Reality: what a concept ~ theatre notes

Monday, June 02, 2008

Reality: what a concept

Ms TN and others have had many requests from people who would also like to put their names to the The Open Letter in Support of Bill Henson. Those who would like to do so may go here. Please pass around the word to anyone who might be interested.

Given that (rather laughably, given the fuss) the Classification Board has rated the internet images of Henson's art as "G" or "very mild", prosecution seems very unlikely: but the wider concerns about freedom of expression remain. These are not concerns confined to the arts, as should be demonstrated by the closure of an exhibition about conditions in Hebron after a visit by anti-terror police.

The concerns expressed are about the rights of all of us to represent or debate realities that may offend sections of our community: a point that Guy Rundle seems to have missed in his off-the-mark commentary in the Age today. It's hard to see how the soberly argued Open Letter, which clearly condemns child abuse by anyone, places artists above the law; perhaps Rundle forgot to read it. Certainly, on the strength of some of the responses I've read, I suspect that some of our prominent commentators would fail English comprehension exercises at school.

Yesterday, in a move that reflects the present climate, the ABC reported that the AMA is campaigning for funding cuts to companies making plays and films that depict smoking. I've avoided the phrase "nanny state" (prominent on banners on Friday night, during protests against the 2am lock-out the State Government is introducing, supposedly to prevent street violence) but it's a bit irresistible. Presumably all of us are impressionable infants who can't make up our own minds about anything, and are also incapable of noticing what goes on in the world around us.

Further, many people seem to think that art is a branch of advertising that exists to "promote" certain types of behaviour or "messages". No, it's not: but that's a long argument I won't address here. I'm beginning to wonder if reality is the one thing that artists are not permitted to represent. Welcome to the Brave New World. And pass the soma.


Tony Comstock said...

"I'm beginning to wonder if reality is the one thing that artists are not permitted to represent."

This is like poetry!

Anonymous said...


on reading Guy Rundle’s piece I’d agree that it seems like he hasn’t actually read the open letter (or perhaps he only read half of it because there was another open letter somewhere else that he had to write an opinion piece on).

He also doesn’t seem to have read the laws regarding child pornography or the publishing of indecent articles, the ones that will be brought into effect if Henson is to be charged with anything. He says that Henson’s defenders are fighting a battle “against a good law that artists want special exception from” but he seems ignorant of the fact that the laws in question allow for special exception.

From the NSW “Crimes Amendment (Child Pornography) Act 2004” [the capitals below are mine]:

“...It is a defence to any charge for an offence under subsection (2) [in this case whether Henson’s photographs constitute child pornography]...that, having regard to the circumstances in which the material concerned was produced, used or intended to be used, the defendant was acting for a genuine child protection, scientific, medical, legal, ARTISTIC or other public benefit purpose and the defendant's conduct was reasonable for that purpose...”

And from the “Crimes Act 1900 - Sect 578c” [i.e Publishing indecent articles]:

“... In any proceedings for an offence under this section in which indecency is in issue, the OPINION OF AN EXPERT as to whether or not an article has any MERIT IN THE FIELD OF literature, ART, medicine or science (and if so, the nature and extent of that merit) is ADMISSIBLE AS EVIDENCE.”

While some of the arguments that the arts community has used to defend Henson have been characterised by Rundle and others as being out of touch with community standards, they seem to be consistent with legal standards. That’s why I find it highly improbable that Henson will be charged.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Abe. People seem to be missing that the question of artistic merit is a legal point. "Community standards", whatever they are, are what communities argue about. Outside court.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations Alison. You have been officially dubbed a "luvvie" by Gerard Henderson.

Alison Croggon said...

What precisely is a "luvvie"? I'm never quite sure.

Fwiw, Henderson's piece is the usual dishonest fare. We weren't protesting on the basis of Rudd's comments, but on the police raids of galleries, which are another matter altogether. Nor was anyone sensible particularly shocked by Rudd's comments: just dismayed.

