2020 Open Letter in Support of Bill Henson ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

2020 Open Letter in Support of Bill Henson

I know it's been quiet on the blog the past couple of days. However, it has not been quiet at home: I've been putting together an Open Letter in Support of Bill Henson from a number of the Creative Stream representatives at the Australia 2020 Summit. The letter has just gone out to media outlets, and runs as follows:


Open Letter in support of Bill Henson
From Creative Australia 2020 Summit representatives

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

As members of the Creative Stream of the Australia 2020 Summit, we wish to express our dismay at the police raid on Bill Henson’s recent Sydney exhibition, the allegations that he is a child pornographer, and the subsequent reports that he and others may be charged with obscenity.

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.

The public debate prompted by the Henson exhibition is welcome and important. We need to discuss the ethics of art and the issues that it raises. That is one of the things art is for: it is valuable because it gives rise to such debate and difference, because it raises difficult, sometimes unanswerable, questions about who we are, as individuals and as members of society. However, this on-going discussion, which is crucial to the healthy functioning of our democracy, cannot take place in a court of law.

We invite the Prime Minister, Mr Rudd, and the NSW Premier, Mr Iemma, to rethink their public comments about Mr Henson’s work. We understand that they were made in the context of deep community concern about the sexual exploitation of children. We understand and respect also that they have every right to their personal opinions. However, as political leaders they are influential in forming public opinion, and we believe their words should be well considered.

We also call on the Minister for Environment Heritage and the Arts, Mr Garrett, to stand up for artists against a trend of encroaching censorship which has recently resulted in the closure of this and other exhibitions.

We wish to make absolutely clear that none of us endorses, in any way, the abuse of children. Mr 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. We ask for the following points to be fairly considered:

1. Mr Henson is a highly distinguished artist. His work is held in all major Australian collections including the Art Gallery of NSW, Art Gallery of SA, Art Gallery of WA, National Gallery of Victoria and the National Gallery of Australia.

Among international collections, his work is held in the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Denver Art Museum; the Houston Museum of Fine Art; 21C Museum, Louisville; the Montreal Museum of Fine Art; Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris; the DG Bank Collection in Frankfurt and the Sammlung Volpinum and the Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna.

Major retrospectives of Mr Henson’s work at the Art Galleries of NSW and Victoria attracted more than 115,000 people, and produced not one complaint of obscenity. His work has also been studied widely in schools for many years.

2. Mr Henson has been photographing young models for more than 15 years. Until now, there has been no suggestion by any of his subjects or their families of any abusive practices. On the contrary, his models have strongly defended his practice and the feeling of safety generated in his process, and have expressed pride in his work.

We suggest that the media sensationalism and the criminalisation of laying charges against Mr Henson, his gallery and the parents of the young people depicted in his work, would be far more traumatic for the young people concerned than anything Mr Henson has done.

3. The work itself is not pornographic, even though it includes depictions of naked human beings. It is more justly seen in a tradition of the nude in art that stretches back to the ancient Greeks, and which includes painters such as Caravaggio and Michelangelo. Many of Henson’s controversial images are not in fact sexual at all. Others depict the sexuality of young people, but in ways that are fundamentally different from how naked bodies are depicted in pornography. The intention of the art is not to titillate or to gratify perverse sexual desires, but rather to make the viewer consider the fragility, beauty, mystery and inviolabilty of the human body.

In contrast, the defining essence of pornography is that it endorses, condones or encourages abusive sexual practice. We respectfully suggest that Henson’s work, even when it is disturbing, does nothing of the sort. I would personally argue that, in its respect for the autonomy of its subjects, the work is a counter-argument to the exploitation and commodification of young people in both commercial media and in pornographic images.

Many of us have children of our own. The sexual abuse and exploitation of children fills us all with abhorrence. But it is equally damaging to deny the obvious fact that adolescents are sexual beings. This very denial contributes to abusive behaviour, because it is part of the denial of the personhood of the young. In my opinion, Mr Henson’s work shows the delicacy of the transition from childhood to adulthood, its troubledness and its beauty, in ways which do not violate the essential innocence of his subjects. It can be confronting, but that does not mean that it is pornography.

Legal opinion is that if charges were laid against Mr Henson, he would be unlikely to be found guilty. The seizure of the photographs, and the possible prosecution of Mr Henson, the Rosyln Oxley9 Gallery or the parents of Henson’s subjects, takes up valuable police and court time that would be much better spent pursuing those who actually do abuse children.

4. Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the trial-by-media to which Mr Henson and his work has been subject over the past few days, is how his art has been diminished and corrupted. The allegations that he is making child pornography have done more to promote his work to possible paedophiles than any art gallery, where the work is seen in its proper, contemplative context. It is notable that the attacks on Mr Henson’s work have, almost without exception, come from those who are unfamiliar with the photographs, or who have seen them in mutilated or reduced images on the internet.

If an example is made of Bill Henson, one of Australia’s most prominent artists, it is hard to believe that those who have sought to bring these charges will stop with him. Rather, this action will encourage a repressive climate of hysterical condemnation, backed by the threat of prosecution.

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 civilised society. 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.

We urge our political leaders to follow the example of Neville Wran, when in 1982 a similar outcry greeted paintings by Juan Davila. At that time, Mr Wran said: “I do not believe that art has anything to do with the vice squad”. With Mr Wran, we believe the proper place for debate is outside the courts of law.

Alison Croggon


Louise Adler, CEO & Publisher-in-Chief, Melbourne University Publishing
Geoffery Atherden, Writer
Neil Armfield, Artistic director, Belvoir St Theatre
Stephen Armstrong, Executive Producer, Malthouse Theatre
James Baker, Tax advisor and accountant
Geraldine Barlow, Curator
Larissa Behrendt, Professor of Law, University of Technology Sydney
Cate Blanchett, Actor
Daryl Buckley, Musician
Leticia Cacares, Theatre Director
Karen Casey, Visual Artist
Kate Champion, Choreographer, Artistic Director Force Majeure
Rachel Dixon, New media developer
Phoebe Dunn, Chief Executive Officer, Australian Commercial Galleries Association
Jo Dyer, Executive Producer, Sydney Theatre Company
Kristy Edmunds, Artistic Director, Melbourne International Festival of the Arts
Saul Eslake, Economist
Richard Gill, Artistic Director, Victorian Opera
Peter Goldsworthy, Writer
Marieke Hardy, Writer and broadcaster
Sam Haren, Artistic Director, The Border Project
Frank Howarth
Cathy Hunt, Creative consultant
Nicholas Jose, Writer
Andrew Kay, Producer
Ana Kokkinos, Film maker
Sandra Levy
Matthew Lutton, Theatre director
Nick Marchand, Artistic Director, Griffin Theatre
Sue Maslin, Producer, Film Art Doco Pty Ltd
Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, Director, Museum of Contemporary Art
Callum Morton, Visual Artist
Rosemary Myers, Artistic Director, Windmill Performing Arts
Rachel Healy, Director Performing Arts, Sydney Opera House
Liza Lim, Composer
Jan Minchin, Director, Tolarno Galleries
Helen O’Neil, Executive producer
Charles Parkinson, Artistic Director, Tasmanian Theatre Company
David Pledger, Theatre director
Marion Potts, Theatre Director
Katrina Sedgwick, Festival Director, Adelaide Film Festival
Mary Vallentine, Arts manager

Additional signatories:

The following support the appeal contained in this letter without necessarily endorsing the detailed argument:

John Coetzee, Novelist
Ramona Koval, Writer and broadcaster
Julianne Schultz, Writer

Update: The indefatigable Nick Pickard is logging (some of) the media reaction at Arts Journalist.

Update Friday: TN's round-up of reaction here.


Anonymous said...

how does your "open letter" garnering support differ from the "trial by media" you so openly condemn?
Both represent a decision based on "mob rule" so in that sense they vary not one iota I would conjecture.

Alison Croggon said...

As the letter makes clear, we welcome the debate. This is, as well as a desire to publicly support Bill Henson, an attempt to make the debate more informed and nuanced than it has generally been over the past few days.

Anonymous said...

It's art. It's stunning. It should be applauded, not censored. But (there's always one) one facet still troubles me. One of my kids appeared in a television commercial a while back. It wasn't for a particularly contentious product or done in a remotely offensive way, but she still had no mercy from her fellow students. Maybe they were just jealous that she was on the box and they were not, no matter. If she had the choice agian, she would not have done it. This is a cumbersome solution, but if Mr Henson wants real consent, could he wait until the kid turns 21 or thereabouts. A pain, yes, but for me that would answer the one ethical question which matters in all this.

Anonymous said...

Who gave the so called 'artistic community' 100% freedom to promote whatever they wish with no regards to any one else? Every other group or member of the community has boundaries for their expressions. If you want the freedom to provoke, be prepared to cope with the result of your provocation.

