Update : This is not porn, say Henson’s models, Paul Bibby, The Sydney Morning Herald, May 26, 2008
Opening tonight at the elegant Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in the heart of Paddington is an exhibition of photographs by Bill Henson, featuring naked 12 and 13 year-olds
is how Miranda Devine began her article on the ‘Moral backlash over sexing up of our children’ (The Sydney Morning Herald, May 22, 2008).
Devine’s concern is the sexualisation of children, a project which has allegedly brought together “artists, perverts, academics, libertarians, the media and advertising industries, respectable corporations and the porn industry – to smash taboos of previous generations and define down community standards… successfully erod[ing] the special protection once afforded childhood”.
Previously in the ascendant, today these malignant forces confront a backlash, one consisting of “parents, feminists, psychologists, teachers, grandparents – conservatives and progressives”. Further, “At the eye of the storm is the current Senate inquiry into the “sexualisation of children in the media”, instigated by the Democrats leader, Lyn Allison, and due to report next month”. (An inquiry which is, quite probably, one of the Democrats’ last gasps.)
However, in what is, presumably, regarded by Devine as a small victory for parents, feminists, psychologists, teachers and grandparents, the Henson exhibition has been closed, a number of the works confiscated by NSW police, and the artist himself, as well as the gallery owners, likely to be charged with criminal offences. Dolly (ACP) and Girlfriend (Pacific) magazines, on the other hand — publications which, Devine reports, Julie Gale, a Melbourne mother of two and the founder of parents’ lobby group, Kids Free 2B Kids, claims has a “preponderance of 11, 12, and 13 year-olds featured in their pages, along with stories about anal sex” — may carry on unmolested.
(See also: Peter Craven, Sexuality or spirituality: it’s a matter of taste, The Sydney Morning Herald, May 23, 2008.)
Art or Pornography?
‘Who would call this art?’ ask Clare Masters and Justin Vallejo (The Daily Telegraph, May 23, 2008). Not, apparently, either the NSW Premier Morris Iemma — “As a father of four I find it offensive and disgusting,” Mr Iemma said — nor Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd — “I think they’re revolting” (Rudd ‘revolted’ at art of naked children, ninemsn, May 23, 2008). Not to be outdone, soon-to-be-dumped Leader of the Federal Opposition, Brendan Nelson, reckons the whole thing is decidedly un-Australian (Naked child photos ‘violate Aussie values’, AAP/Herald Sun, May 23, 2008).
Others, however, disagree with the assessment of police, Premier and Prime Minister, at least insofar as the nature of the photographic images contained in the censored exhibition are concerned. ‘Adolescent nude photos not unusual: art expert’ (The Sydney Morning Herald, May 23, 2008): “The naked body has been the subject of art for thousands of years and artist Bill Henson’s photographic exhibit of nude adolescents is not pornographic, an art expert says. The question, said art market analyst Michael Reid, is “have the images [been] sexualised?,” and believes they have not.” Meanwhile, “John McDonald, art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald, says there is nothing sexual about the photos. “To me, the big shame is that the only time that we start looking at art and talking about art in the mainstream media is when it’s banned, when it’s supposedly pornographic, when it’s doing something that’s taboo,” he told ABC Radio’s AM (Art community defends naked teen photo exhibition, May 23, 2008).
More considered reflection is contained in Clive Hamilton’s article on Crikey, ‘Henson fracas: Art the victim of child sexualisation’ (May 23, 2008):
Henson is one of Australia’s foremost photographic artists with a considerable international reputation. Much of his work explores the idea of adolescence as metamorphosis from childhood to adulthood. It reminds the viewer of the anxieties, confusions and intense emotions in which their mature selves were forged.
The photographs in question are of a naked girl, back-lit, who appears to be about 12 years old. Her poses and expression convey wistfulness and ambiguity, as if she is saying “Here I am, as you see me; but who am I?”. Like much of Henson’s work they have a dream-like quality to them.
The photographs show the girl’s budding breasts, her hips and, in one case, a glimpse of her vagina. Their intention is not to arouse erotic feelings and they are unlikely to do so except in those already inclined to view children in that way. They are imaginative, haunting and beautiful. Although not sexual images, they can be seen as a commentary on the slow, halting and unsettling metamorphosis of child’s body into an adult one.
However, the fact that the pictures cannot be characterised as pornographic is not the end of the ethical story because the social context in which the photographs are presented changes their nature.
If we lived in a society of sophisticated people with mature sexuality, one that respected children and the integrity of their maturation process, then there could be no objection to the Henson exhibition. Alternatively, if the photographs were seen only by the intended audience and in the gallery environment, the exhibition could fulfill its purpose without controversy.