I notice Henderson's suggesting that we're being patronising in asking for Rudd's responses to be "well considered": yet Rudd himself admits that his comments came after he looked briefly at the images (under the heading "child porn") on a journalist's laptop, having never seen them before. If that's a "well considered" judgment, well, poor fellow my country.

Henderson too seems to have missed the fact that Coetzee has himself written extensively about art and censorship ("Giving Offence: Essays on Censorship"), in which he observes: "Censorship is not an occupation that attracts intelligent, subtle minds". Indeed.

Russell Blackford said...

When this is all over, I hope we learn the lesson that a lot of people who get lionised on the political Left are actually social conservatives - sometimes in disguise, and sometimes quite openly. If we want liberal (in the best sense) leadership and thought, we're not going to get it from the likes of Kevin Rudd and Guy Rundle.

Alison Croggon said...

Sadly true, Russell; although I think that's been evident for some time to anybody taking notice of the discourse.

Tony Comstock said...

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"

What many people who insist on returning to the question of artistic merit miss is that the money that fuels attacks from groups like the Australian Family Association comes from victories in battles that the 2020 club, the artists and intellectuals did not bother to attend.

Did these battles involve questions about minors and consent? No. Abuse and exploitation? No.

No, these battles were about "artistic merit" and the AFA won. They won, then they cheered their victory and told their supporters "This is but the first of many great victories!"

Now they are on your doorstep. You've stood by while others had their work debased and suppressed, their livelihoods threatened. You've even invoke your enemies own inflammatory rhetoric, hoping that artistic merit would protect you.

Well guess what? It hasn't and it won't. It may keep Bill Henson out of jail, but it won't protect your freedom. You think artistic merit is a shield, but it's not. It's a sword, a sword you wield as eagerly and selfishly as your enemies, but with not half their cunning.

Your enemies have already been strengthened by this skirmish. Whether or not Bill Henson goes to jail, your enemies will emerge from this fight richer, more numerous, more politically connected, more emboldened.

Their next target won't be a Bill Henson. It will be an unknown, unpopular, embarrassing to defend target. It will be a two paragraph article on page seven. It will be easy for you to ignore. And they've won, they will cheer that victory; they'll write letters of praise to the OFLC, and letters of support to their MPs, to the Attorney General, to the Prime Minister. They will revel in their victory and raise more support and muster even greater resources.

And they will be back. Maybe they won't come for you Abe, or you Alison, or you Russell, maybe not next time. But you've honed the edge of their most effective weapon, and one day they will come for you.

Alison Croggon said...

Erm. This is a bit unfair on those "artists and intellectuals" who do constantly defend freedom of speech in all sorts of arenas, including political questions that have more significance in terms of life and death than whether Henson's work ought to be banned. As I've already explained, the "2020 club" (for godsake) has been in existence since this April, so can hardly be expected to act on things that happened years ago.

Aside from the legal question, the significant question in this particular case, I defend the concept of "artistic merit" because I believe there is such a thing. Otherwise why would I bother writing thousands of words on this blog attempting to discuss precisely this idea? Guy Rundle may believe it's an old-fashioned concept, but there are a lot of people 20 years younger than he is who would passionately disagree with him, and who have very new-fashioned ideas on what that concept of merit might mean.

And I've been a keen observer of the cunning of the enemy for many years (which enemy has "come for me" more than a few times). I certainly believe that it's an error to underestimate them, but I think equally that over-estimation is a bad mistake.

Russell Blackford said...

Actually, Tony, if you follow what I've been doing for the last ten years it involves defending the freedom of scientists to engage in biomedical research, defending people who want to be critical of religion (e.g. I've opposed religious vilification legislation ... and incidentally also argued for narrower legislation on racial vilification), and much else. I've even taken highly unpopular stances (unpopular with the Left as well as the Right) such as defending reproductive cloning. I've defended gestational surrogacy (with appropriate safeguards) before it was popular to do so. Within reason, after considering any genuine countervailing values such as the welfare of children, I'm always willing to take a stand for liberty - whether it's the liberty of scientists, artists, Pentecostal Christians (I don't much like them but I defend their freedom of speech to the death), gay or lesbian couples who might benefit from technologies such as cloning or gene splicing, and on and on.