Anonymous said...

why is this wrong it must have been ok with the parents it is art for god sake we are living in the year 2008 not 1930 this man is an artist.........

Anonymous said...

Nudity does not equal pornography. Deeming these photos as sexualised images of children says something more about the people who are viewing them and their insecurities than the photos themselves.

To me, this is not a not a problem of freedom of expression or art. It's a problem of knee jerk reactions that judge things on face value. Just like the word 'bugger' is not rude until you put it in a sentence, a child with its shirt off doesn't mean it has been molested or made to do something compromising.

If we don't look at these things more critically we are more of a danger to ourselves than a man taking pictures of half naked kids for a public museum.

Alison Croggon said...

The debate can be answered by debate and is, as was said above, part of what makes a healthy democracy. What changes the picture here is the potential prosecution of Henson.

Anonymous said...

What kind of people see this art as pornography? It is such a shame that something so beautiful has been grossly degraded - Australia is so behind in culture and often backward in its mentality when viewing nudity, artists like Henson keep us out of the dark ages. I am severely disappointed at our PM's uneducated comments.

Anonymous said...

what kind of sick pervets get enjoyment at looking at the naked bodies of teenage children? this nutjob should be shot - he should consider himself lucky he doesn't live in Iran; the justice there swift and sweet and sends the message loud and clear

shame on you hansen and kate. would u let this happen to your children? the silence is deafening...

Anonymous said...

This is like the stories of witch hunts I read about at school - based on ignorance and fear. What astounds me is that despite the art having to be taken down from the gallery, it's STILL completely assessable to all and sundry via the internet (and I'm talking about nine news etc). If this work is so bad why was it ever allowed to be shown to billions outside the gallery. If all these moralists really cared about the children not a single image would have been shown.

I feel like the protection children really need is not there for them, and the world makes up for it with absurd (hypocritical)rules - I'm not even allowed to take photo's of my own child at the pool should I happen to catch another child in their swimming costume in the background! Some of my most beautiful photographs are of random children playing (nude) at the beach at sunset. That was such a long time ago - I certainly never thought to ask parents permission, and from memory the parents were aware but didn't mind in the least - they could see the beauty of the moment being captured. I doubt if I would have been considered a paedophile then.

I wonder if this debate would even be happening if the photographer were a young female?

I think it's wonderful that this letter has been posted, but I'm afraid the general community will just see it as artists supporting artists. Create an online petition the likes of what GetUP! do and get all of Australia and the world to support you.

Anonymous said...

So much could be said on this matter but I want to ask one question.............. How many of the people who have condemned Mr Henson have actually sighted the photographs? Also, how many people who have voted in polls seen the works in question?

Anonymous said...

Ms Croggon, a wonderfully written, jargonistically laden piece in defence of your no-doubt friend Bill Henson. Well may you wipe your sweat-beaded brow and sigh your breath of releif at the closure of your artistically beautiful explanation; but I am sorry Ms Croggon you do not bamboozle this one member of the human species. I certainly do not bay for Mr Henson's blood, nor do I think he should be treated as a paedophile, but by Christ the man needs to feel the disgust of the people he mocks with these photographs; and I can say with emphatic truth that Mr Henson would never be allowed to baby-sit my children. Artists of the world, please note, the viewers with the greatest fascination for these works are likeley to have an inner tweak of child eroticism.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Cate Blanchett and all those in support of Bill Hension. It disappoints me to think that people are degrading one of Australia's most prolific artists. Yes people have right to their own opinions but to call artistic photographs pornography is completely absurd. Michaelangelo's "David" is sculpture of completely nude man and it is displayed freely in public and it isn't called pornography.
The Renaissance had many paintings and sculptures that had nude children as the subject but they aren't called pornography.
I dearly hope Bill Henson comes out of this mess unscathed and continues to be the amazing artist he is.

Oh and before I go, I'd like to say that I am extremely disappointed in the comments made by the PM. He shouldn't have made comments on photographs he most probably hasn't seen. Extremely Disappointed Mr. Prime Minister.

Geoffrey said...

7.23pm Anon.

The thread of your argument is thus: that we slow to view the results of a car accident, craning to observe the horror, because we wish they had involved us?

Danoir International said...

I am saddened, embarrassed that this has turned in to something ugly. I leave Australia this week for sunnier shores, disappointed that we are not entering the 'enlightened' period I had hoped with leading art critic Mr Rudd! I hope this has blown over when I return, and Hensen's name is no longer dragged through the mud, his work retaining the artistic merit it has deserved.

Geoffrey said...

Alison ... congratulations.

Anonymous said...

Its all about open and informed debate. When the media crucify the man before anyone knows anything about the subject or the subject matter it just reeks of a facsist dictatorship. Nudity is not pornography. And if it is, where do we stop? Mothers Day cards and other marketing propaganda consistently feature newborns and toddlers in their natural state, do we ban them too? The same toddlers run naked on beaches all over Australia everyday, do we pass a law saying no more? The recent events represent the ultimate irony in that the mainstream media portray Hensons work as 'criminal'. The media reflect just how uncomfortable most Australians are with their own body (as in, the HUMAN body) and sexuality in general. Exactly the issues that the artist is addressing.
As 'anonymous' above points out, every news story from Channel Ten to The Australian featured the very photos that were the cause of this witch-hunt. Thereby guaranteeing that 1000 times more potential paedophiles had instant and uncensored access to the material. Who's best interests are served by this? It is worth noting that said news productions are commercial operations with the SOLE aim of turning a profit. Contrary to popular belief these operations do not aim to fulfil any real function in society other than to make money. It is not in their interests to encourage debate, scandal sells so they tell you its a scandal before you know what "it" really is.
Open, peaceful, rational and informed debate is the supreme goal of the artist and, as the letter states, it is the hallmark of a civilised and cultured society.

Anonymous said...

I believe in Bill Hanson's artistic integrity - his detractors need an education. Kevin's comments were knee-jerk populism which he seems to be good at. What a pity. Where is that bald bloke who's supposed to be the Minister for the Environment (ha ha) and Arts???

Anonymous said...

What is wrong with you people? If these photograghs were on someone's computer or hung in their houses and not in an art museum there would be no question as to where he belongs. This man fits the perfect description of a pervert and is just hiding behind the artistic thing. I mean he finds pleasure and intrige in the faces of these children,,,this sounds like the words of a pedaphile to me and many other Australians. Who's daughter is it in the photographs anyway? I mean would you let your daughter do this with some older man in the name of art? I know the parents are bullshitted into thinking this will make it big for their daughter's future. Exactly like all the girls that take off their clothes for the photo shoots. However this country has laws prohibiting this kind of photography and if they let this guy off then we are going to have to let every other pedaphile off on the grounds they may be preparing the next art exhibition and just maybe they are a renowned artist. I sday lock the bastard up with all the other pedaphiles

Anonymous said...

I just want to say I'm shocked by the insensitivity and coarseness of language that some of the public has been treating this issue. Undoubtedly Henson's work is confronting - but in what sense? That question depends on the state of mind, or the existence of insecurities present in the individuals viewing his works, as well as their cultural and religious background, age etc. When I first saw Henson's works I was just blown away by the sheer beauty of expression, and I can honestly say that the words pornography and sexual abuse did not even enter my mind. I know it sounds naive, but even sex did not register. I understand the moral dilemma many would feel towards Henson's works, but before any sort of judgment is passed one must consider the nature of his intention, which is clearly artistic expression. As many have pointed out, nudity is not equivalent to pornography, and such derogatory, morally base intentions certainly do not present themselves in his work. To assume otherwise seem to display certain rudimentary statement of mind.

Art raises all kinds of issues and has been throughout the history of mankind. What Henson is trying to express, I think, is the process of coming of age, a Buildensroman. I felt that I could really identify with his images in the sense they express confusion and isolation among a mirage of emotions experienced by the adolescence of today's society. He is merely expressing the human condition in a real, raw manner.

The Prime Minister has said, in a spurt of the moment, that children should stay just that - children. But what today's society has to face is that today's children are not just children anymore; not in the sense of children 20 years, or even 10 years ago. We have grown up so much faster than our parents, surrounded by scourges of information and media that are often causes of ever more confusion in the uncertain transition between childhood and adulthood. It is frightening and I feel that a lot of adults do not understand that. Thus I really urge people to reconsider Henson's work, to perceive what he is trying to say about the youth of today. Or if that is too difficult, just step back for a moment and view his art simply as art, as images with contrast of light and dark, absorb its dramatic tension.

To those unable to get past the barrier of implications that Henson's work inspires, question yourselves, not his work. What is it that occupies one's mind to make one unable to appreciate art for what it is? (I won't be more explicit) Consider this story:

Two monks were traveling together. One of them carried a lady across a river despite the fact that contact with a female is forbidden. The other monk reported this to their master, accusing the first monk of harboring erotic thoughts. The master told the second monk that the fact that he is the one dwelling on this indicates he is the one who should rethink himself, not the first monk.

