Henson threatened with prosecution ~ theatre notes

Friday, May 23, 2008

Henson threatened with prosecution

Updates below

I am shocked and deeply disturbed to read this morning that photographer Bill Henson - one of Australia's most significant artists - is being investigated by police and threatened with prosecution. Sydney gallery Roslyn Oxley9, which is exhibiting his recent works, cancelled last night's planned opening, amid lurid accusations that Henson is purveying child porn.

It seems surreal: on Tuesday night, I was once again examining a giant, bright yellow poster that announces to the world at large: WANT LONGER LASTING SEX? It's a sight I find unambiguously offensive, but anyone with enough money can put it up where no one can miss it without fear of prosecution. I live in a world awash with advertising images of commodified and sexualised children or women whose bodies are routinely scalpeled and injected with toxins to meet some generically porned-up notion of feminine sexuality, a world where genuine child porn is something that people can access by simply tapping a keyboard.

And what raises the hue and cry? An artist of integrity and passion, whose sensitive and beautiful photographs of adolescents reveal the twilit zones of human liminality, vulnerability and feeling. An artist whose work, in its painful and intimate honesty, directly challenges the crass exploitation and commodification of young bodies by the mass media and porn industries. An artist whose work can, in any case, only offend those who bother to go to the galleries where they are exhibited. This work is, apparently, simply child porn, a form of sexual assault.Update 5: The statement from Roslyn Ozley9 Gallery

As it says in the News Ltd story:

Hetty Johnston, founder and executive director of Bravehearts, a child sexual assault action group, today called for Mr Henson and the gallery to be prosecuted over the images.

"It's child exploitation, it's criminal activity and it should be prosecuted, both the photographer Bill Henson ... but also the gallery because these are clearly images that are sexually exploiting young children," Ms Johnston said.

"They are clearly illegal child pornography images, it's not about art at all, it's a crime and I hope they are prosecuted."

What's pornographic is the pruriently censored images up on the News Ltd site, under the headline "Nude Children Exhibit Shut". The black blocks that conceal their bodies - and vandalise the artwork - demonstrate how shameful we believe the human body really is.

An afterthought: anyone confused about the issue can type "teen porn" into their google (making sure your filter is turned off: and yes, it's a rather unpleasant exercise) and make some direct comparisons between Henson's work and internet pornographers.

Update: More from Chris Boyd

Update 2: A busy day on the anti-art round: artwork by Kevin Rudd's nephew prompts "excessive censorship" by Melbourne City Council

Update 3: PM Rudd himself gets into the act, turns arts critic, condemns Henson's pictures as "revolting" and proves he ought to stick to his own areas of expertise.

Update 4: Police say they will charge Henson. And the senior curator of photography at the Art Gallery of NSW, Judy Annear, defends Henson's work and reputation. She says that he is becoming a "whipping boy" to deflect public anxieties about paedophilia and suggests that the police should be chasing real child abusers.

Update 5: Media statement released this afternoon by Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery.


Chris Boyd said...

I'm sure Henson will crack a black smile when he sees the floating rectangles superimposed on his images. They unwittingly echo the cut and paste he did in the work (massive collagey canvases of photographic paper) that went to Venice maybe ten years ago.

The images don't appear to be all that different (maybe a tad brighter, it's hard to tell in reproduction, Henson is a Nazi when it comes to lighting levels in galleries) to the kind of work he has been doing for fifteen years. Maybe more. The stuff that went to Venice was full-on, in comparison.

Anonymous said...

The Gallery is Roslyn Oxley 9 - his dealer in Sydney

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, anon. The story didn't say but Boyd had the goods. He's been doing works like these for more than two decades, I believe.

Nicholas Pickard said...

This is going to be fascinating as the columnists pour over this one.

Alison Croggon said...

