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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

Bill Henson: conservatism as farce « Previous | |Next »
May 24, 2008

I'm a bit stunned by the reaction of Sydney conservatives and others to the photographic work of Bill Henson that was to have be shown at the Roslyn Oxley 9 Gallery in Sydney. Stunned because some of the populist conservatives are even saying that it is wrong to have pictures of naked children both in an exhibition in art gallery and on the gallery's website; and that the parent who gave consent to the kids modelling for Henson should be disciplined. It's weird.

HensonB.jpg Bill Leak

The critics say that the offensive photos constitute a crime and so we will have another obscenity trial with lawyers abound in Australia. The position of the moral conservatives implies that Henson's intention was to create pornography not art, even though the work was hung in a commercial art gallery, and that the parents colluded.

Does not the existence of the exhibition show that the photographs had been produced and used for a genuine artistic purpose. How else are you going to judge intent?

It's a farce What would be truly awful or obscene is that photographs are deemed obscene---ie., a jury or magistrate---decides that they are pornography, and the photographs are then destroyed.

I notice that The Australian, that bastion and defender of Australian conservatism, is sitting on the fence:

Many, including Kevin Rudd, find the images offensive. Sadly, they could already have been viewed by internet pedophiles. Others are not offended and would point to the works' undoubted artistic merit and to equally explicit images of emerging teenage sexuality in classical art. Either opinion is valid. But the row raises questions about when individuals should be restricted from viewing material of their choice. Child safety is paramount, and striking the proper balance between prudent protection and repressive panic is a fine line.

Either opinion is valid, the editorial says. That claim implies that the judgements that the works are porn or art are both valid. I thought that The Australian was absolutely opposed to this kind moral relativism? Didn't it belt up the Left over its alleged moral relativism in the culture wars for over a decade on this issue? It's a farce.

Update: May 25
Kevin Donnelly says in The Sunday Age that:

Presenting young girls in such a vulnerable and voyeuristic way is especially wrong given the way children's sexuality is being commodified and exploited in advertising, marketing and popular culture....While I have not seen the photographs in question, a number have been reproduced in the print media. It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but most viewers, I think, would agree that images of naked, under-age girls, silhouetted and standing provocatively are unacceptable.

Note the slide from art to advertising. How is this work wrong if it is a critique of the way that children's sexuality is being commodified and exploited in advertising, marketing and popular culture? Shouldn't this interpretation be considered given modern art's strong tradition as a critique of the values of the capitalist market?

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 11:18 PM | | Comments (12)


Catharine Lumley's piece on the same page of The Sunday Age presents the opposing view, that it is art, and points (correctly in my view) to commercial depictions of tweens in fashion catalogs being more of a worry (as well as the dangers of "The Sound of Music" film.

I'd add that art (since the Greeks) recognizes the "artiness" of the "agon" - the point of maximum effort and change, which could easily apply to the changes of form in teenagers.

Consider too that Donatello's
is not that different from Henson's work, having a much younger body than Michelangelo's, and considered by Mary McCarthy (author of "Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood") as a "transvetite's and fetishist's dream".

If the process (parental approval) for the shoots was above reproach, and the photos seem to be more about light and shade rather than titillating (except perhaps, to those who are closet paedophiles) then the fuss may even be counterproductive.

the fuss is a bit more than censorship as the police are taking the pictures for evidence in a criminal case. Whether the State needs to protect the public from Henson's images is a different issue from whether someone was harmed without their legal consent in the making of the work.

C’mon Bill, next you’ll be singing the praises of Jeff Koons and his “artwork” Made in Heaven featuring his wife Ilona Staller. Or maybe you’re still in a rapturous mood following the purchase by the Tate Gallery of the canned faeces of Piero Manzoni (price paid was £22,300). The breakdown was £745 per gram which would have exceeded the price paid for Mr Manzoni’s faeces if they were 24-carat gold.

Art Bill, not trash and tosh.

Rumpole QC
So one strand of the conservative attack on Henson is that he stands for modern art (Modernist or postmodernist is unclear) and that a lot of this art in the art institution is trash. That is what Kevin Donnelly argued.