The point is, the inner workings of our own insecurities often make us lash out at others. So before we make any kind of moral judgment, we should rethink ourselves, not only in this issue, but all other moral dilemmas.

Anonymous said...

We may have decided that we are no longer required to be our brothers' keepers, but why do we have to be so "enlightened" that we are no longer our childrens'?

The first sentences of Para 3 of Point 3 were written by a parent? Well, I guess seventeen year olds are still adolescent, and you would have to say they were sexual. But these photo's aren't of people on the cusp of adulthood who could be expected to make the decision to participate in these acts of art with enough foresight to decide whether or not they are going to regret it all somethime in the future. These are still children who look automatically to adults for leadership, knowledge and protection, and who, in my opinion have been let down very badly in this instance.

Anonymous 7:23 PM May 27th makes two excellant points and I completely agree with him in his view that Bill Henson should not be treated as a paedophile. He should, however be arrested for the stupidity required to think that he could do something like this with no public outrage comeback!! Or did he? If Bill really had the purity of his art first in his mind during the filming of these two children and had absolutely no idea of the horrible potential of the these images in the eyes and mind of a sick paedophile then I dont think he could still have the I.Q. to operate a camera. Is it so unreasonable to think that he might have had a touch of an exploitary motive, so to speak? Any publicity's good publicity, right?

"...the viewers with the greatest fascination for these works are likeley to have an inner tweak of child eroticism." WAAAY too kind! There will be those who see these images in the setting they are in and, in their sick minds, feel compltetely vindicated during their next horrific sexual invasion of some innocent child.

Come on naysayers, tell me that's beyond credibility, that this example of the forthright and truth persuing world of art couldn't be used as a justification for some unspeakable horror.

Anonymous said...

As said previously this is 2008 what sort of backward society am I living in? Australia you so need culture!I modeled for artists from the age of 14 encourage by a mother who found pornography degrading and art liberating.At 40 I value the images & sculptures of myself as a young girl & woman. Few people experiance a life drawing class and therefore have little understanding of how an artist regards a naked model.I have been on both sides of the easel.
This incident with Bill Henson has made me so angry what can they charge him or the gallery for? It's just a waste of police time. There are pornographic images in all forms of media much of it degrading and abusing mainly of women. And yet I see little comment from the public on this matter you all turn your heads and yet that is the real poison in our society.That Mr Rudd is what I call discusting!

Anonymous said...

So I'm guessing you and the rest of ur 2020 hippie "best n brightest" buddies would be more than happy to let him take photos of your naked teenage children?

Lay off the dubie!!!
Sorry, I have to go - I actually DONT rely on government handouts to make a living!

PS: And yes I have seen the photos

MyFriendOtis said...

I can't believe the outrage by the art types that Kevin Rudd, the man who headed the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship, might have a slightly different take on naked pictures of children than his more enlightened betters. Please.

Does anyone really think that Henson NEEDS to display naked kiddies in order to be "confronting". That he is so devoid of ideas that this is all that's left for him? Doesn't say much for his imagination.

Perhaps his next exhibition could show some violent S&M porn, or perhaps some women getting degraded at the Hellfire club. Will that be defensible? At least Henson will be able to plead informed consent.

This entire brouhaha points out two things:
First, an arts community totally devoid of a moral compass, even at the most basic level;
Second; an arts community that can dish it out, but can't take it.

Anonymous said...

Its narrow minded ideas like yours Mr dave l that really make my blood boil. I have NEVER claimed the dole and my talents have been invaluable to the corporate world.Artists work dam hard to get to the level such as Bill Henson as`with all the arts it is not an easy road to earn a living.
Artists do have morals and not all artists want to be confronting.
And lastly I do NOT see Bill Henson and his work as obscene.

MyFriendOtis said...

But wait, there's more!

Follow the Link below "My Apologies". The poor dear has taken to her bed, she's so upset about the whole thing.

And especially the comments on this thread are making her actually nauseous. Even giving her nightmares.

There's your bold arts defender in action!

Anonymous said...

Wow. Could we avoid the artist-bashing please, and focus on the work and issues at hand?

Firstly, censorship of work means that no one can view Hensons' photographs in their intended context. Viewing these images in digitised form, on the internet, is absolutely not the same as experiencing them in a gallery. As we are (increasingly, thank you Albury and now Newcastle) unable to view the works, informed debate is made difficult. Regardless of your emotional response to the works, censorship stifles discussion. It sucks.

Secondly, according to the law child pornography charges are only applicable if these images (of which I myself have only seen one) concern the subject being shown in a sexual context.

So the question is: do you think Henson's work in this exhibition (which - as above - very few have seen) is sexual?

Anonymous said...

1. We can have no doubt that Bill Henson is an ARTIST of the highest degree (see Alison's letter for details of his world wide respect spanning many years).

2. NONE of his subjects, nor their parents, have EVER made any complaint of feeling anything but in complete safety and comfort. (For those of you claiming to be 'defending' the children, where are these supposed abused models? Some of them are well into their 20's now and are well and truly able to speak and think for themselves. Those who have have openly supported Bill Henson and his work and practises, so who, exactly, are you claiming to protect?)

3. Since when has nudity equated to sex? 'The Nude' has been a cornerstone of art since we were scratching on walls: cherubs, prepubescent boy-gods, Venus...How have we come to such a sad state that we can send the message to a young girl that her nudity is 'dirty' or 'pornographic'?

The pictures from this exhibition I have seen are fragile and beautiful. Perhaps the irony of all this is that that is what Bill Hensen is trying to recapture. To make clean what society has besmirched with it's dirty suspicious mind.

(...and to Anonymous 7:34pm May 27th, a replica of Michaelangelo's 'David' was placed in a Melbourne shopping precinct recently and caused such a kerfuffle they had to string a bit of cloth across his 'loins'... aah well...)

Alison Croggon said...

I will let this thread stand, and leave the comments so far unmediated, since they say so much about the factual basis behind the kinds of allegations made against Bill Henson. I suggest visiting commentators might study the comments policy, which is linked from the sidebar. Personal abuse and trolling are not permitted on this blog, and any further comments that indulge in either, rather than in reasoned argument, will be summarily deleted.

As I said, debate is welcome. Abuse, and particularly personal abuse, is not. The more perceptive among you might, perhaps, deduce an ethical stance from this policy that applies to more than comments.

Anonymous said...

I reckon it might be worth everyone checking this paper out -


reading it might help raise the tone of the debate.

It seems that we keep coming back to the same question: is Henson's art pornography (and has it therefore caused the child-model harm)?

Perhaps reading this particular paper might be a good starting point for those who want to stay involved.

Anonymous said...

Wit all due respect Emily, we can have the discussion without the photos of the bodies of the barely pubesant children hanging on the wall. There is nothing really left to the imagination here; would you not agree? Your right though, viewing these images in a respected gallery would not be the same as looking at them on a computer screen. I see this as a problem. Paedophiles justifying their actions based on the acceptance by a supposedly higher-than-average-brow section of society of the same type of image that feeds their sick minds. Food for thought, no?

Anonymous said...

"offenders hide their collections in concealed spaces so that they have ready and secure access to them;"

Yep. That would on the walls of a world famous art gallery in Paddington, Sydney, of all places, wouldn't it?

Geoffrey said...

myfriendotis. Welcome to the blogosphere. The link you so gleefully and sarcastically refer to is NOT written by Ms Croggon but is a link TO Ms Croggon's blog from another blogger.

Bless you.

Alison Croggon said...

This comment came through to me but, through some odd techy glitch, not to the blog. It's a beautiful and thoughtful comment from NickC, so I'm reposting it.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of this whole debacle is the way in which the spectacle of the police's seizure of Henson's artworks - not the same as the images themselves - has seared a burning divide through public debate. It is either For or Against, as the Age so clearly highlighted in its page spread yesterday: Henson's work is either clearly revolting pornography or obviously beautiful art.

The increasing inability of these two discourses to communicate with each other is deeply worrying - not least of all for Henson's future. In fact, Rudd's comments, that the works are 'revolting', that kids should be allowed to be kids, which seem to have raised the flag for the 'Againsts', are not really about Henson's art at all - they are about child abuse, and it seems unlikely that Rudd has ever so much as glanced at a Henson work. The law - by far the most powerful player in this debate - is a clumsy beast, and also a dangerous one when it is able to reduce complex issues such as this to an ultimately incommensurable set of binaries.

There are no givens here - not what the artwork 'means', what a 'kid' is, nor what sexuality is or can be. For me, art, and Henson's work in particular, is always about subverting and questioning rigid understandings of exactly these things. There are always shadows in Henson's work, and his young bodies , as in life, move in and out of these shadows, unsure of how to show themselves.

