On art, children and scandal ~ theatre notes

Thursday, October 09, 2008

On art, children and scandal

Before I dive into the maelstrom of the Melbourne Festival, which opens tonight, I thought I'd briefly revisit the latest Henson fracas, which boiled over after extracts from David Marr's new book, The Henson Case, were published in the Fairfax Press last week. In a pattern that has become depressingly familiar, politicians scrambled over each other to find appropriate adjectives with which to express their disgust and revulsion and the msm hacks went thermonuclear, behaving exactly as if a known paedophile was permitted to enter a primary school and let loose among defenceless children. And yet any sober assessment of the facts shows there is absolutely no suggestion that Henson or the principal concerned behaved with anything less than propriety.

How is it that an internationally acclaimed photographer, who has been making his art for 35 years without a whisper of complaint from any of his collaborators, has become the local equivalent of Gary Glitter? The mere mention of Henson in some quarters now means "paedophile" and "kiddie porn". And yet - even under the glare of this hostile publicity - the images he makes have been passed by authorities as suitable for general viewing. At worst, PG. At the height of the first controversy, when you would have thought that, if there were any basis to the accusations made against him, aggrieved models would have been coming out of the woodwork, the only ones who went public did so to defend Henson's practice.

The new media frenzy has sparked an inquiry into the principal concerned, Sue Knight, who invited Henson to the school, St Kilda Park Primary School, last year to scout for models. While the principal concerned has been properly discreet, refusing to pre-empt the findings of an inquiry while projecting an air of quiet confidence that she breached no protocols, Premier John Brumby has had no such qualms, telling the media that she had behaved "inappropriately".

There is much talk about protecting the innocence of children and "community standards". There is endless discussion about how the "arts community" is "out of touch". The few politicians - both, sadly for those who believe in the Right/Left dichotomy, Liberal pollies - who have stood up for Henson have been howled down and mocked in what is a startling example of cynical political opportunism by Labor. But what of those at the centre of this toxic scandal?

The parents and school council at St Kilda Park Primary have come out aggressively in defence of their principal. Parents have complained that fighting through a media scrum to get their kids to school has been a far worse invasion of their privacy than any visit by Henson. The Grade 6 children sent a letter to the Age today defending their former principal. Industry professionals, from Olympians to Oscar-winning actors, have said again and again that scouting for talent in schools is standard practice which, even if it's news to almost everyone else, has been going on for years.

As with the models who defended Henson's ethics and behaviour, the evidence of those who might be said to be best informed about the issue seems to count for nothing. Henson photographs nudes, so he is abusing children. The equation is unshakeable. His reputation can therefore be dragged through the mud with impunity, even though there has never been a complaint of abuse against him, and even though the authorites concerned have - unambiguously and despite huge political and media pressure - agreed that he has never broken the law.

It's one of the most unpleasant and unjust spectacles I have witnessed for years, and is only the most public aspect of a general clamp-down on the arts, fuelled by an arts-hostile media. The arts do good scandal, as can be seen by the headlines generated by a hapless Fringe show this week, whose bad taste title hit the current affairs shows. The message is clear: the arts are offensive. The arts should not be allowed.

Perhaps what is most depressing is that those who argue in defence of Henson, myself included, have said from the beginning - despite constant claims to the contrary - that there is a need for public debate on the issues that have inflamed the Henson controversy. We have acknowledged the public anxiety and genuine concerns about child protection. Many of us have children of our own, and feel those same anxieties and concerns. We just think that debate ought to be based on facts, not hysterical supposition and the fevered imaginations of shockjocks.

Despite this, "Henson apologists" have been painted as people who support paedophilia and ride roughshot over the "rights of children", when we are simply pointing out that Henson has not, and has never had, a case to answer. Every investigation has found that he is innocent of the loathsome accusations made against him. The sober and fair-minded analysis of Marr's book has been overwhelmed by the media frenzy, when there has never been more need for it. What we have been watching is not a public debate, but a public lynching.


Anonymous said...

Spot on, Alison.

My niece has a friend who goes to that school, and apparently her parents have said that the media constantly splashing around near the school frightens her a lot. It's like when the original circus happened earlier in the year, when all the tabloids and news programs were flashing around the picture of the girl that was on the invitation, branding it as pornography and scandal. Those media people were the ones who made it crude, by removing the original context and turning it into a picture representing something else entirely (disgust, scandal, pedophilia). I wonder how that girl felt, having all of these people brand her picture as disgusting and revolting. I wonder how these students feel, having to bear the media bullying and intruding on their school lives in a manner that seems the complete opposite of the respectful way Henson seemingly engaged with the school.

I think one of the things that truly upsets me about all of this, is that I feel it distracts from/lessens the severity of true pedophila and child abuse. When I have discussed this whole Henson drama with others, I've been branded a "Henson apologist" and a "pedophile defender", and as someone who actually was sexually abused as a child, it makes me sick. It's nauseating. It lessens the horror of what I and so many others I have known have gone through. I hate it. Why don't they focus their energies on real crimes instead of on pitchforks and lynching?