The other strand, from what I can make of the various comments on junk for code is that it is the publicly exhibited nakedness of a child per se that is considered to give these images a sexual nature.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the photo’s of a naked child might for some be seen appropriate for the purpose of art where as to others it might be deemed offensive. To Adolf Hitler it was right what others held to be wrong (The killing of so many). We have a television commercial with nude babies. We have Government advertising with “Bloody idiot” and as such we seem to have views as to what might be acceptable/proper pending who does what, etc.
Some parents would be willing to exploit their child for anything and therefore we do have a Court system to adjudicate what is to be deemed acceptable by society within applicable laws.
If “art” trespasses the boundaries of community standards, being it that they are enshrined in legislative prohibitions or otherwise, then like it or not we must resist any temptation to seek to justify this kind of “art” that uses the nakedness of a child.
The di8fference between a statue of “David” and photo’s of a naked child is that one is of a long passed era where as the photo is of a child that never should be used for exploitation.
We, as a society have a responsibility to ensure the safety of children and if one can get away with producing images of a naked child, even if deemed tasteful by some, then others will exploit this and produce their own kind of images which they too will deem “tasteful” in their views but will be for totally other purposes.
To be honest, as a grandfather many times over I even resent the advertisements on commercial television showing women in their underwear pole dancing, etc, as it is not done for art but for “commercial purposes”.
The dignity of any person, regardless of what gender, should be respected and shown to be respected, and those who ignore to do so, being it for art or commercial or other purposes, all should be dealt with in the same manner before the Courts and not, so to say, that there is a cherry picking as to one can offend society’s standards of decency and others can ignore it.
If an artist cannot achieve something with a fully dressed child that he/she seeks to achieve with a naked child then I view the artist lacks the skill in presenting art, and uses the naked body as to overcome this deficiency!

I think that the "debate" has moved on from Henson, art and pornography to the wider issue of the sexualization of kids in consumer culture.

We are also seeing it being used to revvitalise the conservative movement after the defeat of the Howard Government last year. Conservatism lives on after Howard.

I am not persuaded that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Modernists, for instance, claim that good form (of the art work) is the key not the subjective responses of the viewer to the art work.

Surrely the test for obscenity not be reduced to: "How would a pervert view this?" If that became the case then you wouldn't show anything.

I thought that freedom of expression was fundamental to democracy and a community's right to express itself. Doesn't that mean the freedom to offend?

John Brumby, the Premier of Victori, says:

"But it is a job of politicians to set the law about what are public standards and what could constitute threats to public safety, public decency and what might constitute pornography and it's those laws which the police in New South Wales are applying and it's quite appropriate police make judgements about that, not politicians.

it does look as if the police raid on Bill Henson's recent Sydney exhibition coupled with the allegations that he is a child pornographer informs the subsequent reports that he and others may be charged with obscenity.

[...] I have been mulling over whether to post some thoughts on the current debate over the exhibition of Australian photographer Bill Henson .... There is also some fiery discourse to be found on both Lavartus Prodeo and the Public Opinion blog. Have a look, and join in if you would like to have your say [...]

comments closed due to spam

Hetty Johnston has an article in Crikey when she says that:

The law [she doesn't say which which Act this is] clearly intends to prohibit the taking of images which portray or use children in a ‘sexual context’. It is our strongly held view that Bill Henson’s art clearly breaches that intent. It is the sexual transition of these 12 and 13 year olds that is the focus of the work even according to the artist himself. We believe, given the photos focus on their nakedness (regardless of the ‘artistic’ lighting, shadows etc) and that the artists stated intention is to focus on their transition from child to adult, that the images are clearly taken in a ‘sexual context’. What else that means remains to be argued. Under the law as it stands, photos taken of children in a ‘sexual context’ are classed as child pornography, are illegal and with some exceptions, are actionable by law.

She does acknowledge that the law makes specific exceptions m which are stated thus:
"that, having regard to the circumstances in which the material concerned was produced, used or intended to be used, the defendant was acting for a genuine child protection, scientific, medical, legal, artistic or other public benefit purpose and the defendant's conduct was reasonable for that purpose.

Henson would be acting under the artistic purpose and his conduct would be seen as reasonable for that purpose.

Johnston says that intent is the key on which all turns:

Did Bill Henson do this work with the genuine intention of acting for the public benefit, for genuine artistic purposes? Or did he do the work to achieve economic gain and notoriety by taking nude photos of children to satisfy his own purpose, despite the public benefit and the law.

Then she adds:
We of course believe the latter.That money was paid for the use of these children in the taking of these naked photos, which are then to be sold, makes it a case of sexual commercial exploitation. That these photos were then published and downloaded via the internet makes it ‘dissemination’.

Was it commercial exploitation? None of the models or the parents have said so.

Johnston's assumption is that we simply can not legitimise the sexual portrayal of children in the name of art or anything else.The sexual portrayal of children to her seems to mean nakedness.