Of these shadows, David Malouf has said that they 'take us in..change our sense of ourselves, our seeing bodies...to make us discover, in the absolute presentness of such vital shadows, our own impingement on the surrounding dark. Which is to say that they affect us not as records of a pre-existing reality, nor as illustrations of some held view, but with the immediate otherness and mystery, and powerful if puzzling reality, of objects from another Nature: that is, as works of art'. Laws, particularly those against child abuse, exist for good reasons. So does art. As critics we need to look at what happens in between.

Anonymous said...

As a young boy I was the victim of a paedophile and I would like to offer this personal insight to your discussion.

I have only seen the photos on the television and the internet. I have only seen the photos since I have been surfing the net to find out more about what everyone is discussing.

I found the photos spoke to me in ways that I was not expecting. The "shadows" that formed over my identity, my self-confidence and my guilt following the abusive experiences are in these photos. I wanted to look past the black boxes that were crudely placed over the photos because we are not supposed to see something. What exactly? Paedophiles do not mask, either their intentions or their actions. They do not make mystery or magic out of their contact with you. They scare you. They follow you. I remember how he fixed his gaze on me at the busy public swimming pool and I can tell you that never in my life since have I felt so vulnerable and with nowhere to hide. A part of you grows up very quickly when adults abuse you. Another part of you questions forever what might have been different in your life if you had remained protected from predators.

This photographer obviously highlights the danger zone, and it is this that I think most people are having trouble relating to. I have been having sex since I was about 14. Lots of my friends were. What I find amazing about this topic is that there are not more people writing about the simple fact of my experience: the man who took these photographs does not appear to be looking at the young people in his art the way I was looked at prior to my experiences. That was evil. That was hate. This is something different. I think that's just one difference.

Anonymous said...

As an artist I have known about MR Henson. I even wrote a postcard to him via the Gallery to say that he would be expecting this. "The public are not as thick as pig shit". I did also hope that Mr Henson learn from this experience. Its not an open postcard. It my personal message that he can take on board or just chuck away. There is a secular art scene, fact. There is a media that can blow it all out of the water, look at Funniest Home Videos as a show, how many years has that been on the air? Debate it but dont debase it. Use your imagination but to quote Mr Mackey, "pedoephillia is wrong, mmmkay?" Mr Henson in due course will see that to film this at the stage he has reached may point to Tall Poppy Syndrome or just the Public talking it up. His time had to come, how is he going to top this one (next time)????
An Anon said:
"Who gave the so called 'artistic community' 100% freedom to promote whatever they wish with no regards to any one else? Every other group or member of the community has boundaries for their expressions. If you want the freedom to provoke, be prepared to cope with the result of your provocation."

As an artist I feel this is wrong. Poetry can express this issue of child protection best. We dont need a friggen diagram to be made! Let the PM do it with conviction as the artist has intended.


PS Get well soon Bill.

Anonymous said...

Worth a thousand words:

Link to an interesting video about Bill Henson's photographic work:


Anonymous said...

the dark & obese shadow of robert menzies haunts australia still

there is nothing quite as dark as australia in the 1950's. the realities it constructed & the nightmares it promulgated

what is most distinct for an observor who does not live in that culture - is the utter immaturity of the debate. the child psycholgist's oped in the age is so crude in its real conception - that it speaks fundamentally of a sick, sick culture

wilhem reich is a splendid teacher & his observations on the character analysis of a people has never rung so true

the open letter at least is mature, & it has the benefit of being heartfelt - & of being, well - open

& that cannot be said of the rest of the debate - it just mirrors so much else that seems a quotidian reality - the censorship of a palestinan photographic exhibition, the ugly rejection of an islamic school, the report on the utter ineptness of asio by the old hope royal commission, the treatment of african refugees - an endless litany of old prejudices not being transformed but rather they are just different permutations - of a 'closed' - i would suggest very closed world. closed to debate

the professor of law who amongst others has been inciting to sue bill henson reflect really the lynch mob which has long been at the heart of the australian soul. deonted, with great precision by a manning clark & a humphrey mcqueen

from 1972 to 1975 - one saw a possible australia - something approaching substance & not shadow. open not closed. there were once giants. there time shall not come again

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I just think he's wrong. His other stuff is good, he should concentrate on that. He doesn't deserved to be charged.

Anonymous said...

Nice he has the photos ready for all his pedobear friends I mean fans to look at.

Anonymous said...

Alison, are you a mother? Would you be willing to allow someone to take photos of your child naked for total strangers to see? Will Cate Blanchett have her children photographed naked for total strangers to see? When photos like these are taken, you can never know who will see them. That is a risk you take. A risk I would never take with my children. Sorry, it has to be said, I love my children too much to risk the possible consequences from these photos. What on earth were the parents of these children thinking? It has been suggested that the only damage has been caused by people's reactions, such as the Prime Minister saying they are "revolting". However, those reactions could never have come about had the photos not been taken in the first place. The buck stops with Mr Henson and the parents who allowed this to happen. Artists say they want to provoke thought but when people give their thoughts the artists complain that it wasn't the reaction they wanted.

Anonymous said...

I felt very proud of Australia's artistic community when reading that letter, Alison, and wanted to thank you for that.

What is so aggravating about this whole debacle is that this is a serious debate, full of subtlety, and it has been hi-jacked by hysteria and fear.

I hope that Bill Henson, amongst what must be feelings of utter bemusement - I mean why now? -is comforted that "when a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him".

How sad that Kevin Rudd is standing in line, alongside the Bolts, in that confederacy.

I hope he heeds this call, that it is not enough to pay lip-service to the challenges of creative endeavour, that it takes strength of courage and a real belief in the value of art.

Stephen Sholl

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Ken.

Jerry B said...

It's telling that Blanchett/Adler & co can openly defend a pedophile such as Bill Henson yet no-one will admit to owning one of his photos of naked children. If he is so respectable why is it that buyers are so ashamed of their purchases?

Russell Blackford said...

Alison, first of all let me congratulate you for organising this letter. Doing so must have been like herding a lot of (very large fierce) cats. Congratulations to all those who've signed it, including those who shared the general sentiments but expressed reservations about the detail.

My only reservation, wearing my hat as a lawyer and a pedant, is that any charges laid are not likely to be for "obscenity" but for quite specific crimes in NSW and Commonwealth statutes. But that's neither here nor there.

I've been blogging about this issue as well, and I'd join any larger campaign that gets going to argue for Bill Henson's liberty and in favour of artistic freedom more generally. I'm appalled and angered at the attacks that have been made on Henson by crude, philistine populists from our prime minister down, and by the moral panic that has been unleashed. Suddenly, this is a bad time in Australia to be any sort of artist or any sort of thinker whose views are in the slightest unconventional - all the popular distrust of artistic and intellectual "elites" has been summoned very effectively and destructively.

I must say, with a small element of smugness, that I'm not entirely surprised at Rudd's boorish comments. Although I voted for him as the lesser of two evils, I couldn't understand the messianic fervour that surrounded him last year. I'm sure that many people didn't understand what they were voting for; the man had already demonstrated that he is a deeply conservative moralist, not the progressive, liberal-minded leader that, at least in my humble opinion, Australia really needs. He showed his true colours vividly enough for all to see in the debate about therapeutic cloning, where he was among the moralistic bio-Luddites who opposed the amending legislation. In short, we all need to understand that Rudd is no friend of either art or science, and that his actions must be scrutinised very closely over time - and met with principled, forthright oppositions whenever necessary.

The offer is open from me to do anything I can to help you, with whatever modest talents I have (plus a willingness to spread the word to my own contacts, some of whom are prominent in fields such as literature and philosophy). In any event, please continue to fight for Henson's liberty and for artistic freedom in this country.

Russell Blackford
Journal of Evolution and Technology

Anonymous said...

Alison, as you seem to have missed my questions in your last post, I will ask again. Are you a mother? Would you be willing to allow someone to take photos of your child naked for total strangers to see?

Anonymous said...

My problem with this debate is not so much Bill Henson's intentions. I have no reason to believe he behaved with intent to produce pornography. My problem is with the fact that a thirteen year old child was allowed to be photographed naked, for public display. I do not in any way question that the intention was to produce art. But that doesn't take away from the fact that as a minor, the model was not capable of giving consent to the photograph. Indeed it is likely that her parents were also unable to give consent under current legislation. This may seem like legal semantics but the fact is that these semantics offer some protection against the production of true child pornography. If parents consented to their child being photographed for pornographic purposes would we accept their conduct? The difference many feel is the intent of the photographs. I’m not so sure. Previous child models have felt safe being photographed by Bill Henson in this manner. But that does not guarantee that all his child models will feel this way as adults. What would we say to the thirteen year old if at the age of eighteen or more she regrets, or indeed is disturbed by the photographs? I don’t think there is any easy answer to that. But unfortunately art or not, that remains for me the issue here.

