhibition and defending the right of the gallery to hold it.

Historian Paul Moon, in his opinion piece which defends the decision of the gallery not to censor the exhibition, compares the images with the work of Charles Goldie. This comparison rings true to me, although not quite in the same sense as Moon intends. The images resemble Goldie paintings not only in the same careful, ‘painterly’ composition, but also in the attitude of dignity – combined with a certain air of resignation – that the subjects demonstrate. And in Goldie’s time, there would likewise have been many among the colonial population who saw in his subjects nothing but a bunch of savages and murderers.

 

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2 responses to “The Sensible Sentencing Trust and the art of portraiture

  1. Thanks for another thoughtful piece. Not sure if you knew Lisa Ahlberg (my companion and wife for almost 30 years). She is a portrait photographer (when she is not working 50+ hours a week building airplanes for the Boeing company). I thought you might enjoy her web site: http://www.lisaahlberg.com

    • Thanks, Geoff. I had a look at the portraits on Lisa’s website – they are terrific. The only time I ever took serious photographs myself was back in the days of monochrome, so I especially like those ones. I hope there will be more in the series of portraits of her workmates. Is there any way she would be able to take her camera inside the Boeing factory and get some photos of her workmates on the job? There is a strange dearth of photographs of workers actually working – I guess this reflects the lack of interest in the subject among those who control access to the factories. I have sometimes thought that if you wanted to make a living from selling photos, that would be a good place to start, because when the strike battles start, there will be a demand, and you’d have a monopoly on the supply! Back in the days when factory security was lax, I took my camera into the meatworks where I worked and took some of my best ever photos of individual meat workers as they worked. I looked for them recently when I was designing a cover for the Ebook version of my novel – but somewhere along the way I have lost almost all of them. It’s a real pity, even from a historical point of view – because a lot of those jobs have completely disappeared (i.e. have been mechanised) now.

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