May 22, 2008
Bill Henson has an exhibition at the Roslyn Oxley 9 Gallery. It opens tonight. More eroticised images of underage children mutter the critics. You can sense some---those defending community standards--- reaching for the weapon of censorship before the show even opens. They will not see the sombre interiors, dramatic landscapes, delicate young bodies and faces emerging from the shadows. What they will see is naked bodies of young girls.
Moral conservatives, such as Miranda Devine, question Benson's presention of children in sexual contexts that runs through his work, which is quite explicit in linking sexuality, street kids and prostitution.
The political context is the advertising industry's sexualisation of children and the current Senate inquiry by the Environment, Communications and the Arts Committee into the sexualisation of children in the media instigated by the Democrats leader, Lyn Allison. This explores community standards and concerns about the harmful effect of premature sexualisation, particularly on young girls.
Bill Henson, untitled, 2008
Henson is part of the continuing tradition of photographers pushing the boundaries of photography as fine art amidst claims that photography as an art form is on the wane and that it's losing its grip on the public imagination. However he is also seen as indulging in a kiddie-porn aesthetic by many.
I see that the exhibition has been canceled, there's a moral panic happening in conservative Sydney circles, talkback radio is outraged, the images are censored the Roslyn Oxley 9 website is down, and the police are investigating. Investigating what I'm not sure. That the 13 year old models were not sex slaves? Or that the images are "indecent" images. I understand that the contentious images have been removed by police and voluntarily withdrawn by the gallery. Who persuaded the police to investigate? Alan Jones?
Hetty Johnston, founder and executive director of Bravehearts, a child sexual assault action group, says she knows what 's going on. She has called for Bill Henson and the Roslyn Oxley 9 gallery to be prosecuted over the images. This is her argument:
It's child exploitation, it's criminal activity and it should be prosecuted, both the photographer Bill Henson ... but also the gallery because these are clearly images that are sexually exploiting young children They are clearly illegal child pornography images, it's not about art at all, it's a crime and I hope they are prosecuted.
Why is it child exploitation? Not art? The photos of naked kids are being shown in an art gallery not in an adult shop or on a porn site. Why are erotic photos of naked 13 year old bodies a crime? Prosecuted for an image of a young topless girl expressing her sexuality as well as the awkwardness and the “letting go of childhood. These girls and boys are becoming sexual beings in a dark world. So what makes these images illegal child pornography?
Bill Henson, untitled, 2008
Does that constitute child pornography? Or this sexing up the kids? Why aren't these bodies not seen as vulnerable and beautiful? Why not celebration of female beauty?
Is this exhibition a porn site? You would think that with consumer images saturated with nudes selling soap and chocolate and even, weirdly, clothing, people would be less outraged about nudity, especially when these erotic photos are juxtaposed with landscape and architectural studies.
Is nudity sinful? Well we know that for the moral conservatives Benson has gone too far. These are kids. So erotic images are bad. He's crossed the line in sexing up the kids, say the neo-conservatives.
The subtext is an implicit request for the censorship of these images and, by association, the censorship of contemporary art.There are boundaries to the ethical rights of artists to freedom of expression. The police should act as moral guardians and adopt Plato’s philosophy that it is the responsibility of authority to regulate and censor the arts, for the sake of the good.
There has been a history of moves to censor art in Australia in the last twenty years. They include complaints about the exploitation of adolescents in Bill Henson’s work:
These censorship attempts also include the cancellation of Sensation by the Australian National Gallery, the removal of Juan Davilla’s painting Stupid as a Painter’ from the 1982 Biennale of Sydney by the police after moral outrage at its sexual references.
This is evidence that contemporary art can be confronting on grounds of sex, religion, gender and race--it can shock, disturb & offend.
Henson's subject matter can seem disturbing or even sensational and they do cause anxiety.
What is on display is public pressure to make contemporary art conform to conventional public levels of acceptability or community standards.
Whose community are talking about here? Is there not a diversity of communities in Australia?
Is there not a a diversity of communities in the global city of Sydney? So how do you c decide what constitutes community standards? Which community do you choose and why that one?
Alison Croggon at Theatre Notes makers explict what I implied about the critical edge of Hanson's photography. She says:
I live in a world awash with advertising images of commodified and sexualised children or women whose bodies are routinely scalpeled and injected with toxins to meet some generically porned-up notion of feminine sexuality, a world where genuine child porn is something that people can access by simply tapping a keyboard.And what raises the hue and cry? An artist of integrity and passion, whose sensitive and beautiful photographs of adolescents reveal the twilit zones of human liminality, vulnerability and feeling. An artist whose work, in its painful and intimate honesty, directly challenges the crass exploitation and commodification of young bodies by the mass media and porn industries.
The images of naked teens are deemed to be revolting by the PM and are deemed to have no artistic merit. We should just let allow kids to be kids.But kids are sexual beings:
Bill Henson, Untitled, 200-2003
Are they not entitled to their sexuality?
I understand that the NSW police have seized 20 of 41 photographs from the exhibition with the intention of launching criminal proceedings under the Child Protection Act. Police say charges will be laid under both the NSW and Commonwealth Crimes acts for publishing an indecent article.The alleged Commonwealth offence relates to publishing some of the photographs on the internet. The decision to launch a prosecution was made public by Rose Bay police commander, Superintendent Allan Sicard outside the gallery while detectives carried out a search.