I should say that I don’t believe prosecution of the individuals concerned in producing and displaying the photograph is the right course. But I do think the debate needs to turn from the issue of art vs. pornography to the issue of consent, and the issue of consent openly discussed without accusations of censorship.

Courtesy of the Age online, I have seen one of the photographs in question. Interestingly I didn’t know when I clicked on the link to the relevant article that the image would appear. And yes the image did make me uncomfortable. Perhaps as a work of art that was its purpose. But to me the discomfort was something more personal, framed by the question of the model’s understanding of and consent to the image.

Finally, Alison I am a lawyer, who has been involved for some years advocating for greater support for victims of child abuse – perhaps this does shape my views. I also attended the 2020 Summit (in the Governance Stream), and am encouraged to see how quickly you were able to galvanize fellow stream members to produce the open letter. Whether or not I agree with your views, it is very encouraging, and has certainly contributed to an important national discussion on these issues.


Alison Croggon said...

Yes, I am a mother, of three children, two boys and a girl. I would have no problems if Bill Henson wanted to photograph them, as long as my children had no objections, since I know he wouldn't abuse my or their trust. It would be something I would discuss with my kids, who are smart and know their own minds, and we would work it out from there. I would not let "just anyone" photograph them, and I would want to be very careful and sure of the moral probity of the person involved. I have no doubts at all about Henson. I am as protective of my kids as any parent, and wouldn't dream of putting them in harm's way.

What would give me pause - now - is the kinds of reactions that have occurred in the past four days, which have not been an issue before. The worst harm for the models involved has come from the media frenzy which has labelled them as being involved with pornography.

I don't think, btw, that nudity means sexuality, and the fact that people seem to think they're the same thing is deeply troubling.

Alison Croggon said...

...and many thanks, IH

Anonymous said...

Thanks Alison, for standing up and saying what so many of us are thinking. I have been very sad, listening and reading so much of the commentary surrounding this bizarre attack on Henson. Thank you for being a voice of rationality that will get heard between the shouting,


Anonymous said...

"I would not let "just anyone" photograph them, and I would want to be very careful and sure of the moral probity of the person involved. I have no doubts at all about Henson. I am as protective of my kids as any parent, and wouldn't dream of putting them in harm's way."

And therein lies a large part of the problem. You may know Mr Henson and know that he is a moral, responsible person. However, photos are taken to be seen by others and, somewhere down the track, you don't know who will see them. You have no idea whether a paedophile will walk into that gallery. In not putting our children in harm's way we have to think about the consequences in the future. How many actresses are there who find photos taken of them 10 or more years ago are suddenly published? Photos which seemed a good idea at the time and yet, in hindsight, are very damaging to their career. Photos which get into the hands of others who wish to use them for some purpose other than that for which they were originally intended. Many of those actresses have advised other people never to consent to having naked photos taken, to learn from their mistakes. Lastly, if there's nothing to worry about in being naked, are you wearing clothes while reading this post??? Might sound like a very simplistic, non-arty question but I'm pretty sure you're fully clothed.

Anonymous said...

Bill Henson is an accomplished and highly regarded Australian and International contemporary artist, whose work has hung regularly for almost two decades in State, National and Regional Art Galleries. Rudd appears to have never heard of Bill Henson.

Take a look at another example of what is going on in this country:

Within weeks of Rudd was saying "Sorry" to the indigenous people of this country, his QLD state Minister for Sustainability, Innovation and Climate Change, and now sanctioned by Rudds Federal Minister for Environment Heritage and the Arts, conducted covert operations spying on the locals and then merrily began bulldozing, literally, through Indigenous Cultural Heritage sites and virgin bushland on World Heritage Fraser Island - to strongarm ineffective, unwanted dingo fences around two tiny townships - "fence 'em in" - all without consultation or regard for stakeholders and in breech of the govts own Federal and State compliance, legislation and codes of work practices. Rational opposition and calls for a review and transparency have been ignored - So were the voices of the Elders who could "hear the screams of the old people in the dunes" that were bulldozed.

Further, and again sanctioned by the Minister for the Environment Heritage and the Arts, there has now been installed, on a World Heritage and Indigenous Cultural Heritage sites, 2m high dogmesh fences flanked by massive steel cattle grids with electrified trip wires - surreal!!

It sure is.

Rudd says "Sorry" in Canberra while his Environment, Heritage, Arts and Sustainability and Innovation Ministers bulldoze Fraser Island, State police, in Sydney, are storming private art galleries confiscating fine art, Rudd blurts out how "revolting" the artworks are to publicly decry and humiliate one of Australias most accomplished contemporary artists - thus, unabashedly displaying his lack of aquaintance with the discource of art history, theory and cultural criticism, or, even the existence of an important international contemporary art ambassador.

To top it off, the ageless fine art naked body or unclothed body, is now pornographic and pedaphilic. Where does that come from in a world filled with sanctioned titillation and proliferation of dolly magazine style, films, advertising and the everyday sexualized aspirations and trappings we
are saturated with every second.

Whats going on here.

Russell Blackford said...

Alison, the important point you make is that your children are smart and know their own minds. As a parent, you'd still want to be consulted and would always reserve your right to veto their plans (for their own protection). But in the first instance, you'd assume that, although they are minors, they are mature enough to have their own reasons for doing things, their own sense of morality, their own values, etc.

That's how it should be. One of the things that I find most disturbing in this debate is the common assumption that teenage children are irrational and cannot have a mature and informed view about such things (even a view that should nonetheless be subject to parental oversight). This is another example of the teenage maturity gap: the self-fulfilling assumption that teenagers are unable to make consequential decisions (and that the problems that they do have are trivial). Such an attitude to our young people, basically infantilising them, is offensive. I well remember how deeply I resented it when I was a teenager - and I was correct to do so.

The right of mature minors to be treated as rational people and have at least a say (in consultation with their parents) in decisions such as this is under attack, and that is one of the nastiest things about the debate. It is as if the models concerned are being talked about as sub-rational beings whose values and understandings own don't count.

Of course, this kind of offensive infantisation of mature minors is applied very selectively. We allow teenagers (and even much younger children) to make many decisions that they may later regret or which may (you never know) damage their lives. In many cases, we allow adults such as parents to make decisions for them that are potentially far more consequential and potentialy damaging than the decision to be photographed nude: decisions about medical care, decisions about what religious beliefs the children will be indoctrinated into, etc.

As a society, we tend to become paternalistic to an extreme degree as soon as issues of sexuality (to the extent that this is genuinely involved) or nudity are involved.

This suggests to me that there's an overhang of irrational shame and prudery about the body that is driving much of the debate.

Many commentators, it appears, can't see that the decisions by the subjects of the portraits were continuous with many other consequential decisions that minors make: whether it's decisions about what subjects to take or continue with at school, what friends to make, what religious beliefs to adopt, there are many things that they must and do decide that could have at least as much impact, for good or ill, as the decisions made here in what I have every reason to believe was a protective and supportive family milieu.

Jonathan Shaw said...

Congratulations on the letter, Alison, and on keeping this thread open. It's instructive, but I suppose not surprising, how quickly the conversation descends into cantankerous dismissals of whole classes of people -- artists, politicians, 'wowsers'. it's also instructive, and not surprising, that so many comments are anonymous.

Anonymous said...

Jerry B 11:10 AM, May 28, 2008

It has been widely reported that Henson's work is held in all Australia's major collections as well as internationally. And Malcolm Turnbull, not exactly a left-wing, nor an artist himself, today supported Henson, and openly admitted to having 2 of his works in his home.

Jake said...

Bravo Alison!

Your eloquence is just what was needed, although I was surprised by the statement that pornography involves abuse in its "defining essence". That's quite a big call, one that might make some think twice about fully endorsing the letter.

Alison Croggon said...

True, Jake, and worth thinking about (depends what you call porn, I guess). There's wide disagreement generally on what constitutes pornography and a wide range of attitudes towards it: hence the signatories at the bottom, who have their own views. What porn I have seen is abusive, and often vilely misogynistic, but that doesn't mean that all of it is. That I suspect is an essay in itself - I can hear Susan Sontag in the wings...

Russell Blackford said...

I missed that point - the one raised by Jake - in the letter. Yes, that was an unnecessarily sweeping comment about pornography and opens up a huge debate about the nature of "pornography" ... as opposed to "erotica" and so on. Rational people involved in this debate don't necessarily want to get caught up in a controversial "all porn is bad" stance. Not all of us are fans of Andrea Dworkin, etc.

The real point here is that it takes a prurient mind (or at the very least an extremely naive one) to perceive the images that we've seen from Henson as pornography in any sense, whether all pornography is bad or not.