I think it's very bad news, and as the stink spreads, it upsets me more and more. Chilling, as Chris says. Unfortunately, people (read: politicians) are so afraid of being associated with paedophilia that they will kneejerk condemn. And as a society we seem to a totally neurotic idea about childhood. (I have three children, actual child abuse is something I unambiguously condemn and... why am I saying this?) I'm thinking of those poor kids who are currently being interviewed by police for permitting Hension to photograoh them - with the full consent of their families - that's the actual abuse, the sudden translation of the delicacies of art and human relationship into the obscene crudities of policing.

Time for another look at Chris Morris's Paedogeddon, I think.

TimT said...

Struth, the coppers are just doing their job.

A lot of people who work in the pornography industry - perhaps in mags specialising in 'younger' models - could of course use similar arguments about artistic integrity and the importance of freedom of expression.

I note that Gary Sauer Thompson asks why some photographs are not seen as 'a celebration of female beauty'. Again: I wonder how many pornographers have asked the same rhetorical question?

I don't support the closing down of Henson's exhibition, but what's the alternative? A collective agreement to condemn the sexualisation of children except where the arts are concerned? That seems a little inconsistent, a little hypocritical, a little too much like favouritism. It would be open to manipulation from all sorts of pressure groups.

Alison Croggon said...

Well, if you think that Bill Henson is doing the same thing as child pornographers or even those people who make Bratz toys, then I don't know where to begin. There's a great deal of difference, in both practice and effect.

I guess the police are bound to investigate if a complaint is made. They are more likely to prosecute, however, if people like the PM are buying into the question amidst media hysteria like that editorial in the Daily Telegraph.

What depresses me massively about this is that because of the nature of the law, it's impossible to argue a proper defence of art. Think of those court transcripts from the prosecution of Max Harris over the Ern Malley poems - if they weren't real, you'd think it was Monty Python. If child pornography = photographing a nude child, then we're all in trouble.

TimT said...

I don't believe that Bill Henson is doing the same thing as pornographers, and I didn't say that he was!

I just think that collective blogosphere outrage over this is overblown; and that it makes little to no difference to the issues being discussed here to say that Bill Henson is an artist, and to analyse his works as art.

I recall some blogospheric anger over a recent advertising catalogue of clothing for children by - who was it? - Myer? The anger there was directed at the advertiser for presenting semi-sexualised images of children. Well, if Myer can be criticised and held to account for this, why not Henson?

Geoffrey said...

It was David Jones. And if you can't differentiate between Art and a shopping catalogue, then there really is no point continuing the conversation.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Tim - sorry if I misunderstood, it did sound as if you were morally equating Henson's work with porn. Even if you're not, a lot of other people are.

Why do you think it's overblown to be shocked by one of our major artists being prosecuted for purveying obscene material? Especially when you have loved his work for years, and find the true obscenity in the horrific descriptions and mutilations of this work and what it represents?

The problem with your question - for Henson and in terms of the media - is that answering it properly requires an admission that all these issues, including especially the issue of adolescent sexuality (these aren't six year olds, though there was that American photographer who got into trouble for some beautiful photos of her own children, a similar case) are complex. Which means the need for attention, thought and the ability to discriminate between one kind of activity and another. Henson is being accused of "kiddie porn", "criminal activity" - these are emotive words. His work has been called vicious, vile, disgusting by all the good burghers. He exhibition was closed down by the police and half his work confiscated. This is a little more than some people objecting to a Myer catalogue.

Is Henson any of those things that he's accused of? Absolutely not. That doesn't mean that his work isn't disturbing in its own right, but those disturbances are complex and not easily read as simply" sexualised" or exploitative - among its disturbing qualities is in fact the innocence and complexity of the sexuality that it reveals (emphasis on reveals, rather than creates). Maybe the most scandalous thing sexuality can be these days is innocent. But this is fragments of a much longer thought about the deeply problematic and ambiguous ways in which young people are regarded in contemporary society at large that I don't have time to write.

