Speaking with grace ~ theatre notes

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Speaking with grace

It was good to see Bill Henson speaking publicly for the first time after the recent fracas and negotiating the inevitable media glare with dignity and grace. On Friday he opened the Picture Paradise exhibition at the National Art Gallery in Canberra and, to the disappointment of the press, merely made "a pointed intellectual defence of the role of his art and that of others in Australia", during which he made no direct references to the recent media hysteria surrounding his work.

Art, said Henson, "redeems us from a world of moralism and opinionation and claptrap. It stops us in our tracks as we are formulating the truths we think we believe in. It stops us and makes us wonder."

Indeed. Meanwhile, Art Monthly has exhumed the scandal with its cover image of what is, let's be honest, an inoffensive but unremarkable photograph of a naked girl, taken by her mother in circumstances which the child herself says vocally were not abusive. This unleashed an almost identical media replay of the Henson controversy, but this time with press conferences from the girl model and her family, including her father, art critic Robert Nelson, proving the truism that history enacts first as tragedy, then as farce.

This seems merely opportunistic, but check out Larvatus Prodeo before, like everyone else, rushing to judgment. And consider further Arts Minister Peter Garrett's comment that the issue was "needlessly provocative". Is our very own minister claiming that the arts must put their heads down now and work hard not to provoke anybody? And is the "arts community" agreeing with this?

Consider too this deeply ominous comment from PM Rudd: "Mr Rudd said he had ordered the Australia Council, which funds the magazine, to develop new protocols about using images of children, and any recipient that did not abide by them would have its funding axed." Even Howard didn't go (quite) that far. And are young people going to be banished from any kind of representation, out of the panicked fear that society is completely constituted of paedophiles? Why are we criminalising our children?

Welcome to the brave new world of soft censorship, peoples, which looks just like the old fashioned kind. I fear we are entering a deeply creepy time. At least under Howard the oppositional faultlines were clear...this time the social conservatives are marching under the banner of protecting the exploited. Oh, right, it's not that unfamiliar...

PS: I'm waiting for the outcry over Sigur Rós's video of their new single Gobbledigook, made in collaboration with New York photographer Ryan McGinley, which includes many disturbing portrayals of child porn. Or, alternatively, Edenic representations of youthful desire and freedom, which are probably, on reflection, even more disturbing to those who would prefer that such things did not exist.

PPS: ...and check out Corrie Perkin's excellent piece, The Rise of the Art Police, in today's Australian.


Lee Bemrose said...

I saw the Sigur Ros clip a couple of weeks ago (I've always enjoyed their music). It hadn't occurred to me until reading this post that some might have a problem with it. Must be something wrong with me.

Anonymous said...

Worth a thousand words...

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


Anonymous said...

The Sigur Ros clip is an outrage and should be banned!

(I don't need to be reminded of just how joyless my youth was!)

Anonymous said...

"Brave new world" - is this henson/nelson business really the stuff of political barricades? The artistic left splinters too readily, its support flaky, it doesn't deserve a changed government - "at least under Howard ...".

Let's hear it for some more worthy cause, such as the dire lot of creative artists and resources generally - Bill is big enough to look after himself and the reactions he causes, and Nelson is a self promoter and political abuser of his child.

"Soft censorship" - a synonymn for society (please do not ask for proof), or do artists live on another planet?

Anonymous said...


I just got a second opinion from my own reliable source on the Olivia image - she said yes it appropriated a classic sexual pose, and was clearly child exploitation.

So, you could well be wrong several times over - on artistic, sexual and political grounds - on Henson and Nelson (at least Henson does not self promote directly as Nelson).

Yet you cannot even countenance or admit such a possibility or self doubt, and cannot to pronounce from some uncritical vantage? How can someone with such fine discernment generally in the arts paint themself (and the legion of arts community members who follow) into a blind corner?

Alison Croggon said...

In fact, I am quite good at self doubt. But I am not wrong when I say that Bill Henson is not making child pornography and is not a criminal. I think people should take a step back and a deep breath and consider what they are really talking about. If they are talking about Henson or Papapetrou, they are not talking child abuse or child pornography.

I am getting so tired of the moralisms that are infecting the very air we breathe. I'm thinking of reading John Stuart Mill again. Everywhere I turn some person or another is telling other people what they can or cannot do. And art is being regarded as some sort of propaganda tool for these moralists. Unfortunately for such people, art is about complexities. It is about being human. Part of being human is being naked. Part of being human is being a child.

The Olympia - not "Olivia" - image in fact appropriates a photograph by Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll). It was taken by the child's mother in circumstances which are not in the least abusive, according to the child and her parents: and why should we disbelieve them? It was also distributed as a corporate Christmas card some years ago without anyone batting an eyelid. I think that particular image is reaching to Anne Geddes territory, but there we are. I just can't see it through the eyes of a paedophile. And I refuse point blank to determine my gaze to that of a sexual pervert. Paedophiles represent a miniscule proportion of our society, so why do they have to dominate our perceptions? Isn't that itself the outrage, the demand that we all become, in a small way, paedophiles ourselves?

I'm not at all sure what you mean by a "classical sexual pose". Maybe you mean the classical nude, and it's a very large leap to equate "nude" with "sexual". There's lots to say about nudes, and I have of course read my John Berger, and am aware of the feminist argument about the male gaze. What this doesn't admit is any kind of subversion. "Olympia" is also, for example, the name of a famous nude by Manet that is disturbing because it meets the gaze of the observer and refuses sexual commodification. Perhaps this image is playing on that.

And maybe, if I do have "fine discernment", you could think about what worries me here. That artists - who are not political activists, who in fact are very bad at such things and don't think in such terms because their work, if they are any good, doesn't boil down to simple ideologies - have here become, unjustly, the focus of a new and disturbing drive for censorship. Why do we need the bogey figure of the paedophile in the first place? Is it the one unarguable tool that can be used to agitate for a new age of Victorian moralism? We already have laws to deal with paedophilia and child porn: why aren't they sufficient? Why do we have to criminalise those who have nothing to do with paedophilia or abuse? What weird anxieties and fears about our own children are driving this?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Alison for your always thoughtful reply. Carroll is dodgy, and Manet alluring, but we can kindly differ on this one. Our everyday world, the very steps we take, are to some extent censored, constrained and legally regulated. There is no uncensored domain, and no point taking an overly ideal or dualist stand against censorship as such. Such dualism smacks of a 60's liberation discourse. The process is "soft", and often naturalised and habitualised - but try physical assault and it will all become suddenly explicit. You dont need to be a Burkean on law to understand that. Reproduced child images - different to public nudity - are now on the cautionary list - sadly maybe - but given the substantial paedophine statistics perhaps necessarily.