Sorry for the rant, needed to get that off my chest.

Anonymous said...

I like that Alison appears in the book -- once, in fact, as Croggan with an 'a'.

More thoughts on the book itself this evening, once I've finished it. For now, though, I must get back to the lynch mob...

Anonymous said...

Auction house Deutscher and Hackett passes up Henson work

... from The Australian; where you will find Chris Deutscher explaining that taking even a tiny stand "... is too much hassle."

This man makes his living from the works of artists while betraying their right to (legally, morally) do their work.

And how did the Oz get the story? From CD?

I'm not sure about the rest of his life, but in this he is contemptible.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Anon - thanks for your rant! And don't get me started about what this debacle seems to mean about how Australian society regards its young people.

I have hated from the beginning how this debate trivialises the whole issue of child abuse.

Hi Rabbit - I've always wanted to be a "mother of three". And at least my name was mostly spelt right. Obviously the spellcheck missed something...!

And hi Jape - it's not exactly courageous of the gallery, I agree. But part of me can't blame the gallery owner for not wanting a media scrum at his doorstep. I noticed today an article claiming in shocked tones that Henson's work is studied in schools! Like, duh, yes, he is, and has been for years without it ever having been an issue; he's an important photographer. More to the point, young people tend to be among the most ardent admirers of his work.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison,
Not sure the Henson case is really comparable with the Beaconsfield Fringe show. Dan Ilic seemed determined to present himself as little more than an insensitive buffoon who couldn't get enough media attention. All he succeeded in doing was undermining both himself and the show. It was a pretty sad effort and I can't really put it in the same context as Henson, who, while many of his photographs are not to my individual taste, is clearly an artist. Henson seems slightly naive in his media dealings and certainly didn't court the notoriety he is currently experiencing. Ilic on the other hand seemed to thrive on it. Of course the arts aren't offensive and of course they should be allowed but they're also not above scrutiny, discussion and debate. In the case of Henson, I think the focus has been misguided but in the case of Ilic probably very justified.

Madeline Barrie

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Madeline - the parallel is in the media beat-up. Left to its own devices, the Beaconsfield show would have played and finished without anyone noticing. But instead, some journalist notices the play title and uses it to bolster the image of artists outraging public sensibility. I've no intention of defending the play, of which I knew nothing until I saw the headlines, and which perhaps deserved only obscurity (then again, who knows? did anyone see it?), but I am attacking the media which blew this little squib totally out of proportion, as if it were some major public event.

Anonymous said...

I saw Beaconsfield on opening night. As a remarkable review in today's Herald Sun (I KNOW!) succinctly describes, it's a silly, fun get together by some talented young comedians. The boot is stuck firmly into Naomi Robson, Eddie McGuire, Mel and Kochie and other media types who well deserve it. It's pretty loose, and really just a space for some artists to play around with ideas and songs they wrote yesterday... It's very kind on the miners, and pretty damn gentle on Mr Carleton too.

Anonymous said...

I released albums for Gary Glitter, there would not be a great deal of difference between the 'art' of one and the child pornography of the other.

Bill Henson's 'naked child' material is banned in Britain, in the same fashion and by the same PoCA and SOA 2003 as the illegal material on Gary Glitter's computer.

I am surprised Alison didn't work out that I was the Warhol aficionado 'Yvette Doll'. My work and 'art' generated far more money than Henson could make in a dozen life-times.

Far tamer artists, respectable people, have been criminalized in Britain by the SOA 2003. So I can assure you the police went looking for Henson jpegs on gallery computers, because a slam dunk it would be.


Alison Croggon said...

Gary Glitter has been convicted of child sexual abuse and possessing child pornography. As I pointed out above, the relevant authorities say that Henson has done nothing of the sort, that his work is nothing like child pornography, and there has never been any evidence that he has behaved with anything less than probity. There is in fact a great deal of difference, and the equation of one with the other is simply the worst sort of character assassination.

Alison Croggon said...

PS Thanks anon for the report on the musical. Makes the media beatup even worse. Apologies too for my waspish comments on something I haven't seen. Mea culpa.

Further, Anon 2, the furore over Gary Glitter was never over his work, but over his private behaviour. That story about the fairy photos is pretty much what you'd expect as a result of the current hysteria. Insane and damaging.

Anonymous said...

This frenzy will follow a very similar trajectory to the last, and indeed already appears to be doing so. Mr Henson has broken no laws and therefore will not be prosecuted. The moral crusaders will whine for a time, but common sense will prevail. (People would probably realise this if they read Marr's book...) It's worth remembering that the Henson case says more about the combustible combination of a lunatic fringe and a bloodthirsty media than about Australia-as-a-whole vs. its art and artists. It doesn't much help the latter group to pretend that is such.