Look my friend, maybe I missed whatever battle you're hinting at, but no one can be everywhere. If you can give me a bigger soapbox my voice will be heard more prominently and if issues come to my attention I'll often respond to them, but meanwhile I need to make some kind of living. Even so, I doubt that you'll find someone who's been more consistent in arguing everywhere he can across a wide range of issues for genuinely liberal positions in the spirit of John Stuart Mill.

Tony Comstock said...

"I defend the concept of "artistic merit" because I believe there is such a thing."

"Artistic merit" serves you, and the people you know. Is it beyond your imagination that that this concept, when enshrined into law, cuts people off at the knees. It denies people's work a venue, denies people a livelihood, threatens their liberty, and stifles expressive freedom.

You believe in, defend, and invoke "artistic merit" as an operating principle in the law because you've never had "artistic merit" used against you, and I'd guess you can't imagine it ever will be.

I certainly never imagined it would happen to me.

Inkster said...

I wouldn't get too hung up on the issue of relative merit.

The issue in the case of child pornography is "genuine artistic purpose" and the "reasonableness" of the conduct in pursuit of this purpose.

If the purpose exists and is genuine, it wouldn't matter whether it scored 47 out of 100 in the merit stakes, as long as it was still reasonable.

In a sense, it is the attempt to be artistic that matters, not its success on some arbitrary scale of artistic or critical success.

It is still amusing that some politician or lawyer has added the qualification that the conduct must be "reasonable" in the pursuit of the artistic purpose.

This makes it necessary to work out whether an artistic endeavour is reasonable (or not unreasonable).

Only a lawyer (or a bush lawyer) would try to complicate issues to the extent that creativity or invention was measured by its reasonableness.

Ultimately, I think it would come back to issues of whether the work was genuinely seeking to be artistic (as opposed to seeking to titillate or perhaps trying to make money as a primary goal).

This raises the possibility that a work might be too commercial to be artistic.

If the charges proceed, I think we are in for a comedy of aesthetics. Let's hope it's not a tragedy as well.

Alison Croggon said...

I wouldn't get too superior about being self-serving, Tony; and I don't know why you keep banging on about my "friends". I speak of many people I've never met and never will meet. Bertolt Brecht or Shakespeare, for instance. Just quietly, if your film was included in a film festival, it would have a good case for artistic merit; and if I were you I'd be arguing up its artistic merit for all it was worth. But that's your call.

The "reasonableness" of art is, as you say Inkster, a pretty comical concept. Les Murray pointed out, with a true poet's wit, that "Art is indefensible". And as the Ern Malley case showed superlatively, art in the law courts is always a tragi-comedy.

Alison Croggon said...

PS I wouldn't like to be arguing that art that makes money disqualifies itself as art.

Tony Comstock said...

Artistic Merit
• Under Section 11 of the Act, artistic merit is one of the many considerations that must be taken into account when making classification decisions.
• Some people believe that artistic merit is given too much weight and is used to justify R decisions for films such as Gasper Noe’s Irreversible and more recently Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs.
• Such assertions are incorrect - a film is always considered in its entirety.
• Artistic merit is a long standing and legitimate consideration which is important for ensuring fair and appropriate decisions.
• Of course there have been films, arguably of artistic merit and by critically acclaimed directors, which have been refused classification – such as Tras El Cristal, Baise Moi and, as you all know, Salo.
• As I understand it, these films were not considered to be of such artistic merit as to otherwise override the other requirements of the Code and Guidelines.
• Despite recent criticisms there is no intention to remove the concept of artistic merit as a consideration in classification.

From the speech "Does Art Censorship Create More a Decent Society" Delivered by Des Clark, Director OFLC through 2007, Delivered July 23, 2005

Anonymous said...