Perhaps some decades ago such a world, or at least a subset of the world, existed; but it doesn’t any more. The exhibition cannot be isolated from a society in which children are increasingly exploited for commercial reasons and used for gratification…
In other words, the kinds of images of children’s bodies present in Henson’s work must inevitably be viewed, it would seem, as ‘pornographic’: “In destroying the sexual innocence of children they [that is, the forces responsible for “the sexualisation of children by the media and the wider culture”] have destroyed the innocence of innocence.” In short, no-one is ‘innocent’, and the viewing of images of children’s naked bodies — regardless of the intent of the producer — is a ‘pornographic’ experience. In summary, Hamilton argues:
Closing down the exhibition should not be characterised as the victory of prudery over artistic licence. Oddly perhaps, if the exhibition had been mounted in more conservative times it would have passed unremarked and been appreciated by the art-loving minority. If artists have a responsibility to push at the boundaries of the acceptable, society has a responsibility to push back. After a decade or more in which children have been increasingly exploited, society is beginning to push back and Bill Henson has been a victim: innocent perhaps, but he should have known better.
As a result of the police confiscation and surrounding publicity, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery issued a statement:
Friday 23 May 2008
Statement on behalf of Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery and Bill Henson
After much consideration we have decided to withdraw a number of works from the current Bill Henson exhibition that have attracted controversy. The current show, without the said works, will be re-opened for viewing in coming days.
Bill Henson is one of Australia’s leading contemporary artists and is internationally respected. His works are held in every leading art institution in Australia and are included in the collections of a number of the world’s most prestigious art museums. The Art Gallery of New South Wales and the National Gallery of Victoria have both recently held a retrospective of 30 years of the artist’s work.
Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery will remain closed while the current exhibition is re-hung.
As it stands, then, the exhibition is going ahead — minus the offending photographs — although police are “likely” to lay charges against the gallery owners under Section 578C of the NSW Crimes Act (1900). If found guilty, the maximum penalty for such an offence “in the case of an individual” is “100 penalty units or imprisonment for 12 months (or both), and in the case of a corporation 200 penalty units”.
Writing in The Australian (Porn case is likely to fail, May 24, 2008), however, Chris Merritt believes that these and other associated charges are unlikely to stick:
THE success rate in obscenity trials in Australia is extremely low – and experts believe the looming case against renowned photographer Bill Henson will prove no different. With Henson facing the possibility of indecency and child pornography charges after police seized 20 of his works from a Sydney gallery yesterday, Australia is facing a rerun of the divisive Oz obscenity trials in the 1960s and 70s. The case will almost certainly boil down to a decision by either a magistrate or a jury on whether the photographs are obscene… They were seized yesterday using a warrant issued under a Section 91G of the NSW Crimes Act which prohibits the use of children for pornographic purposes. If charges are laid under the same provision, the fate of the photographs could turn on whether expert evidence can show they were being used for an artistic purpose…
Note that, under Section 91G:
Any person who:
- (a) uses a child who is under the age of 14 years for pornographic purposes, or
(b) causes or procures a child of that age to be so used, or
(c) having the care of a child of that age, consents to the child being so used or allows the child to be so used,
is guilty of an offence. For which the maximum penalty is imprisonment for 14 years. In addition:
- (3) For the purposes of this section, a child is used by a person for pornographic purposes if:
(a) the child is engaged in sexual activity, or
(b) the child is placed in a sexual context, or
(c) the child is subjected to torture, cruelty or physical abuse (whether or not in a sexual context),
for the purposes of the production of pornographic material by that person.
Assuming that (a) and (c) do not apply in this case, it would appear that guilt or innocence would depend on whether or not “the child is placed in a sexual context”. If one were to accept Hamilton’s logic, this would seem — perhaps sadly, but inevitably — to be the case.
Nevertheless, Henson has also received the support of the NSW Law Society (Law Society backs nude child pics artist, The Sydney Morning Herald, May 24, 2008):
The Law Society of NSW has backed embattled artist Bill Henson, who could face charges after police seized his latest gallery images which feature nude children. Society president Hugh Macken said he could not see how a crime had been committed, and police prosecutors would have to argue the renowned Melbourne-based artist had intended to produce something other than art. “What is relevant to the commission of a crime is the intention,” Mr Macken told reporters in Sydney. “If the intention is to produce a work of art, and solely to produce a work of art, then I can’t see how a crime has been committed.”
Which would appear to be a rather sensible position, as well as present a difficult challenge for police. That is, assuming that Macken is correct, “the challenge” is to demonstrate that Henson intended to produce ‘pornography’ rather than ‘art’.
Finally, note that, perhaps not unexpectedly, the gallery owners have allegedly been subjected to threats of violence (Gallery under angry siege, Frank Walker and Heath Gilmore, May 25, 2008The Age, May 25, 2008).
