The Henson Case ~ theatre notes

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Henson Case

My copy of David Marr's new book, The Henson Case, arrived this morning, and I have just finished reading it. Extracts are printed in tomorrow's Good Weekend supplement in the Fairfax papers, and its publication will no doubt herald more debate around the issues of child protection, freedom of expression, art and Bill Henson.

One can hope for sensible debate in the midst of the heat. I always do. In the meantime, I recommend Marr's book for its clear, dispassionate analysis of how this great national uproar unfolded. It's mandatory reading for anyone who seeks to discern the facts amid the fuss.


Paul Martin said...

Alison, the first extract went online earlier today.

Anonymous said...

As much as I love David Marr, I think the issue can be summed up with greater economy.

That is - 'Australia is deeply, deeply fucked.'

Alison Croggon said...

Not just Australia, sadly. And only bits of it. In this case, I have been on the whole encouraged rather than otherwise by the subtextual commonsense of Australians, despite a whole lot of sensationalist and noisy garbage that dominates the so-called "debate". But who knows what might happen in the stampede? This morning's beatups aren't encouraging.

One thing about Marr's book - it features some gorgeously printed reproductions of those photographs from the Roslyn Oxley9 exhibition. Including a landscape and some architectural details. I am still at a total loss to know how anyone can think them obscene. Maybe that's the mindset that I simply cannot follow.

Michael Magnusson said...

Might need to start volume two Mr Marr. Henson's in the news again for being allowed into a school playground to scout for models.

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, that's the beatup I was talking about. You ought to read Geoffrey Rush's comments in the Oz - many film directors etc have done precisely that. It assumes, of course, that Henson is a drooling sexual predator rather than a world famous artist, and that somehow by being there - accompanied by the headmaster - he has violated the innocence of children with his mere presence.

What's clear in this book is Henson's naivety. He's quite straight-up with Marr - the fatal decision for the gallery invite was Henson's choice, because he thought, simply, that it was the best photograph. It didn't even occur to him that anyone could find it objectionable, although others demurred. Ditto this thing. As far as he's concerned, if his motives are honourable and honest, what's the fuss? But I'm not sure that naivety is a criminal offence.

IH said...

Henson being allowed into a school playground to scout for models is certainly the key issue coming out of the book. That he was allowed to do so with the consent of the principal, but not with the consent of parents (or the children) is problematic. Let’s take the whole issue of pornography v art out of this. What he is doing is producing work for commercial benefit. Alison I’m surprised to learn that film scouts can also do this. Are model scouts also allowed to enter schools for this purpose? And where does a principal draw the line? Bill Henson is okay because he is an internationally recognised artist? Similarly film scouts? What about lesser known artists? Who determines whether the work is art for these purposes? I really think this revelation does no good to the general debate about Henson. It certainly gives fuel to the anti-Henson fires. I agree whole heartedly with you that a key issue here appears to be Henson’s naivety. Certainly it does not make him a criminal. But I would hope that given the subject matter of much his work he would give these issues more serious thought than it appears he has done to date.

Another interesting revelation that has been less reported is the admission by Henson that some of his models may have later regretted their work with him. That is my key issue with the debate. Consent given as a minor (with the consent of parents) may be regretted later. I'd be interested to know if models regret taking part in the work, they have the option as adults to withdraw their work from exhibition. Given the sale of the works over the years this is doubtful. I still believe the issue of consent needs to be closely examined.

Michael Magnusson said...

Ah! I wasn't following this because I thought it was going over the old ground to get the final few punches in a beat up story. But, Sunday being the day for the chattering classes to get their ABC radio & TV fix, I just heard it. Time to switch over to Austrian radio or Beeb for play of the week.
Didn't get a chance to see Mr Croggon's play, Damn! Guess I'll have to go France now.

Alison Croggon said...

Context matters a lot in these issues. And context is what is removed by most of the media coverage. Not to mention emphasis. Eg: the comment by Henson about models possibly having later regrets has been changed from being a speculation - a kind of catch-all possibility, given that there is no evidence, in public at least, of anyone having such regrets - to an admission that, without any doubts, some people do have regrets.

The question of Henson being at a school to scout for models may well be dodgy, ethically speaking. I don't know enough about the issue to comment, although I think the coverage is predictably hysterical and prurient. All the same, it's very hard to see how anyone was actually harmed by it. Who is the victim in this circumstance?

Alison Croggon said...

PS Shame you missed Half & Half, MM: My feeling was that they were mad (admirably so, of course) to try to do such an ambitious play at the Dog, and I thought Matt Scholten and the lads pulled it off beautifully. Which is no easy task with a text like that.

Alison Croggon said...

...catching up on some of the recent tabloid (and supposedly not-tabloid) coverage, rather bleakly. It seems very clear that the principal concerned didn't feel he had betrayed any trust, that he accompanied Henson at all times, and that when Henson spotted a couple of likely models he then approached the parents in the proper fashion. What the coverage is implying - some of it unambiguously - is that the school principal permitted a known paedophile to lurk about in bushes to gratify his insatiable sexual desires. The gap between perception and actuality here seems almost unbridgeable, and gets more so the more politicians legitimise the sensationalist interpretation. You can sure, for example, that the following view is certainly a view that's not going to get a good run in the present debate:

"Maree O'Halloran, the outgoing president of the NSW Teachers Federation, said it was a complex issue and there was a risk Henson could be unduly tarred.