From the OFLC's Classification Review Board decision to reclassify 9 songs from Refused Classification to "R" -- "9 Songs, made by the highly-regarded British director Michael Winterbottom, is a film of serious intent and considered by many to have artistic merit. The underlying themes of the movie, the honest, realistic and, at times, emotional and poignant depiction of the couple’s relationship, which were integrated with the scenes at rock concerts, were likely to resonate with a number of the film’s likely audience and had artistic value."

Inkster said...

Alison said "PS I wouldn't like to be arguing that art that makes money disqualifies itself as art."

I didn't mean to come across as supporting this argument.

This type of argument is a natural consequence of interpreting legislation that focuses on "purpose" or "intention".

It doesn't deal very well with the reality that people's conduct can have multiple purposes or outcomes.

What worries me is that someone might infer from commercial success that artistic purpose was not dominant.

To the extent that art can be a form of communication, commercial success is actually a measure of relative success in communication.

Alison Croggon said...

It strikes me from the posted examples that the problem isn't the question of artistic merit at all, which is one of the few and necessary defences we have against the blanket moralisers, but the judgments of the OFLC that in some cases other considerations override it. And it is those judgments that ought to be (and have been) criticised and questioned.

Tony Comstock said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Alison Croggon said...

No, you misunderstand me profoundly Tony. Perhaps even wilfully. Of course I think the primary judgment is aethetic, and I'm arguing precisely for that to occur in the proper places (ie, in public fora like this, rather than in a court of law). I'm a bit tired of arguing in circles around this one, so you'll forgive me if I butt out. I've got a life that is noisily demanding attention.

Anonymous said...

For a critic there's barely any actual criticism of Rundle's article, aside from a couple of catty comments suggesting he hasn't read the open letter. The sole substantive point is Abe Pogos's argument that the existing law allows special exemption for artistic merit.

Rundle's argument, as I read it, is that the high/low, art/porn distinction this was based on, is disappearing, and that Henson's work uses so many of the tropes and themes of porn that the work complicates the distinction in this case in particular.

You haven't really replied to his criticisms that the letter is imbued with an elitism that can no longer be defended, and depends on intagible matters such as context, talent, intention etc.

Nor have you replied to his argument that such an elitist position was tactically stupid, in terms of people's legitimite concerns about photographic child porn, and their lack of interest in the low/high art distinction.

Do you really think that the idea of the capital A Artist is a radical one? You seem to be the social conservatives, relying on a set of judgments - coincidentally affirming the heroic role of the artist - the rest of us have long since dispensed with.

Alison Croggon said...

Sigh. No, I don't feel like arguing with Rundle point by point. I'm a bit tired of arguing about all of this at the moment. But the complexity of my own position might be deduced from the fact that I write in what, in this rather tired false binary, might be called High Art forms (opera libretti, poetry et al) and Low Art (epic fantasy novels). In all of them with some success. And I totally fail to see how defending freedom of expression is in any way elitist.

Alison Croggon said...

(cont)...ok, I'll take the bait. A little. The question of artistic merit in Henson's case was always there for the reasons Abe named. In Henson's case, it's a clear legal question that pertains to whether he ought to be prosecuted for obscenity.

But to broaden the issue: I have never understood why art is considered to be elitist, when anyone who can see or read or listen can participate in it. It is no more nor less elitist than sport: watching a football match requires as much special knowledge as it does to look at a painting, probably more. "Artistic merit" can be applied in many ways, and those who think it necessarily implies the high/low art distinction or the idea of "artist as hero" need to get out more and see what artists actually make these days. I spend a lot of time in that vulgar artform the theatre, where such distinctions can end up being nonsensical. Artists are not responsible for the idiotic assumptions made in the mass media about what they do - and you'll find that most artists are not snobs, even if some arts consumers are. But they do understand that making art is an activity that requires specialised skills and knowledge. Like riding bikes at an elite level, for instance. Your average cyclist doesn't scream "elitist" when he doesn't make the Tour de France; why should the arts be any different? People engage at all sorts of levels, from your average fanfic writer to JM Coetzee. And that's as it should be.