Some differences between Myers (I'm unaware of the particular discussion you mention) and Henson are about commodification into an object, about attention and perception, about what is asked of the viewer. There are many others. Like art, which is not a meaningless word used by wankers to justify their perverse wankeries.

TimT said...

Geoffrey, would you mind actually reading my comment and thinking about my argument for a few milliseconds? I didn't say that art is the same as pornography, and I didn't say that art is the same as a shopping catalogue. But - surprise surprise! - these things may share some characteristics in common. If you don't realise that, then is there any point in continuing this conversation, hmmm?

Thanks for the bit about David Jones, I had a look at the generally interesting Larvatus Prodeo conversation on this, and found out the same thing.

TimT said...

Thanks Alison. As already mentioned, I was wrong about the advertising catalogue - it was David Jones, not Myers. Tigtog did several posts about it. I'm not deeply familiar with Henson's work - I saw an exhibition at the Newcastle gallery some time ago, but that's it.

I find the response overblown because it seems to me the argument is, or at least implies strongly, that Henson should be protected from censorship simply because he's an artist, and that art is always and in every way distinct from, say, pornography and advertising. This seems to me misguided. For instance, art often attempts to stimulate a strong response in the viewer: is this always distinct from, say, pornography? Or propaganda? Is it really controversial to say that Henson stimulates strong emotional, physical, sensual and sexual responses in his viewing public?

And the police response, to interview the teenage models involved and their parents - I don't see why this is necessarily obscene. Sometimes artists do exploit their models. (Think Hitchcock: "Actors are cattle.")

Also, is this censorship really so out of place? No, it's in keeping with the general role adopted by governments in power - prurient, authoritarian, and apt to drastically curb freedoms if they think it's in the public good. This is just the latest example of censorship, certainly not the greatest.

I admit, I'm playing devil's advocate here. But that's because I'm not especially convinced by the arguments I've seen so far. They seem to be a little misplaced - a little contradictory.

Alison Croggon said...

Well, I think it's impossible to generalise about art. I am speaking specifically about Henson's work, and to equate that with child porn is ridiculous and wrong. It's not about claiming special exemption for an artist - it's that the artist isn't doing what he's accused of in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Hail to man for this ‘triumph of decency’ now lets go home nightly and watch some imported telly about an elite special victims crime unit investigating extreme sex crimes and - hail - we'll remember what we hate.

Artists everywhere, planning ways to threaten my family, to insult me, to bate me with masturbation, to take my children away.
Any stunt will do for those sickos.

Good to see the PM’s disgusted. He’s so hot right now.

There’s a reason Lolita was a hard sell in 1955.

The last twelve years of 1955 have erased the bad times, and will stretch on another twelve years.

Apres le deluge I give up and I spit at this world gone loose.

Turnbull should burn his Klimt in solidarity.

Anonymous said...

It's not just Australia; as Chris pointed out, we've got our moral police as well. But at least Karen Finley, Tim Miller et al. weren't led off to the precinct house. Though I fear, given the moral climate in America, that the response to Henson's work here would have been the same.

My own comments here. In solidarity.

Anonymous said...

By the logic of the NSW police, Kevin Rudd and the radio shock jocks, Louis Malle should never have been allowed to make "Pretty Baby" with an 11 year old Brooke Shields in the bathtub, and Martin Scorcese should never have made "Taxi Driver" with Jodie Foster's 13 year old prostitute. Do we really live in such a foolish, cretinous place? has nothing changed since Barry Humphries lampooned the philistines of the 1960's?

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks George and others. The hypocrisy is unbelievable. The media hype incredibly depressing. The subtext (about what adolescence is supposed to be, and our social inability to cope with it) disturbing and distressing.

Henson is one of my daughter's favourite artists. A while back, at around 15, she saw his exhibition in Melbourne. She told me yesterday it was the first time she saw an exhibition that swept her off her feet, that inspired her, that showed her what art could be; perhaps precisely because Henson captures something honest and beautiful about adolescence. And this is a young person who is alert to media exploitation, and scathing, scornful and contemptuous of it.

our man in berlin said...