Anonymous said...

If as puritanical a country as the USA, with its huge Fundamentalist population, can take the breathtaking but profoundly disturbing photos of Sally Mann in its stride without a murmur, what does it say about us that Henson can be so vilified? Miranda Devine goes on and on about Henson's photo of a girl with blood on her thighs (shock horror--could she be mentruating?), just take a look at Mann's "Hayhook" if you really want to be confronted.

Anonymous said...

Sorry: "menstruating". Apologies Miranda, now I've said it twice!

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Margaret - Sally Mann hasn't exactly passed "without a murmer", sadly...her photographs were at the centre of another "child pornography" scandal which several people have referenced as precedents for the fuss over Henson, as well as Jock Sturges.

Yes, menstruation is shocking stuff!

Anonymous said...

Menstruation is a disgrace. It should be banned!

Though it does enforce my belief that women are simply bleeding animals that should at all times be tolerated rather than allowed to exist alongside their non bleeding male counterparts who should be allowed to carry guns and shoot aforementioned bleeding animals, other men who seem to like these bleeding animals, and other people who do not believe that abortion is a sin, because the animal that is inside that place from whence the blood comes, may well not be another bloody bleeding animal and may well be a gun toting GOD lover, so therefore should be allowed to take up arms against a sea of bleeding animals, and by opposing, end them.

Anonymous said...

"How is it that an internationally acclaimed photographer, who has been making his art for 35 years without a whisper of complaint from any of his collaborators, has become the local equivalent of Gary Glitter? "

His work is child porn in London, he doesn't have much of a career open to him in Europe, people are dumping his 'art'. Some are just trashing it.

Auctioneers all around the world are shy of it because (a) it isn't worth that much and (b) the police might arrive.

I released albums for Gary Glitter, and Bill Henson is exactly the same deal, your problem, is that you are so far out of whack with convention, that you just don't get it.

Yvette Doll

Anonymous said...

"If as puritanical a country as the USA, with its huge Fundamentalist population, can take the breathtaking but profoundly disturbing photos of Sally Mann in its stride without a murmur,"

In the US Henson would probably be in jail, if he does it in London he is *definitely* in prison, and for a considerable period of time, of that there is no doubt.

That is a bankable prediction. He has only himself to blame if he goes to Britain.

Henson has made himself a target, and he is a cheap one, he is not that well connected, there is no down-side to doing him. He is a photophile from cowtown.


Henson is very doable. He is far more extreme and badly behaved than poor Dr Marcus Phillips

If Henson goes to te UK the cops will be very interested.

Yvette Doll

Anonymous said...

"Gary Glitter has been convicted of child sexual abuse and possessing child pornography. "

Convicted for the same kind of stuff that Henson does, it is Britain and in the UK Henson's material is child pornography.

You need to accept that Alison, you just do, you are being very silly.

Perhaps you should have compared him to a Japanese artist. I would probably have agreed with you then.

Henson will go to jail if he does it in London, just like Gary Glitter.

Yvette Doll

Anonymous said...

"Gary Glitter has been convicted of child sexual abuse and possessing child pornography. As I pointed out above, the relevant authorities say that Henson has done nothing of the sort,"

Let me put it another way.

The same authorities that did Gary Glitter are going to do Henson for the exact same thing using the exact same legislation if they get their hands on him.

He has to show up. There is an if there.

With the other artist, the really famous one.

In Australia, Gary Glitter would probably be touring primary schools. You might be writing letters for him. Your child protection standards are poor in Australia.

This is the point you have to accept. Henson's material is child porn (and of that there is no doubt) in what might be the biggest or second biggest art market in the world.

In Australia, I accept that he has a free pass on one or two images and there is police pressure to try to convict him on other material.

You lack honesty Alison, or else you are relying upon the CB as a global standard, which is silly,

I accept in Japan or Oz, people can't get away with stuff, even Gary Glitter would have gotten away with it.

Gary Glitter was loved by the British public, he was still roasted,

Henson is a nobody in London and the police can't wait to do him and any gallery owner stupid enough to take a chance.

Stop pretending that Henson has been 'cleared' everywhere, he hasn't, nor has Gary Glitter for that matter.

Henson is a child porn merchant in the biggest art market in the world. Being my view.

That statement is defamation proof. Te material is CP in London, as a point of law, SOA 2003 and PoCA and Henson was one of the reasons the SOA 2003 was enacted.

Yvette Doll

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Yvette Doll - the legal aspect has been exhaustively discussed elsewhere on this blog and in other places. And Gary Glitter was accused of rape, and was convicted of the physical abuse of a child. (Did you not read the first comment, above, speaking of the trivialisation of these facts in this issue?)

Suffice to say there are legal precedents even in the UK that argue against your statements here. And paedophiles and child porn merchants simply do not "get away with it" in Australia. I read about their conviction and imprisonment almost every day.

Topic closed, as I have too much to do to argue the same old same old.