SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's cozy affair with the nation's arts community, in particular Hollywood actress Cate Blanchett, has hit a rocky patch over an exhibition of naked photographs of young girls.
Blanchett and 42 other leading arts figures have signed an open letter critical of Rudd for describing artist Bill Henson's photographs of naked 12 and 13-year-old children as "revolting."
Police shut down Henson's exhibition at a Sydney art gallery last week and confiscated 20 of his photographs as part of an investigating into whether charges should be laid.
The police raid sparked a heated debate in Australia over what is art and what is pornography and has seen the arts community, which publicly backed Rudd's Labor party ahead of its November election victory, turn on the prime minister for supporting censorship in the arts.
"The potential prosecution of one of our most respected artists is no way to build a Creative Australia and does untold damage to our cultural reputation," said the letter, which was addressed to Australia's environment minister and the premier of New South Wales state.
"We should remember that an important index of social freedom, in earlier times or in repressive regimes elsewhere in the world, is how artists and art are treated by the state."
The letter is signed by Blanchett, whom Rudd visited in hospital only days after the birth of her latest baby in April and whom Rudd invited to Canberra to take part in his national 2020 conference on Australia's future. Other signatories include Nobel winning writer John Coetzee.
"We wish to make absolutely clear that none of us endorses, in any way, the abuse of children," they said. "Henson's work has nothing to do with child pornography and, according to the judgment of some of the most respected curators and critics in the world, it is certainly art."
The arts community called on Rudd to rethink his comments about Henson's work, but Rudd stood by his criticism.
"I gave my reaction, I stand by that reaction and I don't apologize for it and I won't be changing it," Rudd told reporters in Canberra on Wednesday. "I am passionate about children having innocence in their childhood."
The letter also called on Arts Minister Peter Garrett, once the lead singer of Australian rock band Midnight Oil, "to stand up for artists against a trend of encroaching censorship."
"This action will encourage a repressive climate of hysterical condemnation, backed by the threat of prosecution," it said.
"We are already seeing troubling signs in the pre-emptive self-censorship of some galleries. This is not the hallmark of an open democracy nor of a decent and civilized society."
Editing by Alex Richardson