Exactly. This nonsense is not about sexualisation of children at all, it's about the infantilisation of adults.

Anonymous said...

False kiddie porn complaints closed Henson's exibition- and my blog was suspended by my webhost after another false kiddie porn complaint, oddly enough by a neo-nazi/white-supremacist pornographer and sex-toy merchant, regarding my criticism of the Henson affair.

Nilk said...

"Well, I think it's impossible to generalise about art. I am speaking specifically about Henson's work, and to equate that with child porn is ridiculous and wrong. It's not about claiming special exemption for an artist - it's that the artist isn't doing what he's accused of in the first place."

Why is it wrong?

If art is in the eye of the beholder, then so, presumably, is pornography.

If there's been no major outcry over Henson's work over the years, that's most likely because the hoi polloi don't go to photographic/art exhibitions. They have other priorities, such as working, paying the mortgage, taking the kids to footy and dance practise, trying to keep the garden tidy out in the mortgage belt.

Going into an inner-city gallery isn't exactly high on the agenda.

People on the whole tend to be a lot more conservative in their views as they age, and for all the screams about jackbooted police and censoring wowsers, the artists tend to have a pretty free reign in Oz.

This happens to be one instance where the unwashed masses have actually voiced their displeasure for a change rather than looking over their shoulder and muttering into the paper on the offchance they upset someone.

Alison Croggon said...

Why do you think artists don't have children, bills, mortgages, gardens and so on? I have all of those, except a mortgage.

It's wrong to equate Henson's work with child pornography because it is not anything like it. A quick comparison with any image you can idly google will suffice to show any objective observer that he's doing something very different. Maybe aquick google of some work by Caravaggio or Michelangelo or some classic Greek statuary will show that his work looks much more like that kind of thing. Should we now be covering all the cherubs in the Sistine Chapel because they are naked too?

The "great unwashed masses" - as you call them, not me - allegedly commenting on this have mostly not in fact seen Henson's work, which are huge and carefully lit when they are exhibited, nothing like a mutilated internet image. In fact, more than 100,000 of those very unwashed masses seemed to quite like Henson's work when it was exhibited in the Galleries of NSW and Victoria a couple of years ago.

Moreover, there is no question anywhere except in Hetty Johnston's brain that the taking of the photographs involved any kind of abusive behaviour. I read a statement by one of his models on a blog which strongly defended him.

If Henson's work is to be banned because it might stimulate a paedophile, then we should be out there banning shoe catalogues because they might excite foot fetishists. And if the mere act of photographing naked children is an act of paedophilic behaviour, then about 90 per cent of parents are paedophiles.

Nilk said...

Photographing naked children is not necessarily paedophilic behaviour, and I class myself as, ironically, one of the "great unwashed."

As it stands, I personally find the sexualisation of children as offensive.

I can see the artistic merit of the photographs from a dispassionate distance, but where do you draw the line between art and porn and indecency? Or perhaps the indecency of something being subjective means that it shouldn't be subject to any sort of strictures.

I had never seen Bill Henson's work before two days ago, and I find his photos of girls indefensible.

Perhaps your daughter loved them at 15, but there is a reason that children of 15 are considered under the age of consent. There are a lot more things going on in the adult world that they are not necessarily equipped to consider completely.

I don't advocate the veiling of Caravaggio or Michaelangelo, nor should anyone.

I don't think that they or their subjects are relevant to this discussion as they are hundreds of years old, and in the days when they created the world was different.

Women and children were chattels; girls married at puberty and often to whomever their father or guardian decided was of more advantage.

The morals of a few hundred years ago are not today, and we are talking of children today who are being impacted, not the models of artists long gone.

Alison Croggon said...

I have studied a lot of Henson's work (which does not merely include "naked children", btw). And they are by no means "indefensible".

