Naked censorship ~ theatre notes

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Naked censorship

Yesterday it was reported that police were investigating websites hosting Bill Henson's photographs. Aside from the grim humour of seeing Fairfax and News Ltd prosecuted for distributing pictures they have themselves been instrumental as characterising as pornographic, there is nothing very funny about this. (Better get your pictures of Michelangelo's David and Classical Greek statuary off-line quick - and make double sure that no photos of your kids playing in the bath are littering your hard drive).

What a gigantic waste of police time and public money.

I've held off from reproducing Henson's photographs myself because they are copyright images, but that seems a bit irrelevant now. One of the many odd aspects of the public fuss is that nobody seems to have mentioned that he also photographs male nudes. (And landscapes, trees, roads and urban wastelands). As always, it's the female body that requires custodianship and control. For a discussion of the wider political and social implications of this farce, and some other troubling examples of the censorship referred to in the Open Letter, see Richard Phillips' article here.


Tony Comstock said...

A couple of things:

1) Thank you for visiting my blog and commenting. It has been a pleasure disagreeing with you and I mean that most sincerely.

2) A friend of mine works with sexual offenders. Here in the US by far the most frequent victims of sexual abuse are girls, perpetrated by people they know. I would guess it is no different in Australia. This might account for why images of girls provoke a stronger reaction than images of boy. That doesn't I don't agree with you about the custodianship and control that we presume to have over girls' and women's bodies that we would never presume over boys and men.

3) While I do not see any of the controversial work by Mr. Henson as manifest evidence of child abuse, I am no more comfortable with this image than I am with any of the other images I've seen.

4) What does Mr. Henson's other subject matter have to do with anything? I've made documentaries about flood victims, HIV orphans, 9/11, and many other "noble" causes. Does this now have a bearing on whether or not my films that depicted nudity and sexuality are or are not "art"?

If someone had a problem with the way in which I made my films, or what I depicted, I would never, ever presume to point to my HIV orphan film as a defense, because it's not. Either I broke the law making my film or I did not. What other films I may have made at some other time in some other place, whom they were commissioned by, or where they have screened is irrelevant.

A cogent and pro-social defense of Henson's work methods can be mounted without resorting to asking a court to decide what is and is not art. Court's have shown themselves to be incredibly inept in making such determinations, it's not where I'd want to make my stand.


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Tony - likewise. I must say, I find your reservations a little odd, since surely we both agree that the point of art is surely not comfort.

The point about his other work is relevant insofar as many people are claiming that ALL he does is photograph naked 12 year olds.

Also, it might interest you that I've had about four emails (a couple on this blog) from survivors of child sexual abuse or from people who work with sexually abused children. All of them supportive of Henson's work. I find this particularly intriguing in the light of the shitstorm.

Alison Croggon said...

PS ...and yes, the whole point of the Open Letter, and many other arguments I've read that approach this from a variety of viewpoints, is that the courts are not the place to discuss the issues raised by these pictures. Unless of course some kind of abuse has actually taken place, of which there is not a shred of evidence.

Tony Comstock said...

This stabbing away in e-mail and blog comments is awkward. Perhaps you and I should have one of those horrible panel discusions I hate

RE: Comfort.

All this time I thought it was the sex, but now that I think about it, the desire to comfort plays a huge role in how and why I make my films. Maybe that's why the OFLC doesn't consider my films to be art! Too comforting!

RE: Reservations

The photos, both the ones of the girls I've seen and now this one of a boy remind me of the long tradition of ommission in our shared artistic heritage. Vulvas are never shown. Erect penises are never shown. In photography especially baroque poses and abrupt cropping to avoid showing these details are the standard coding for "art".

I'm not saying I want to see these children's genitals. But at a certain point if someone keeps saying "it's just nudity it's just nudity. it's no big deal," yet in photo after photo they always seem to be cropped/posed just on the edge, I grow suspicous of the artist's claim that "It's just nudity and it's no big deal."

Yes, I know. I just said something awful and inflametory about Mr. Henson, somethign unsupported by all his other work and the testimony of his models and their parents.

Fine, he's not a creep. But these photos make him look like a creep to me. If that's a hard concept to understand, I would recommend reading film editor Walter Murch's thoughts on "seeing around the edge of the frame."

I have always admired artist who can create work that is only enriched by knowing the backstory to its creation, but does not require it to be understood and appreciated.