There are very strict rules governing who can come into a school and principals and teachers follow those carefully," she said.

"I think we do need to be careful not to tar someone as being a perpetrator of some sort of child abuse when we're talking about an artist.

"We've got a person's reputation at stake here and a person who is a respected, professional artist."

However, Henson's supporters have rejected claims he was allowed to wander the grounds of the Melbourne primary school.

Henson was accompanied by the principal at all times when he visited St Kilda Primary School looking for child models to pose for his artwork. He has lectured to school groups and his artwork is a part of the Victorian school curriculum.
(from the SMH)

At the core is the fact that so many people seem to believe that nudity is the same as sexualisation, and that there is a deep misunderstanding of what an artist is doing when he or she depicts nudity.

Also, that people don't trust children. I thought the more radical of Henson's comments were about his belief that children were rational beings who were able, in discussions with their families, to make up their own minds about things that concern them.

Anyway, I don't know how to address this gulf. There are two realities at work here, and the hyperreality of the media, which has nothing to do with sober facts and everything to do with sensationalist distortion, is very powerful. Especially when politicians start buying into it, as Julia Gillard started to today, talking about how Turbull had moved "from the artistic freedom side". As if artistic freedom isn't crucially about other freedoms as well, and is totally opposite to, for example, the safety of children. This is the basic assumption of the so-called "debate", the basic frame of reference, and it's totally wrong. But how do you change the frame of reference to something that actually reflects reality?

st genesius said...

It is sad when politicians like Rudd and Gillard start using this issue as a populist vote catcher, and an opportunity to beat up on Turnbull who showed courage by defending the artist. And of course once again the bald soprano, Peter Garrett, is nowhere to be heard.
Every casting director of every corn flakes commercial, fashion shoot, teenage soapie, and youth-oriented feature film visits schools looking for possible talent. It is usually the parents (and the kids) falling over themselves for the chance to get the job. Alex Dimitriadis was discovered in a school playground by the director of "Heartbreak High," and is only one of hundreds. This is a tabloid beatup that turns the stomach.

IH said...

Correct me if I'm wrong but Malcolm Turnbull has come out in support of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard on the issue of school visits?

And I may well be naive, but I repeat I was very surprised to learn that school scouting visits for commercial photography, film, modeling or sport purposes was relatively common place. I can’t help but think the scouting mission in question could have been better handled by a letter first seeking parental consent to the visit. Perhaps there was such a letter? As you note, we don’t know all the facts, so I should suspend judgment.

Re the comment by Henson about models possibly having later regrets, I think Henson's comment does illustrate that the issue of consent is not an easy one, and there are no absolutes in this. While there may be no public proof that a model may later regret being in a Henson photo, we also can't deny that this is a possibility, and I am pleased that at least Henson has acknowledged this.

On another point, and I may well be shot down for this, while I certainly believe Henson’s work is art, some of his photos do make me uncomfortable. One in particular at the NGV disturbed me. But, I do take that to be about my personal filter when I look at the photo, rather than the artist's intent. I'd truly like not to have a problem with it, but there it is. My feeling is this debate uncovers some very disquieting issues for many of us, and art is unfortunately lambasted in the process.

Alison Croggon said...

Good to see parents at the school concerned, and the school council, coming out so strongly in support of their principal, Sue Knight (gender bias in above comments noted and apologised for) and Henson.

The story is a total beatup. No one was endangered, no one was inappropriately approached and none of the parents concerned feel their children have been exploited in any way. And as David Marr said, if Henson's presence (as a world renowned artist who, in 35 years of photographing young people, has never been accused of any kind of dubious practice - except in the courts of shockjock radio hacks) is problematic, then no one - film directors, sports people, agencies of any kind - should be allowed in schools.

Alison Croggon said...

PS Turnbull was the only politician who said anything sensible during the first furore. Hence Gillard's comment this time round. And yes, it's wholly depressing, cynical opportunism.

Anonymous said...

Isn't there a legitimate discussion to be had on whether it's appropriate for Henson to have had access to the school without parental consent? I don't believe for a second that there was anything sinister in his motives or actions but there seems to be a sense from some sections that any concern on this issue is hysteria from the "chattering classes". No question that Henson is an artist but the defence that he is one of many people entering schools for similar purposes seems quite weird. Almost "it's okay because everybody does it". Shouldn't processes be in place to ensure it's all transparent regardless of what sector of the community the visitor is from?

I'd be interested to know how the "working with children check" clearances and procedures operated in this and other instances and if Henson has gone through all of the required processes, then I'd agree it's a non issue.

Madeline Barrie

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Madeline - that's presumably what the government inquiry is about. There are protocols about people visiting schools, and from what the headmistress concerned is saying, given that everyone is being very close-mouthed pending the results of the inquiry, there doesn't seem to a question that they were breached.

I'm not the only surprised to hear that this has been a general practice among artistic and sports organisation (like Marr, I had no idea), although when you think about it, I guess it's not so surprising. Perhaps the upshot of this will be a clarifying of the present protocols. Yes, there are always legitimate questions to be asked and debate to be had; what concerns me about so much of the coverage is that is precisely what's not happening.

Anonymous said...

I think the best article on this so far is by Aaron Darc at I don't like the way Marr used Henson to promote the book.