The young people involved would be far more distressed and traumatised by the media brouhaha and the outrageous misrepresentation and condemnation of the work and their own and their parent's actions than by any action of Bill Henson's. Henson's work does not "sexualise" the children, although it does admit that young people have a sexuality. But I am not going to repeat myself on this: my argument is in the blog post.

There is no moral difference between Henson's and Caravaggio's art, and both are viewed in the present. If you argue that Henson should not be shown in present times, then neither should Caravaggio's.

Anonymous said...

it is not only about the infantilisation of adults

it is also about the complete cretinisation of a culture

Anonymous said...

I hope some of the so-called artists who rushed to Canberra for the 2020 Conference so they could kowtow to Rudd will now have the moral courage to publicly stand up and declare this to be an outrage and international humiliation for the country. So far Alison, you are the only one who seems willing to publicly state their outrage.

Nicholas Pickard said...

Interestingly, Henson is one of the most studied artists in schools. And from what I understand, they dig his work because they identify with it.

And as regards the arts community speaking out, I think you will find they already are.

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, the arts community (perhaps because they are more likely to be familiar with Henson's work) seem to be the only people actually defending him. Everyone else has dropped him like a hot cake - the mere suggestion of kiddie porn is enough to condemn him. I don't know what this will do to Henson - a rather bad hint in the Age today that he is taking it badly - but this kind of public humiliation can destroy an artist. I am very sad and very angry that this is happening in my country.

Anonymous said...

it is very strange - the accusations against bill henson could easily be made at australian society & culture

i left australia nearly 20 years ago & i will never return

i respect writers like daniel keene & gregory day for staying, i respect artists like paul boston & jackie redgate for working there

i was simply not capable of that task.

i found australian culture an obscenity. i found it's real impulses pornographic & i found its acts obscene

the inequality of opportunity, liberalisation & the marginalisation of greater numbers of people - is an obscenity

the demonisation & the creation of an underclass is an obscenity

howards rule & the repeated election of that group is nothing other than a long list of obscenities - whether it is the refusal to accept refuggees, their detention or the complicity in a war that has destroy both the nation, the people & the culture of iraq. these are act so pornogrpahic - that a decent australian - someone possessing some form of common humanity must feel nothing other than shame, profound shame

the newspapeers of that country - even from the internet are nothing other than pronographers - making their mix between tales of celebrity, vulgarity, criminality & redemption found through a culture so colonised it would have awed franz fanon

they say they find bill henson creepy - well i find the age-on-line creepy

the exploitation of the vulnerability & fragility of certain parts of the australian population have come a part & parcel of the 'national character' - that is the real obscentiy

Anonymous said...

xavier herbert called it a nation of scoundrels cheats & liars

the writer george johnson(with his negligence)was caught between the iron trap of an australian identity & the realities of a colonised culture, he & his entire family died at their own hands within that culture - i think that must tell us something

in a country where once there was free education, a health care system worthy of that name & a housing which accounted for the realities of a fractured culture - these have now been turned to shit

that is an obscenity which poor buill henson cannot even begin to compare

Anonymous said...

If the NSW DPP dragged their feet with Patrick Power and the NSW government dragged their feet with Orkopoulos, both genuine offenders, it's hard to imagine them having credibility pursuing this.

Nicholas Pickard said...

Alison, just for your readers - an interesting interview with Henson has been made available which I have posted.

John Ford said...

The whole thing seems to now centre around the issue of consent- could a 12 or 13 year old girl give consent to be photographed naked. This takes the onus of the end use of the photo off the viewer and puts it onto the producer and the subject. To state that these images are created for pornographic use tars us all with the same brush. The use of so many other images becomes corrupted by this notion.

The Carroll/Dodgson image of Alice Liddell being used by the Malthouse to promote Through the Looking Glass is equally- if not more- ambiguous, despite the fact that she's fully clothed.

Where do I start? Let's go after Bratz dolls, Kylie, the Pussycat Dolls, ads on the web etc, long before tackling Henson. Hey, you can be a liberal and a wowser!