What "artistic merit" does imply is that merit can be applied to the idea of art. I think that's a fine idea. I think there is a lot of merit in artistic expression, in how it enriches both our public and private lives. And I think those who want to get rid of the idea that art has merit just want to get rid of art altogether. They are welcome to their view, but I don't think it's a view compatible with a belief in a civil society.

I have more complex thoughts about the attitudes to adolescent sexuality expressed in many of the objections to Henson's work, a lot of them to do with myself being a parent of adolescents. They begin with the missing "victims" - who are the children being protected by the public condemnation of Henson's work? Certainly not the models and their families themselves, who are supportive of his work and practice and who are likely to be suffering from the hysterical public censure, and certainly not the children who do suffer the trauma of child sexual abuse. Those police raiding galleries in the past unenlightening fortnight have not saved one child from being abused by their actions.

And I find myself extremely troubled by those who equate simple nudity with sexuality, and who seem to find the mere fact of adolescent sexuality an obscenity that must be hidden from public view, a matter of shame and scandal. It is this atmosphere of hiddenness and shame, as many child protection people and those who have suffered abuse themselves point out, that permits abuse to happen.

Lastly, and hopefully for the last time, I wish to emphasise that there is not a shred of evidence that Henson's work or practice are or have been in any way abusive to any young person. And there are young people who themselves claim the opposite ("liberating" is one term I've heard recently from one of those young people, who seem to be disallowed - perhaps because they lack a brain until they turn 18 - any voice in this matter). Which is why the conflation of his work with child pornography is so unjust.

And frankly, if we permit our moral lives to be guided by the paedophilic gaze, we've lost the battle to protect children anyway.

Inkster said...

It's nice to see you remain both eloquent and courteous!

I've read a lot of blogs over the last week and it's remarkable how rude people who passionately defend us from impropriety can be.

They don't seem to detect the irony.

Russell Blackford said...

Jack, I've written many hundreds, or more likely thousands, of words on this issue over the past week to the detriment of the rest of my life. I've already posted a detailed critique of another article somewhere else on this blog, and I've answered numerous other arguments here, on my own blog, and elsewhere in the national and international blogosphere. Whether or not I've succeeded, I've tried to add a layer of philosophical rigour to the debate about freedom of expression and paternalism, which I see as the central issues. Since I have a background in the law, and in legal and political philosophy, I feel that I've had a contribution to make.

I haven't been paid a cent for any of this, of course, and I certainly wouldn't expect to be. But the time has now come to think about myself a bit. Unless there's some dramatic development, such as Henson actually being charged with a crime, I'm going to get on with doing stuff that pays my bills and/or looks good on my CV and/or helps keep me and my loved ones sane.

However, if you happen to own a magazine or a newspaper and you're prepared to offer me a reasonable rate per word, I'll cheerfully write you a detailed critique of Rundle's position on this subject.

Meanwhile, I'll feel free to make general observations about how I see the lie of the cultural land. People can take them for whatever they're worth.

Alison Croggon said...

Note: I removed Tony's long list of banned movies to save readers endless scrolling.

Tony Comstock said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tony Comstock said...

"It strikes me from the posted examples that the problem isn't the question of artistic merit at all, which is one of the few and necessary defenses we have against the blanket moralisers.

As I said in the post you've removed, how nice it must be to be a part of your "we", Alison. To be on that short list of controversial artists sufficiently "meritorious" to be permitted to be seen.

The simply fact is that "artistic merit" plays out as pure power politics, at the OFLC (and elsewhere.) If the OFLC thinks an X or RC classification will raise a controversy, they will find an excuse to give a film an R rating. That is a very short list indeed, short enough not to impede your readers.

What a shame the list of banned films from less "meritorious" artists is so long as to become an inconvenience in this discussion, and require removal.

Alison Croggon said...

Tony, perhaps it would have been courteous to post a link, so readers could see that - in fact, very long - list if they wanted to. (Yes, I expect commenters here to be courteous, it's in the comments policy, which you can click from the sidebar - why? because it's a much better way of communicating than the default sledging on blogs). To be honest, I don't know why you're targeting me, since I am not part of the OFLC nor the police force, think that legal language is totally inadequate as a way of talking about art, and believe that we have a dishonourable history of censorship here. And I have listened to your case, which is more than you have done with my arguments. Perhaps that was my problem, and I shouldn't have listened in the first place. Mea culpa. I will pose as your enemy if you wish, but I don't have the time or energy on this side to keep up the enmity.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations, Alison (and others), on your indefatiguable posting in light of the fact that you also have a life.