I have also always admired teh work of Egon Schiele, not only because it's beautiful, but because even though his poses are often twisted, he never seems to use them as a way to pretend women don't have genitals.

That doesn't mean the drawing I have on my blog, the one of the nude girl who looks to be about 14 years old with the splash of pink on her vulva doesn't give me the creeps.

Anonymous said...

Consideration of Henson's whole body of work should be relevant as his character and integrity as an artist will be part of his defence if it ever (God forbid) gets to trial.

Alison Croggon said...

Tony, I recommend you go to a library and take out one of the excellent art books which have good reproductions of Henson's work and have a look. Then get back to me. Unfortunately, to me your comments just confirm the damage done to this (highly Romantic, beautifully realised) work by this cheapening media furore.

Tony Comstock said...

Begging your pardon Alison, but I've been a proffessional photographer for nearly two and a half decades, with plenty of experience looking at polaroids and being able to make a pretty damn good guess as to what the shot was going to look like in the magazine at 150 dpi, as well as all the other transliterations and degridations that my medium might go through before someone finally gets a chance to see it.

As I said in our e-mail exchange, Mr. Henson clearly has a powerful command of the medium, and I've no doubt that Mr. Henson's work is more impressive in a fine art book, and still more impressive when the actual prints are viewed in proper lighting. That has about zip to do with what I'm talking about.

Alison Croggon said...

Henson's work is usually presented in series, or in diptychs and triptychs, and a great deal of care is taken in how these are put together; so yes, it has everything to do with with the argument. If you want to speak fairly about the work, you should be aware of what it actually is.

Anonymous said...

Tony, it's bad enough that Henson's character is being sullied by people taking a dim view of what he's showing us in the photos. To cast aspersions on him for what he's not showing us is getting absurd.

Tony Comstock said...

Oh? Dyptychs and triptychs? Why didn't somebody tell me sooner!

Look, I'm sorry for the sarcasm. But come on. We both know full well what I am responding to negatively in Henson's work has nothing to do with whether I'm seeing it in its full-blown glory, presented in a museum as intended, or in the factured form in which I've seen it on the internet.

Would I be more impressed with Mr. Henson work if I saw it in a fine book or in person? Probably; and I'd say it's 50/50 at best as to whether that would improve my impression of the man who created it. Making beautiful art does not magically make one a beautiful person; I'm proof enough of that.

Tony Comstock said...

I want to make sure I'm not misunderstanding you, Abe. Are you suggesting that if these photographs had been produced by someone without a reputation or body of previous work that we should alter our assessment of them, especially with respect to whether or not they are depictions of child abuse and/or are the product of circumstances that constitute child abuse? I hope not, but that seems like the corollary to your position. I've been on the receiving end of that sort of thinking and I didn't like it very much.

And just so there's no misunderstanding me.

I offered my opinion on the boy photo because of Alison offered that we might care less about boys. It was a mistake to expound on my own personal response to Mr. Henson's work (such as I've seen it) because my person response is irrelevant, just as the personal response of those who would seek to have this work banned and Henson prosecuted is irrelevant, just as the personal response of Henson's most ardent supporters is irrelevant.

Also, I know I'm a long way away, but I am as distressed as any of you about this dust up, and with good reason. I've had my films removed from theaters Australia, my DVDs removed from store shelves. Right now there are people in Australia, good friends, who risk going to jail so that my films can be seen. We have a whole catalog of inside jokes about what I will or won't do while they're in prison (visitation, files in cakes), who will take care of their children, etc. We joke, but we've also read the relevant laws and have planned accordingly. We look on at this most recent nonsense and say "Will we be next?"

But in the rush to defend Mr. Henson, I believe that things are being said that do not ultimately serve the cause of artistic freedom. I believe there are things being said that put my friends in greater danger.

So yes, please, argue for these parents' rights to raise their children as they see fit, argue for Henson's right to make his pictures. But please do it carefully. There are people, not famous, well-respected artsy people, but good, honest and decent people none the less, who will be hurt if you are rash.


Alison Croggon said...

Tony, I've seen Henson's art, and in contexts where it is supposed to be seen. All I am suggesting is that a sensationalised media context where he is being accused of making kiddie porn is not that context. In Henson's case, the photos are indisputably made for artistic reasons. This is a LEGAL question which has to do with whether he will be prosecuted, which is, in the present political atmosphere, and however ridiculous and untenable, very much up for grabs.