Being naked does not necessarily equal being sexual. Can't people see that? Have we gone that far?


Anonymous said...

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...

Congratulations Kevin Rudd.

Previously that girl's only concern was a fleeting time of mild embarrassment if one of the kids at school saw a photo of her naked. Now all the kids at school have seen her naked - and their parents, and the teachers. That in itself probably embarrasses them as much as her and her body probably doesn't look like that any more anyway.

However, not only is she all over the internet now, but The Prime Minister has said that she looks disgusting naked. Somewhere, sometime, that will come back to haunt her in the playground. At a time of life when a girl's body image is extremely fragile those comments are reprehensible.

(Incidentally, it turns out that somebody called Bill Henson is also a famous gay porn star. A google image search for Bill Henson will bring up the images in question, but also images that really should underline the differences between images of nude bodies and pornography!)

Anonymous said...

"Are there any lawyers reading this with a different reading of the law?"

Henson is a free-standing precedent, he is fairly unique. It is usually indecency rather than obscenity which clips an exhibition.

Anonymous said...

David Marr is a lawyer and word is he is writing a book about the Henson affair. let's hope it embarrasses the Rudd government as much as Marr's book on the children overboard scandal embarrassed John Howard's.

Anonymous said...

With all due respect Alison, I've worked in this area for over a decade,

I know enough about the law in Oz to appreciate that Henson's supporters were breaking the law by continuing to circulate & publish the images after the investigation began,

a parent, a child, simply consent to that under your country's laws, they just can't.

The Henson issue, is also a first for that kind of UNCRC breach, it has never, happened before, and that's a very serious violation of child rights.

The UN stuff takes time to build up steam, but Henson now has a place in history, and it is not going to be as per your group-think letter,

Henson is finished, he not a supportable commodity. If one allows for talent to buy him a tag, he is more akin to Roman Polanski, it is a damaged thing, is what I'm saying, and the scotch marks, they're not going to shine up again.

It is the contempt for human rights protocols & conventions that jumps right of the page with you and your friends.

You are bassically a bunch of morally illiterate doubleplusgood people, how thin your moral vocab is, of a kind human rights experts, encounter on other issues such as the death penalty in Texas, or Oklahoma.

Anonymous said...

"At a time of life when a girl's body image is extremely fragile those comments are reprehensible."

Well just about every pedo-site has it now, the porn sites certainly have it, the prostitution sites also have it,

the child sex tourism web-sites as per the foregoing, and, Rudd didn't do that, did he? At least Henson can claim his art has reached its audience.

That's the price of art, we can't abolish beaches, or baby bath-time can we?

Did anybody tell the wee lassie that it was inevitable that a zillion pedophiles would have her photo next to images of babies being raped?

Is that what Henson and the gallery view as a collateral kind of 'real life' thing? So did anybody sit the wee girl down and tell her that?

Anonymous said...

Dear all,

Sometimes I ask myself why this Henson issue isn't worth a single line of discussion in other countries (like most of European ones, even, or especially, in Spain, a very much "know" country as formerly repressive), and people here in Australia loose so much time with this boring and old fashioned issue, discussing it instead of changing Art laws to an international standard [yes ;-) I'm highly controversial here! And I hate the modern illusion of objectivity by imposing standards; we don't do that, by the way, in nature: there we want to have, with all our romantic naivety, "diversity"!]. But to understand this with the indicated respect I'll probably need another five years in this beautiful country I feel, for many other issues, very comfortable and welcomed. Until then I'll just stick with my (not at all new and original) conviction of: Das Bild entsteht im Auge des Betrachters. I hope I'm wrong with this looking at the landscape of how many of Australia's public people see pornography in Henson's work.

Thanks for your time.

Andre Bastian

Alison Croggon said...

Au contraire: if only because of the star power of Cate Blanchett, this issue has been widely discussed in the overseas press. And The Press is not the same as the People. Fortunately.