Shocking people is an artistic stock in trade. But how much licence to offend do artists have, asks Susan Edmunds

Artist Lester Hall doesn't think of himself as particularly controversial. In his hometown of Kerikeri in the Bay of Islands, he's just the painter with the weird beard, driving around town in his old dunger of an MX5.

He's painted raunchy images of Queen Elizabeth and made a career out of riling the art establishment. Hall says art patron Dame Jenny Gibbs detests his work so much she wrote to him telling him what a "prick" he is. The letter is now framed and hangs on the wall of his home.

His latest target is high-roller Eric Watson, the former Hanover Finance co-owner, who is caricatured in colonial dress, beneath a sub-heading "Ngatimotherf******" with another, legally risky, word emblazoned across his nose.


The Herald on Sunday in no way agrees with the artist's opinion.

Hall says he painted Mofo, as the Watson artwork is named, to vent his anger at finance company bigwigs. It is a response to Hone Harawira's now infamous email about "white motherf*****".

"I'm just saying: Is Eric Watson the type of white motherf***** you're talking about? We're not all like that."

The prints are on display at galleries across the country and have created quite a stir, according to Hall. He is selling them for between $275 and $750, and says that there are no limits on the print run.

Watson, the Warriors club co-owner, laughed off the painting yesterday.

"There's no legal basis or truth to this artwork at all. Actually I would struggle to call anything with my mug on it art and I'm at a loss as to why someone would want this on their wall, let alone pay money for it."

The statements on the painting are provocative, and artists do seem to have more leeway than most people when it comes to this sort of thing.

However, Dr Peter Shand, a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland's Elam School of Fine Arts, says though artists can flex their creative muscle to say things that would land others in court, cases of defamation-via-art are not unheard of. They are rare, because of the cost involved and the shallow pockets of many artists.

The closest he can recall is when the comedy show McPhail and Gadsby was taken to court over a satirical sketch about art being bought by Te Papa. Broker Hamish Keith took exception to the insinuation that the price of the artwork had gone up during his negotiation of the purchase.

Shand says the main focus of public ire over art is the way taxpayer money is spent on frivolous works. It was a popular topic with politicians, such as Michael Laws who complained about the use of ratepayer money at the Sarjeant Gallery in Wanganui.

Starting a conversation - or an argument - with an artwork is not new. Art has been the topic of controversies ranging from the dispute over a now-innocuous Frances Hodgkins painting that was turned down by Christchurch Art Gallery in the 1940s, through to anger at $500,000 of Creative NZ funding being used to send an artwork called Rapture - and later dubbed the Donkey in a Dunny - to the Venice Biennale in 2005.

Shand says other controversies are more broadly about what art is, and are a matter of taste or perspective; things like the Virgin in a Condom, which caused a stir at Te Papa, and a portrait of infamous Moors murderer Myra Hindley, which was attacked twice by Britons.

Shand's students often create deliberately controversial art to start a conversation. "Art ought to be about completely free expression but that becomes very testing territory quite quickly. It's all very well to have an idea of a completely free expressive field but how does society respond to that when it is at the expense of an individual's reputation?"

Thomas Biss, director of law firm Henderson Reeves, agrees artists such as Hall could not use the fact they were being creative as a defence.

"Freedom of expression is not a right to defame. The fact that something is funny, relevant, artistic or topical does not stop it being defamatory. It is a question about what something is saying. The complexity with defamation, and with art in particular, is that something can have several meanings on several layers. So a literal meaning might be true, but there can be a slur or second meaning, which is clear to some, which is defamatory."

Shand says galleries do remove work, but he still thinks it's positive that people care enough to complain.

Hall says he's trying to spark debate so he can't be "too vanilla", even if he's not being deliberately antagonistic. He has no plans to tone down what he is doing, no matter the reaction to it.

But he has no lofty ambitions of being seen as high art, or really of properly joining this country's art scene.

"I'm not a shaman painting groovy things I don't have to explain. It's about bringing ideas, not to be controversial but to say: this idea's daft. Or am I the only one thinking that? That might be controversial ... I don't know."

The work does sell, Hall says, although some galleries keep it "out the back", not wanting to upset conservative clientele. He's painted Captain Cook as a tattoo-ed Captain Kirk, and Sir Edmund Hillary with the words "tangata whenua" on his face, a comment on one of his favourite themes - that you don't have to be Maori to be part of this country.

Some of his work is reminiscent of Dick Frizzell's paintings, appropriating Maori symbols, something that raised hackles in the 1990s and concerns about the commodification of Maori design. Whatever he is doing, it's clear Hall likes the attention.

Five art controversies
The Pleasure Garden, by Frances Hodgkins

These days, art lovers would see it as a harmless watercolour but at the end of the 1940s it was seen as a "difficult painting", a bit too surrealist. It was decided that purchasing the painting wasn't good use of public money, and the Christchurch Art Gallery declined to buy it. But members of the public bought it for the gallery.

Rapture, by

A donkey toilet installation titled Rapture sparked an outcry in 2004 when Creative New Zealand stumped up $500,000 to get it to the Venice Biennale the following year. The media labelled the work Donkey in a Dunny and the public demanded to know its merits. When the anti-nuclear themes were explained, the argument died down.

Please Walk on Me, Diane Prince

The veteran Maori activist and artist's installation of a New Zealand flag on the floor of the New Gallery in Auckland in 1995 was deemed illegal by the police. The work has since been installed at other galleries in the city with less outcry.

Urewera Mural, Colin McCahon

The $2 million mural was stolen from the Aniwaniwa centre by Tuhoe activists. Dame Jenny Gibbs negotiated with Tame Iti and Te Kaha for its return and said it was a lesson in how it felt to have taonga stolen.

Goldie forgeries, by Karl Sim

After being fined $1000 for his forgeries of artists such as Goldie, Rita Angus and Colin McCahon, Foxton artist Karl Sim changed his name by deed poll to CF Goldie so he could legitimately sign his artworks.