I had a few thoughts about the Rundle piece also. Rundle asserts this is not a ‘free speech’ issue, but it is. Once again reference is being made to laws which are not named (thanks, Abe). But the various state and federal child protection, anti-obscenity and other laws apparently are not relevant to the Henson case, otherwise you can be sure that one of the many thousands of Henson detractors to have emerged in recent days would have charged him with something which would stick. The Henson opponents’ argument still is not an argument of any relevance, indeed, not an argument at all. It is still at its core “how can he get away with it?”. Because the laws as they stand protect him. If you don’t like it you should perhaps start with a letter to your local member or a sympathetic Prime Minister.

Rundle’s description of ‘the more libertarian case – that parents should be able to circulate explicit images of their children in any medium they like’ is inaccurate because the word ‘explicit’ implies ‘gratuitous’ and in the case of nude portraits this might be construed as ‘sexualised’. That this is not easy to argue I understand to be the chief reason charges are not being laid. A poor argument and choice of words.

Rundle’s manufactured contradiction between high vs low art does not actually seem that relevant to the Henson affair in my view. There are legal precedents for arguably ‘low art’ practitioners being protected by the same laws (see for an example of how this operates within federal anti-discrimination law) as ‘high art’ practitioners. There are no special priveleges being asked for. No one has asked for special treatment for ‘gallery artists’ over other artists. Simply the person in question is a ‘gallery artist’ to use Rundle’s term.

Rundle then goes on to give his interpretation of some Henson images which are not named (are they part of the cancelled exhibition/confiscated works?). Rundle’s argument breaks down here because he describes what could be a ‘Nietzschean celebration of cruelty and power’ inspired by ‘every nightmarish vision in the European image-bank, from Caravaggio to slasher movies’. If these same images are the ones that Rundle claims to be ‘unmistakenly sexualised’, then his idea of what ‘sexualises’ an image is somewhat different from mine. It requires more than a nude subject.

There is not ‘artistic privilege’ being fought for because, as Abe points out, many of the relevant laws to this matter already protect the artist. Many state and federal laws protect artists in a similar way (refer to my example above – all the federal anti-discrimination laws have similar provisions for texts and acts which are broadly ‘art’). It seems much of the anger about the Henson images is about the fact that many people did not understand that such provisions routinely exist in legislation and have for decades. But people are free to be ignorant of the laws which exist in their country and/or state if they wish.

The fact remains – the DPP is not prosecuting and no individuals are laying charges either. Henson is not a criminal until he is a) charged & b) convicted. If you don’t like it you should lobby for change because you are lucky to live in a country which allows you to pursue this goal in peace.

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, I simply didn't recognise Henson's images in those Sadean descriptions of Rundle's. No question that some are disturbing and ambiguous, but the over-riding quality (to this eye) is a dream-like mystery. What was "damaged" in the nude girl whose image has been at the centre of the whole controversy? What I saw was a beautiful photograph of one of the most moving times in a girl's evolution to a woman. At least, I found it moving to witness in my own daughter, something I tried stumblingly to express in this poem (from the sequence Mnemosyne:

she delicious as cusped moons as Dante saw the girlwoman radiant on the bridge

tenderbreasted slenderwombed the menses slipping silk between her legs

straightly poised to right the pride of curves her mouth judges a new weight

she moves hieratic and solemnly the generous woman breaking into her face

Russell Blackford said...

I'm sure the images are open to many interpretations, but one thing that they certainly are not is pornographic - or even provocatively erotic. The images do nothing to encourage the gaze of pedophiles or invite sexual arousal.