- See also : Henson a ‘whipping boy’, AAP/The Sydney Morning Herald, May 23, 2008 | Creepy? Perhaps, but it’s not porn, Robert Nelson, The Age, May 24, 2008 | Art or porn? Photographer facing obscenity charges, Josephine Tovey and Philippa Hawker, The Age, May 24, 2008 | It’s a triumph of the philistines, John McDonald, The Sydney Morning Herald, May 24, 2008 | They could sell tickets for this farce, David Marr, The Sydney Morning Herald, May 24, 2008
Paedophilic pornography paranoia & Nice try, neo-nazis: false kiddie porn complaints don’t work & Huzzah! Labor to childproof internet, kinda… well, not really, machinegunkeyboard, Friday May 23rd 2008 & Saturday May 24th 2008 & Sunday May 25th 2008
Bill Henson in the wonderful world of blogs:
Avert your eyes, deborahb.blog
Art and the sexualising of children, blue milk (thinking + motherhood = feminist)
This is not art?, Larvatus Prodeo
and just because a lawyer can’t leave a good case alone, Squibblog
The Bill Henson ‘kiddy porn’ fiasco, skepticlawyer
Bill Henson, art and child porn, What the cat dragged in
Sunday Text – in support of Bill Henson, our man in berlin
Bill Henson # 6 uncensored, Junk for Code
Projection onto Adolescent Forms, The wells of fancy
But is it art? — 2, Ninglun’s Specials
Parallax error: Bill Henson (2), The Morning After: Performing arts in Australia
What Censorship Looks Like, Flaming Horses
putting a sock on the henson case, Barista
Feelthee Peektures of Cheeldren on the Eentairnet, Tug Boat Potemkin
R-I-D-I-C-U-L-O-U-S – Shock of the Nude 2, cecilia fogelberg
Bill Henson photography exhibit – a tangent, The Ship That Faced A Thousand Launches …
When nudity equals sex and art equals pornography, Somebody Think Of The Children
Troops needed back in Sydney to protect us from evil!, Atheist with Attitude
Andrew Bolt nails it:
Artists rage: let us undress 13-year-olds
Saturday, May 24, 2008
Many Australians would agree:
THE art world has denounced a ”dark day in Australian culture” after police seized up to 21 photographs of naked child models and said they would lay charges over an exhibition by the renowned artist Bill Henson.
But the difference here, of course, is that the “art world” thinks the darkness in our culture isn’t the stripping and photographing of 13-year-old girls, but the seizing of the soft-porn shots by police.
An Age headline-writer insists:
“Creepy? Perhaps, but it’s not porn”
This appears over an article by Age critic and theosauritis victim Robert Nelson, who on the contrary admits:
In the past, I’ve been critical of Henson’s work and have noted the parallel between his images and pornography. The sense of a powerful male presence of the photographer and a disempowered youngster as model has to be faced. I find the pictures a bit creepy.
I feel that someone is going to steal up on the girl on my computer and offer her various comforts that will put her even further in a man’s power. So the images could almost be set up for sinister wish-fulfilment, a dream of possessing and controlling an almost nubile child for sexual gratification.
So in fact it’s creepy AND porn. Creepy because it’s porn. You see, Nelson has just described a common reaction to pedophile pornography, forcing him (and his sub editor) to then arbitrarily redefine the work that produced that reaction to merely “creepy” to dodge the debate. It’s the psueds’ [sic] equivalent of saying they read Playboy just for the articles.
To add insult to insincerity, Nelson – desperate to find reasons to justify a gut reaction contradicted by his groin [!] – then insists that if you can’t perve on 13-year-olds, you are dead to sex [!]:
But without the artistic inquiry that recognises irregular erotic feelings, we have a culture without curiosity for sexuality, a repressive regime that simply seeks to crush feelings as illegitimate just because they don’t conform to our best moral templates.
The same argument, of course, can be run to justify the publication of photographs and films celebrating rape, bestiality, incest, necrophilia and extreme sado-maoschism. Without that, by Nelson’s desperate argument, we wouldn’t be interested in sex at all.
Makes you wonder how devout Christians, Muslims and Jews ever reproduced.
Fact is, Henson’s photographs are soft porn, featuring girls as young as 13. The arts lobby likes to boast that artists change society. Now is not the time to argue that when it comes to an artist’s child porn, the effects will not be felt outside the gallery walls. That’s wimping it, in many ways.
The only consistent defence you could make of this exhibition is that letting gallery habitues and the artistically inclined enjoy child porn is worth the risk of having other children stripped, photographed and enjoyed by people not quite so, um, refined.
Tim Blair points out that Nelson’s argument is sillier still. Take Nelson’s plea that we respect the violent taboos of extremists in the Middle East:
In some cultures, it seems unquestionably appropriate to behead a woman for wearing a miniskirt. And up to a point, we have to respect those alien standards… It would be much better to look at the photographs with a humbler mind, form your own opinions and move on. Unfortunately, the law is denying us this fundamental right.
So we have to respect “alien standards” in regard to beheading women, but the alien standards of Australian law in regard to pictures of naked children are some kind of rights-denial deal. Art critics are morons.