It is the legal question that concerns me, and what most concerns me is that it is being confused with moral questions that more properly should remain in the realm of public debate and personal conscience. This is what I think you're doing here. If we want to legislate on morality outside the uncontroversial questions of criminality, I guess we should all be embracing Sharia law.

There are also wider concerns outside this particular case, which in particular moved me to write the letter and which are mentioned in it.

I understand your personal concern. I don't see how it is served by your making character assessments of Henson based on the slimmest of familiarity with his work and practice and garnered from the sensationalist media coverage this case has attracted.

Alison Croggon said...

...and no, I'm not saying that, because Henson is an artist, he can't be guilty of child abuse: I am saying that there is not one shred of evidence (whether he is an artist or not, or a great artist or not) that he is guilty of child abuse. And despite the impulses of some among us, I thought we still lived by traditional ideas of justice, eg, the presumption of innocence.

Tony Comstock said...

Are you familiar with the Florida case where in a 16 year old girl was convicted making and distributing child pornography because she took photos herself having sex with her 17 year old boyfriend and then sent the photos to him over the internet?

The teenagers where perfectly within their legal rights to have sex. I think it can reasonably be inferred that the girl did not intent to create images that "endorsed, condoned or encouraged abusive sexual practices", yet she was convicted.

In light of this horrifying yet unremarkable example of how the law imbues the making of photos with a magic power to transform legal actions into illegal documents, can you understand I am ultra sensitive to anything that suggests the making of images has any bearing on the legality of the circumstances under which the images were made? Can you understand how I might find appeals based on Mr. Henson's pedigree or talent unsettling? This teenage girl could make no such appeal. There was no long list of cultural luminaries speaking on her behalf. She had only the simple fact that nothing illegal was happening before, during, or after the moment the image was created, and sadly that was not enough to secure her freedom.

RE: Character Assessment

Having expressed my regret for offering my personal response to the photos in question, I will risk a revisitation.

The exception I take to these photos, the (in my view) mannered and fetishistic cropping/posing, would get under my skin regardless of the age of the subjects. I've written at length about this elsewhere; there is no need to recount those arguments here. As I said, my reaction to the work, and the impression it gives me of the man who made it is irrelevant to the discussion of where the boundary might lay between the legitimate interests of the state and parents' rights to raise their children as they see fit.

As to whether or not my reaction is "fair", well that hardly seems relevant either. I have strong, visceral reactions to artwork, a phenomena for which I consider myself blessed. For example, it took me ten years to forgive Paul Riser for the role he played in ALIENS (were he played a very creepy guy indeed!) I know full well that Paul Riser is in fact not the character he played in a movie that took place somewhere in a fictional future. I know my reaction isn't reasonable, let alone "fair". I also know that it isn't reasonable and fair that I feel adoration for David Simon; I've never met the man, my feelings of affection are born solely from my experience of his books and television shows.

Were I to hazard a guess, I would expect that Mr. Henson is sophisticated enough to view whatever character assessments people make on the basis of his work with a healthy degree of detachment. I would also hope that whatever character assessment people make of Mr. Henson on the basis of his work, and how these suppositions might bear on the issue at hand would be viewed with similar detachment in a court of law, or in the court of public opinion.

I'm sure that makes me sound naively idealistic. I've been accused of worse.


Russell Blackford said...

Tony, Henson's liberty and reputation as a good citizen, which are at stake here if he's accused of a serious crime, cannot depend on your personal responses to his work, though they may depend to some extend on the broader fact that it's work of artistic seriousness and value. I guess you agree with this, since you wrote:

As I said, my reaction to the work, and the impression it gives me of the man who made it is irrelevant to the discussion of where the boundary might lay between the legitimate interests of the state and parents' rights to raise their children as they see fit.

I'm happy to read your critique; don't get me wrong about that.

But let's keep this somewhere at the front of our thinking: in a modern pluralist society (or a liberal society, as I like to say) many people will have different responses to Henson's work, and many parents will have different views as to whether they would be happy permitting their children to take part as models in the way that's currently under discussion. The key thing about a liberal society is that it permits such differences and counts a wide range of different critical responses - and a wide range of different uses of parental discretion - as being "reasonable" for the purposes of the law.