All the same, you've done great work in all this.

Anonymous said...


I have never left a comment on a blog before but feel compelled to add my voice here. I have only seen a small amount of Mr Henson's work, and found it to be haunting and beautiful. I was a sexually abused chid, am a mother of two teenage girls, and have been a professional artist in the past - so I feel qualified to make my comment on several levels. I endorse your letter and the comments that I have heard you and others make in the press. I agree that nudity and sexuality are not the same thing, however I am wondering if it is the art within the works that has elicited this public reaction.
In Victoria, there have been full frontal nude photos of people of all ages - yound and old - on display in the Museum for years and I cannot ever recall politicians or the public condemming these more graphic images as "revolting" or "pornographic". Some of the models were children and young teenagers when they posed - I know one of them, and can vouch that she has grown to adulthood without any scars from being viewed by thousands of visitors to the Museum over the years. So, why the reaction to the Henson works? I wonder if it is because the work takes us to the realm of emotion - an uncomfortable experience for some - particulaly those who have not come to terms with their own feelings about the human body and their sexuality. Certainly, the nudes on display in the museum make me feel moved by the beauty that each age holds - but perhaps for some, the educational environment of this setting takes the audience to the realm of thinking - which can be less complicated...

Keep up the good work


Gennadi Kazakevitch said...

I do believe we are privileged to be contemporaries of one of the greatest photo artists of all times.

A resource should be found on the Internet, where this letter, by prominent Australians, is placed for signing by everyone in this country concerned with defending the Australian freedom of artistic expression. Let us together say "NO" to police raiding art galleries.

Please consider this message as my signature.

Dr Gennadi Kazakevitch, economist, Melbourne

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Julie (and the earlier commentator who was also the victim of sexual abuse as a child). I find both your posts very moving. I'm sure you're right, Julie, about the emotional power causing discomfort, although to be honest a lot of the worst accusations are made by people who have never stood in front of Henson's work and experienced what it actually is.

And thank you too to all those expressing support or giving thoughtful and differing perspectives on the issue. It's been hard to keep up with it all, but I appreciate it all.

Alison Croggon said...

Oh, and Anon, your fevered imagination can rest easy. I am not typing this naked, because it's bloody freezing today. But I am quite nude inside my clothes.

susanna said...

Bravo Alison. I support you, for the reasons outlined in my blog today.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Alison and others, who are against this total idiotism!!!

I've moved to Melbourne almost 20 years ago from a completely f@$%ed-up country when it used to come to the freedom of expressing yourself (being you an artist, or writer, or director, or just a thinking person...)

Can't believe this debate is happening in the 21st century in Australia!!!
In the Soviet Union of 70's - yes... in China - yes... in Iran - yes... but in Australia???
Well, I suppose, Australia is considered to be conservative enough in comparison to Europe & States when it comes to Art, the ways people express themselves and interpretation of their works by the masses!!!

I guess there are 2 kinds of people: those who APPRECIATE art and those who DON’T... Which is fair enough - to each its own, as they say... Everybody is entitled to an opinion but, for God's sake, stop imposing your narrowmindness to the people who think 'outside the frame'!!!

I wonder, if K.Rudd, A.Bolt and others have every read 'Lolita' and 'Death in Venice', or watched 'Salo' and 'Satyricon', or saw numerous drawings by Picasso & Michelangelo of naked boys and girls... Living in their own 'framed' worlds they most probably would be shocked and disgusted with its 'pornographic' content, while Nabokov, Mann, Pasolini, Fellini, etc. have been receiving Nobel prizes and other awards for their immortal works... Bill Henson is a true artist who's been studying the subject of adolescence for a number of years and nobody has the moral right to ban his works!

My suggestion to K.Rudd, A.Bolt & 'supporters': - better do something about those idiotic & soul-killing reality TV shows, like Big Brother, etc. that bring up zombies to this world!!! Stop preaching conservatism in thinking and advocating hypocrisy! Make an effort to educate young people about their sexuality, culture, open their minds, make them think and be smart enough to distinguish between art & pornography and have their own opinion on this subject!!!

Geoffrey said...

The petition:

Anonymous said...

You know, Bob Ellis, a number of years ago, wrote the screenplay for a film called "Goodbye Paradise." It ended with a fascist government taking over the imposing martial law. We all thought it was just one of Ellis' red-wine-inspired fantasies. Today, we've got the PM declaring an artist's work he hasn't seen as "revolting" and standing by silently approving police intervention and threats of arrest, and a western suburbs town cheering and congratulating themselves for driving out a muslim school--declaring "we don't want them in this country." Scary, scary stuff.

Anonymous said...

Two interesting opinion pieces in The Age below, that also consider consent.

I actually think this is a very difficult issue. As I see it art or pornography is in the intention of the creator (this is true legally, although with minors the consent issue is also important) but it is also arguably in the eye of the beholder. This in itself is not the fault of an artist. He/she cannot control the way in which his/her work is viewed. But if we accept the view that pornography can be in the eye of the beholder, then we must also accept that a child happy to be photographed in this way may be disturbed about the photograph as an adult. They may well also be disturbed by being photographed for a soccer photo as another blogger comments, but I think the difference is context. It’s a sad comment on society that a photograph of a naked girl can be viewed by some as child pornography when its intent is art. But that is I think a function of society where the production, use and trading of child pornography is increasing, fuelled in main part by the ease of image transfer on the internet, and many are at a loss as to how to combat this beyond stricter law enforcement measures. Perhaps this is the reason for the keen jerk reactions by law enforcement authorities to the exhibition, and the comments by politicians condemning the work. I don't pretend it’s correct; but I think it underlines what is a very concerning wider problem, and I think the ongoing debate is for this reason extremely important.




rhyspeaking said...

Hi Alison,
It seems your letter has (quite rightly) stirred up a lot of debate, as well as a few vicious responses. For what it's worth, I was proud and relieved to see your letter supported by so many respected artists in the community.
Sometimes the media can (rightly or wrongly) give the impression that an overwhelming majority are of the same unimaginative view in this matter. It's easy to forget the enormous amount of supporters Henson has - not just from 'grant propped artists' (I WISH I was so fortunate!) but also from a reasonable, intelligent public.

Well done on saying what shouldn't have needed to be said.

Also, if images of naked children come to equal pornography, I hope the naked photos of me as a baby hanging in parents' house don't land them or me in trouble...

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing the letter Alison. I'm overseas at the moment but I'm glad that local artists are banding together to support an artist who has given us so much over the years - Nick

Anonymous said...

When I was eighteen I went to see David Hamilton's film "Bilitis." It bored my stupid, but should I now just present myself for handcuffs and imprisonment to the NSW rozzers?

John Ford said...

Thank you so much for doing what you're doing, Alison. It is vital work and you'll be dragged through the mud of Australian anti-intellectualism in the process. I wish I could support with more than just words.

Russell Blackford said...

To "IH" ...

Lots of us can be "disturbed" by things that we did as young people (we really must avoid calling teenagers "children", which is demeaning to them and in my opinion an offensive use of language).

However, we may also be disturbed at a later time by things we did as young adults in our twenties, or as middle-aged adults, or as elderly folks, or whatever. People do change.

I am (at least to some extent) disturbed by many things that I did or decided at various different stages of my life, but that does not entail that the state's power of fire and sword should have been used to stop me on any of those occasions (whether by punishing me directly or by coercing other people who were involved). At 13, I may make a decision that I'm happy about. At 22, I may be mortified. At 40 or 50 or 60, I may decide I got it right in the first place when I was 13. In old age, I may change my mind yet again. So life goes on.

We are all entitled to the presumption that we are rational human beings, not part of the sub-rational world like a child or a cat or a pot plant. By the time we reach our teenage years, we often have considerable capacity for reasoning, reflection on our values, etc. (Adults often forget this for some reason.) Sure, parents may (understandably) want to have a final say over matters of consequence, but it is wrong and offensive to set public policy on the presumption that teenagers, such as the subjects of Henson's portraits, lack sufficient intelligence and understanding to make reasonable decisions about what they are doing, at least with their parents available as a back-up.

I feel as strongly about the rights of the subjects of these portraits as I do about Henson's own rights. When I see these young people infantilised as they are by some of the newspaper commentators, and spoken of as if they have no intelligence or values or moral views or capacity for self-reflection, of their own, I am, frankly, appalled. (I am also unimpressed by the intellectual capacities of the commentators concerned; I'm not sure why I should be impressed by the naive pieces in The Age that you cited.)

Yes, let teenagers by all means consult with their parents about decisions of consequence. Let parents have the final say about when their children are ready to make certain decisions - at least up to some age which is doubtless older than 13.

But there seems to be a bizarre exceptionalism in our society about anything to do with the body. Decisions relating to the body are seen as especially problematic in a way that lacks rational foundation; this is surely a residue of centuries of prudishness and shame about the flesh (it can be traced back through Christian thought to St. Augustine and ultimately to Plato, but we no longer have to accept it).