At most, they suggest the sexual potential of these young people, just beginning to metamorphose from childhood into the beginnings of adulthood. It's a vulnerable time, often misunderstood by the adult world, but with its own fleeting beauty (a beauty that most of us find unerotic, fortunately, but our opponents don't seem to be able to make the distinction between beauty and sex).

I'd be astounded if this adds up to the "sexual context" referred to in various legislative instruments that are meant to forbid child pornography.

It distresses me that so many participants in the current debate seem to think that nudity means one thing and one thing only: sex ... literal, unqualified sex. Not that I'm against sex. Quite the opposite. The point is, I'm against tunnel vision. It also disturbs me that anything even remotely associated with sex, or sexuality, or sexual potential, is automatically perceived as somehow shameful and (at the same time) dangerous.

We need to grow up as a society and take a much more informed and worldly view of these things. If we look around, we'll see that our forebears adopted varied, and sometimes even contradictory, attitudes to sexuality, nudity, and the body, and maybe we can remind ourselves that all of this is our cultural heritage — and legitimate subject matter for artists of all kinds.

Christianity has been one (rather dull and miserable) thread through the history of Western civilisation, and it has tended to consider the body to be shameful, and insist that it be hidden. But that nasty manner of thinking about our physical selves needn't control our thoughts. In many ways, modern Australia is a post-Christian society, and that's entirely a good thing. We don't need to look at all the amazing phenomena of the world around us through the lenses and filters offered by Abrahamic religion. We can open our eyes to view all its splendour (and misery), well, naked.

In any event, Australia is a modern, pluralistic society in which no one cultural interpretation of the body (or anything else) is privileged over all the others. All must take their chances, and none merits endorsement by the state.

I said that our forebears had many complex, even contradictory, attitudes to nudity (and sex and the body). Here are just some examples to think about:

* The stripping or revealing of the naked body when questions arise about what it is to be human - think of maddened King Lear, driven to despair by his ingrate daughters and exiled into the storm.

* Ideas of baptismal rebirth or the return to an Edenic or Arcadian state.

* Sexuality that is merely potential, not yet come to ripeness.

* The rejection of monogamy, prudery, and convention.

* The worlds of faeries and pagan gods: beings that far transcend the need for clothing to protect them from the world.

* Vulnerability.

* Invulnerability (think of the gods and faeries again — they don't need clothes to survive, not like us; their bodies are at home in the cosmos in a way that ours can seldom or ever achieve).

* Lush exoticism with all its problems (sometimes a disturbing soft racism can be found here in such works as Rider Haggard's nineteenth-century novels and their many imitators; still, the exoticism is sometimes quite innocent).

* The glorious muscular power displayed by strong unclothed bodies, male or female.

* Beyond this, the spectacle of super bodies in comics ... or in movies that use stunningly "built" actors such Arnold Schwarzenneger.

* And beyond this again, the suggestion of a different kind of power when humanlike aliens or monsters appear naked - simultaneously glorious and dangerous, perhaps both more and less than human.

* And finally, for now, moral decadence (yes, there's no doubt that that can SOMETIMES be a connotation of the nude body - but along with all the others that I've mentioned, and more).

For the past three millennia of Western civilisation, the body has often been despised; equally often, it has been loved and glorified. At other times, it has been scrutinized intellectually or aesthetically, and yes, of course it can be utilised for erotic display. None of these ideas — or any combination — exhausts the potential of the subject matter.

The nude human body has endless connotations that have been explored by many artists in many forms and media over the centuries since civilisation itself was in its cradle. It would take a crude sensibility to reduce its depiction by a skilled visual artist such as Bill Henson to some kind of shameful voyeurism. Henson is surely well aware of what I've been describing, probably more aware of it than any of us.

However, his detractors don't seem to understand it one bit. Much of what I've been reading over the past couple of weeks is thought without rigour or nuance. That's if you can call it "thought".

Maybe I'm an elitist, but if it's elitist to make an effort at analytical rigour and sensitivity to nuance, then I call elitism "good". I'll go and join the carnival of elitists and be proud. It certainly beats dismissing Henson's images as "revolting" in the charming language of our prime minister.