The ethico-legal principles of a liberal society require that the coercive power of the state be exercised with great reluctance, and if it is going to be exercised at all then countervailing values, such as artistic expression, must be taken into account. (Accordingly, it is relevant to the free speech aspect of the issues that what we're dealing with is, irrespective of all the differing judgments about its meaning or value: (1) individual expression, and not something prepared for an overwhelmingly commercial purpose such as product advertising; and (2) of a certain level of artistic quality.)

It seems to me that, even if some well-informed people have adverse critical responses to Henson's portraits in some way, we ought to be defending the artist's right to create them and the rights of the young models to take decisions, in consultation with their parents, to participate. This is not the sort of situation where the clumsy machinery of the criminal law should be involved, and it's incredibly dangerous for art and expression if, as a society, we are too quick to wheel out that machinery to settle cultural disagreements.

Surely, the priority currently lies in defending Henson from imprisonment and the stigma of being declared a criminal - with all the serious ramifications that that has for any citizen.

Artists and intellectuals need a wide margin in which to operate without having to fear criminal punishment and stigma. Like Henson and his work or not, it seems clear to me - and I'd hope for wide agreement about this - that he operated well within that margin. But serious efforts are now being made to narrow the margin, and I don't expect those efforts to cease any time soon.

There are, of course, issues of paternalistic concern for young people, though there are also legitimate concerns about the ongoing infantilisation and disempowerment of young people by our social institutions (something that has become a serious problem for modern societies, which are plagued by the consequences of having created an adolescent maturity gap).

But we must not forget that there are also genuine issues here to do with freedom of artistic expression. While it's correct to focus on the proper role in the criminal law for an element of state paternalism, we mustn't lose sight of the fact that, within sections of the Australian community, there's widespread distrust - sometimes verging on contempt or hatred - of artists and intellectuals. Politicians are usually wise enough not to whistle this out as a tactic in populist electioneering. However, it's happening in this case, and I think we have good reason to be fearful about where it will lead.

I agree with you, though, that it would be just as important to defend an unknown artist as it is to defend Henson. We might not be able to confront politicians with the same prudential arguments ("think of Australia's international cultural reputation"), and I don't think we should eschew those arguments in the present urgent situation. It's unwise to throw away whatever bargaining power you have. But it would, nonetheless, be equally important to defend an unknown artist's liberty, reputation, and freedom of expression.

The main difference is that with Henson we don't have to start from scratch: his fame and success may not give him any more right to be defended, but they do assist in constructing the defence. They provide some quick and compelling evidence of the fact that his work is of artistic seriousness and value ... and that fact is definitely relevant to how it should be regarded by the law.

Anonymous said...

When I was ten years old, I begged my parents to allow me to appear in a film. The film depicted cruelty to animals, naked children, and raw primal brutality. I loved every minute of it, as did the other thirty kids who took part, and am proud to have been a part of it. Will Dear Leader Rudd and Gormless Garrett now urge the police to confiscate all copies of Peter Brook's "Lord of the Flies" and declare the lot of us "revolting?"

Tony Comstock said...

"Artists and intellectuals need a wide margin in which to operate without having to fear criminal punishment and stigma."

Artists and intellectuals, Russell? What about the rest of us?

Russell Blackford said...

That's a good question, Tony. I'm all for the Millian harm principle and the narrower principle of freedom of speech and expression (I'll just call this free speech, for short) applying to everybody. Indeed, I've often defended these principles in quite different contexts from what we're discussing here.

Nothing that I said should be taken as saying that artists and intellectuals are the only people who ever require free speech or the broader benefits of the harm principle. But artists and intellectuals do actually have particular need to worry about free speech in order to do what we do. The special need to protect work of artistic or intellectual value has always been one of the reasons for free speech, though by no means the only one. You'll find this thread through the US First Amendment case law, for example, and likewise the Canadian case law under the Charter of Rights.

If you go here ...

... you can find a citation to an article that I wrote for Quadrant, where I have a fair bit to say about what I see as the rationale for free speech, above and beyond broader concerns that support the harm principle. I'll avoid repeating its content and so writing another long contribution to the thread. Feel free to join the discussion on my own blog if you want to take it up with me further. I don't want to hijack Alison's blog for my pet philosophical theories.

Anonymous said...

How wonderfully ironic--after all this it is Donald McDonald, long distrusted by the Left for his friendship with John Howard, to be the one to inject a note of sanity and to officially declare the artwork NOT pornography, and worthy of nothing more than a PG rating. Thanks Labor party, from Rudd to Garrett to Iemma, you showed your true colours on this.