As a society, we must not become so overly protective of teenagers that we deny them all acknowledgment of their rational agency, and all opportunity to make decisions of consequence that they may well feel good, proud, and happy about years later - as appears, from reports, to be the case with Henson's models. There's always the risk of someone regretting a decision about anything of any moment, but that doesn't take away from the probability that rational beings will flourish best if allowed wide scope to make decisions for themselves.

If we care about the rights of teenagers, as I do (just as I care about the rights of adults), we should be standing up strongly for the rights of the teenage subjects in this case. We should not be seeking to use the law to impose offensively paternalistic protections that actually strip away from them all acknowledgment that they are rational creatures. That is itself a pornography of the spirit: a particularly nasty denial of their full humanity.

Okay, I quite understand that not all teenagers may be ready to make such a decision as the decision to pose nude in a particular context. We may well need to let parents be the final judges of how mature and ready their children are, as individuals, to decide something like that - of course, it's not completely black and white at that age. But if the parents do support the decision and can provide an environment of respect and protection for their kids and their decisions, then the law should allow it. As a society, we should all respect it.

Anonymous said...

murdoch & his minions & mendicant determine all public discourse in australia for a very long time

australia has had the misfortune for over a century to have owners of media who are in essence - glorified gangster. proud of their speculations & their quick rushes of liquidity from we know not where

'journalists' are an infamous species in australia. the crimes & i use that word advisedly of 'governments' of contemporary australia - especiall that of howard were aided & abetted by these mad dogs who shit ink over those who shed blood

there is a photograph yesterday of an australian woman baying outside a council meeting - cackling that an islamic school could not be established in camden. in fact she is easy to demonise but it is in fact journalism which has always done the baying

how anyone can read an australian newspaper - & believe what they say - given their complicity in the crimes of the last 13 years - is for me - someone who lives far from you - beyond belief

it is a misfortune that there were only the murdochs, the packers or fairfax - that is one tragedy - it is coupled by men & women who serve them - & this word is also used advisedly - they are servile in every respect

it is no wonder that they mock & demonise john pilger because he is what they can never be - he is inventive, he is courageous & mostly he possesses a moral centre. only in australia is it possible for example to diminish the greatness of a wilfred burchett, or even of a jack lindsay

the 'journalists' role in this affair is decisive because it is the organiser of the baying lynch mobs

john gorton once said he did not care if people marched up & down streets to oppose the war as long as they were ineffective - once they became effective he said it was then necessary to use more repressive forces

journalists have been the principal builders of complicity, they are the architects who hide the underclass in australia with the constant screaming of celebrities. they initiate & enable the worst in the australian character - the 'aussie', the 'digger' etc etc

they ought to be ashamed of their day to day evil but unfortunately they wont - they are all waiting, salivating at the opportunity to work for their master at the times, the new york post or the wall street journal

in the end they know their master is both pornographer & pope

Anonymous said...

RE Anon/9:08 AM, May 28, 2008 ...is that u Billy? "the dark & obese shadow of robert menzies haunts australia still...".Might I add,to quote Menzies circa 1935/40? at prominant art opening of the day(apologies ref escapes me)"..there will be none of that French stuff here".And so it goes,a 40 year wasteland without the education and dialogue of dada has left a deep imprint to those indigenous(ie any born to this land)STILL in the 21st century...just like oz artists and their viewers of the early 1900's, todays viewers of art/general public have also been/&continued to be fundamentally educated through an escalating engagement with a media driven 2nd dimension..as opposed to a direct engagement with 'the art'.I agree that this has somehow allowed/fueled the ignorance toward issues such as this 'Henson/Image debate'...But it is still a long road to understanding that this visual intellectual abyss of the 1920s>1950s as a primary cause,particulary as people have been so post educated to want answers 'now'.

PM Rudd has feet in both camps (intention being that there is only one),but can't help noticing that one foot is a little more firmly planted with the moral majority.This is no help and only fuels the notion of 'sides'..Heads will roll..and this is the whole point for many..scapegoat.

Anonymous said...

I congratulate the previous writer (anonymous 12.06am 29/05/2008) thank God, even with one person acknowledging it, might the three evils of 666 be The Times, The NYPost, and WallSt Journal?? (gasp shock horror tis true!) it certainly is... Packer, Murdoch, Fairfax... another 666... Go Ms Croggon, Ms Blanchet, the artworld at large knows what is art and what is not. For those looking down the lense it is in their perversion that they cry 'wolf' It is their filthy pornographic minds that committ the crime, not the innocent hand of the artist. Leave Henson alone. His work is filled with true artistic beauty and merit. So many high profile and highly respected artists surely cannot be wrong in his defenceWAKE UP AUSTRALIA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

to Anon/12:56 AM, May 29, 2008
"murdoch & his minions & mendicant determine all public discourse in australia for a very long time"


"...journalists have been the principal builders of complicity, they are the architects who hide the underclass in australia with the constant screaming of celebrities. they initiate & enable the worst in the australian character - the 'aussie', the 'digger' etc etc"

I like that one

is that u Billy?

abknowzer said...

Hello dear,

I don't mean to be rude, I mean
it's great that this debate is being had, but I would like to ask a few questions, if I may:

After more than 15 years of Bill Henson's work on the same subject, are we arguing because..?

a. we don't want a copycat horror story like Josef Frankl in our country?

b. the government is using Henson as a way of creating a national debate about art and porn in order to legitimate the passing of tough new laws on porn?

c. the national conscience is troubled; it goes something like, 'why can (we) celebrate photos of naked young female figures by older white men as beauty in our cities while (we are) continuing to justify military intervention for pedophilia and porn in impoverished Aboriginal communities?

If we were really concerned about art censorship, why has Van Rudd's 'anti-capitalist' art on the front page of the Age a few days ago for being censored been ignored in this debate?

If we were actually concerned about the abuse of children, we wouldn't condone the daily slaughter of children in Iraq and Afghanistan through war and sanctions since 1991 (to mention just one case).

Perhaps the real questions are:

1. Just what is 'revolting' and 'disgusting', or is it relative?

2. Whose children are we actually concerned about?

I don't mean anything by it, don't mean to be rude, very sorry.

Yours truly


Anonymous said...

To Russell Blackford…

Thanks for your response to my post. I think you make some interesting points. (And apologies for dubbing a thirteen year old a child. In my thirties that is how I see thirteen year olds and yes that is probably condescending!)

You note: "parents may (understandably) want to have a final say over matters of consequence, but it is wrong and offensive to set public policy on the presumption that teenagers, such as the subjects of Henson's portraits, lack sufficient intelligence and understanding to make reasonable decisions about what they are doing, at least with their parents available as a back-up."

For me this is the key issue. As a lawyer I think you would agree that the concept of consent takes on a different meaning under law to ordinary usage, when issues of age are involved.

A model of thirteen could consent to Bill Henson’s photographs, as could his/her parents, but a thirteen year old model and his/her parents could also consent to pornographic photographs. How do you protect the model in the latter circumstance, if we accept the consent as consent under law? What if in both cases the thirteen year old and his/her parents believed what was being produced was art? Or what if the thirteen year old and his/her parents did not care in the latter case that pornography was being produced? Should one consent differ from the other?

Of course I'm not sure why sixteen is considered the magic age that young people gain sufficient emotional maturity to consent to numerous acts under law. Some young people are emotionally mature at thirteen, some even younger. The question of consent is about the mental capacity to make an informed choice, which is so individual. So where should we as a society draw a line?

While legislation may well apply one standard for all in this area, I think its intention is to protect those who can't make informed decisions, and in doing so, does apply an at times unfair restriction on those who can.

I accept this is not a perfect argument, but I think that is true of many arguments in this area. Many of us feel passionately about art, freedom of expression, and protection of children. Sometimes these are not easy things to reconcile.

On that note I would say that the articles I cited in my earlier post are by authors who have as much right to contribute to the debate as you, me, the PM, Ms Blanchett, etc. Disagreeing with their views shouldn’t really give cause to dubbing their work naive or questioning their intellect. (“(I am also unimpressed by the intellectual capacities of the commentators concerned; I'm not sure why I should be impressed by the naive pieces in The Age that you cited.)”) Steve Biddulph has been a family therapist for eighteen years, and specialized in treating victims of abuse. I certainly may not always agree with his views, but to me, he does have an important perspective to offer.

That’s it for me on this debate for now. Thanks all for a challenging and thought provoking discussion. I certainly hope the debate continues in the wider community.


Anonymous said...

& the myths they use to construct 'identity' in their newspapers are pornographic in themselves

australian men like the canadians, & the irish were led to slaughter in the first world war as if they wer pigs in some unseemly abbatoir. contrary to myth, the majority of men came back broken - even an elementary reading of both history & the novels of this period tell us how broken. & these broken men were broken again by a depression that was created by the rich for which the poor paid. & paid again

singapore & new guinea in the second world war repeated the story & broke yet another generation of men - the documentary film of peter tammer, 'journey to the end of the night' is not only testimony to that but it reveals the broken heart of this sorry nation

as a nation we were complicit in the slaughter of 1 million people in indonesia, we were complicit in the murder of 3 million vietnamese, laotians & cambodians

we have been complicit & servil in the interests of american foreign policy. a foreign policy that ought to be in direct conflict with our own. it isn't

& that is pornography at the profoundest level but i will repeat what i wrote here yesterday - the way the dreams & desires of the 'underclass', the working poor, those people who have every right to a future - whose inequality of opportunity has led them to live all but brutish lives. that is a pornography the politicians do not want to speak of

& i suppose it is this in bill hensons's work is in fact the centre of the problem - the fact that it is troubled & that it reflects this troubled country in a way it does not have the courage to confess

the inability to admit coupled with the elaborate rhetorical tricks of so called journalists are another apple, entirely

poor fellow, my country

Anonymous said...

What next Australia?. Public book burnings of Nabokov's Lolita?.

As an expat Australian, this is just the sort of Philistinism that makes me never want to go back. And yes, cultural cringe is here again.

Anonymous said...

YouTube link and transcript for video demonstrating the ambiguity of art - 'Innocent or Guilty?'

Here is the YouTube link and transcript for ‘Innocent or Guilty?’


Innocent or Guilty?

This video was inspired by the article ‘Small-minded attitudes cloud responses to art,’ by Larissa Dubecki, in The Age, May 26, 2008


Duration: 34 seconds (Silent)
Written, Filmed, Edited, Produced and Directed by Adam Basile

Home: 9750 5242
Mobile: 0403 401 342

Russell Blackford said...

IH, I'll accept your rebuke to this extent: I'll believe you that Biddulph is an intelligent person and competent at what he does. I have no reason to think otherwise. But I still found his article to be naive, and ... er, the reasoning unsound ... I don't think any of us should defer to the author's authority.

I think the best post on this thread is the one from Alison, where she says:

"I would have no problems if Bill Henson wanted to photograph them, as long as my children had no objections, since I know he wouldn't abuse my or their trust. It would be something I would discuss with my kids, who are smart and know their own minds, and we would work it out from there. I would not let 'just anyone' photograph them, and I would want to be very careful and sure of the moral probity of the person involved. I have no doubts at all about Henson. I am as protective of my kids as any parent, and wouldn't dream of putting them in harm's way.

What would give me pause - now - is the kinds of reactions that have occurred in the past four days, which have not been an issue before. The worst harm for the models involved has come from the media frenzy which has labelled them as being involved with pornography."

I think that that exactly sums up the situation. We should be looking at this in the light of what I just quoted from Alison, on the assumption that we are probably dealing with smart young people who know their own minds, supported by loving and protective parents. We are not discussing a case child abuse, but a young person's contribution to tasteful, yet powerful, artistic images, something that might be a very positive experience for many people of that age - though of course, it has now been poisoned somewhat by the media frenzy.

I think that Biddulph's piece in The Age is naive because it doesn't show any awareness of all this. Also, Biddulph seems to have a very under-theorised understanding of the concept of "exploitation". Moeover, he doesn't realise how much his own approach to policy would have disempowered the individual people (ie. the young models) concerned, though (ironically) he talks about teenagers being disempowered by actions such as Henson's! Nor does he understand how he demeans the individuals concerned by writing as if those specific and real people, with real parents who presumably love them, are just generic teenagers - forgetting that they are individuals, just as much as Alison's children are.

The way he de-individualises and infantilises them is itself demeaning and it also verges on the exploitative. Perhaps without realising it, he is taking advantage of their voicelessness and powerlessness in the debate. Since they are not well-placed to speak for themselves, he can get away with writing as if they are not individuals with minds of their own. If those individuals read his article, they will have every right to feel frustrated and insulted, though I freely admit that I don't know them or how they are thinking by now. Who knows, among us adults who are discussing them, how they are now feeling, after being placed unwillingly at the centre of this cultural storm?

Surely, when you add all this up, on the most generous interpretation, Biddulph has at least been naive in writing as he did?

He may well be good at advising and helping abused children, but he looks to me like a man with a hammer who thinks that every problem is a nail. There's also a risk that those of us who are trained in the law could end up doing the same: thinking that every issue must be resolved by enacting legislation, rather than, for example, relying on the good sense of parents.

Even if legislation is needed to regulate young people's decisions to be involved in non-pornographic depictions of nudity, which I doubt, the law can sometimes deal with issues of nuance ... even if only by means of vague-sounding tests such as reasonableness, proportionality, and so on. Based on tests such as those, I'd have to support Henson, and I'd support parents who act towards their children in the respectful, yet loving and protective, ways that Alison described.

By contrast, many of Henson's detractors (and I'm not thinking here of Biddulph) have displayed no sense of nuance whatsoever.

Alison Croggon said...

I have just deleted a defamatory and abusive comment from Jeffrey Browne, who clearly has not read this thread. As I said earlier, comments which are abusive and which bear no relation or rational argument or fact will forthwith summarily removed. And that goes for defamatory accusations as well.

Anonymous said...

Alison, I'm fairly late to this thread, however I wanted to add my small criticism of your letter. While I agree with the vast majority of the expressed sentiments, I have to take issue with the statement: "The defining essence of pornography is that it endorses, condones or encourages abusive sexual practice."

Not all sexually explicit material is abusive or exploitative. A lot of it is offensive and sexist, but that is not to say that ALL porn is like this. Indeed, there is a growing genre of porn/erotica that rejects all the old stereotypes and is trying to present a positive and humanist vision of sexuality.

I'd say the defining essence of porn is that it exists primarily to arouse the viewer. Our sex-negative society is quick to express disgust at this idea - even though surveys have shown that the vast majority of people in this country do not have a problem with legal pornography.

This debate has been quick to conflate legal porn with child porn and eager to express contempt for anything that may be vaguely sexual. I understand the reasons for it - in defending the innocence of Bill Henson there's a distinct desire to distance him and the debate from anything "unsavoury."

But it's a shame that many of those who seek to speak out against censorship do so in a selective way, one that obliquely argues for the status quo, where artists have intellectual freedom but adult material is banned because it seeks only to titillate.

Yes, the definition of porn is really a subject for a whole other discussion and I understand that this is something of a side issue in the larger debate, but I thought it needed to be said.

And no, in seeking to defend legal porn for adults I am in no way defending illegal child porn which is a wholly different kettle of fish.

Alison Croggon said...

Conceded, Ms Naughty; though I deny ever expressing anything like contempt for "anything sexual". I wish that sentence had been better cast. One never gets everything right. A question though: is all sexually explicit material pornographic? What does "porn" mean these days?

I have realised I have a private usage of the word pornography which is not necessarily accurate, one which is conditioned by the extreme, absuive and violent pornography that is these days so easily available (and which includes child pornography, depictions of rape, extreme misogyny, etc). When this kind of stuff is conflated with stuff that isn't abusive, we have a problem, and it's clear we need a better vocabulary. The issue is violence, degradation and abuse being conflated with sexuality. Still, I think this is a single point in a much larger and very complex question.

Anonymous said...

"But that is I think a function of society where the production, use and trading of child pornography is increasing, fuelled in main part by the ease of image transfer on the internet, and many are at a loss as to how to combat this beyond stricter law enforcement measures."

Today, they know they are legion.

It is basically over, the issue is as some of you have noted, ersatz-pedophilia,

I got given a lot of money when Bush was elected, then I was given a lot more when he was re-elected, the FBI position, is that it is over, that's it.

Call this a wierd thing, one of them said, "can we try, I mean, to ban the internet". Let me put it to you this way, look at this url, clock the 14 million number, what does it mean


I was also around when the Bush administration would free pass pedophiles in NATO countries, or indeed any country with an aviation strip, that war in Iraq, it was a hateful thing,

I've in three wars, at the end of the day, what do you do with your head, when a friend is burning up, well, it is like this, you can't hear it, you can see it, you can smell it, you can imagine it, it's pornographic.

With the Australian thing, my Bush money, I kind of think, that it is official, that FBI vista, it is over, how can we have something getting a 'G' in VGT 1 when in VGT 2 ( call it Britain) it gets a few years in jail, how is that corporate?

It can't work, it didn't work, and its over.

In the old COC days, I asked a homophile friend, this was in Holland, what the pedophiles wanted to do, and he said "make it normal".

Actually, I think I've been in four wars, one of them didn't have tanks and moving trench lines, but it was a war and it has reached Australia.