Seven Days In May

Art Life , Op-ed May 29, 2008 No Comments

It’s a week since the Bill Henson controversy kicked off. With no real developments and with the police yet to lay any charges against Henson we have reached an impasse. Indeed, the same arguments have been going back and forth and round and round between those who think the artist should be charged, publicly vilified and presumably imprisoned, and on the other, those who have defended him through statements of public support and the legion of readers leaving comments at this and other online publications.

Like any good controversy, the Henson exhibition fracas has drawn in a series of related and unrelated side issues which, when all rolled up into the heat and emotion of unfolding events, become increasingly difficult to separate and understand.

The real fuel of this controversy has been the unresolved rage of both sides of the Culture Wars. For ten years the public debate in Australia was increasingly polarised by a government that was more than willing to use mostly uninformed public opinion to justify and promote its own cultural agenda. It would be foolish to imagine that even with a new Federal government that the emotions of the past decade would have faded away. Comments by Kevin Rudd and Morris Iemma, were a chilling reminder that knee-jerk reaction to nuanced issues doesn’t do you any harm in the eyes of a public who crave moral certainty and “leadership.”

The issues around Henson himself and his work boil down to this – is the work pornographic? If it is, and by extension the artist’s motivations are criminal in nature, then the use of the police, media and politicians to advance the anti-pedophile cause are justified. If Henson’s work is not pornographic, then the use of police and the media is a stunning overreaction.

The side issues that have sprung up in the wake of last week’s police investigation at Oxley and the subsequent seizure of works from the show include:

  • The extent and nature of the complicity of the artist and the gallery in posting the works on the web and as an invitation through the mail
  • Whether the artist and galleriest recognised the work to be at least titillating in nature
  • Whether the artist and gallery could rightly claim victim status after both received threats
  • What did Kevin Rudd think he was doing making uninformed statements in reaction to the works?
  • The perceived elitism of the contemporary art world
  • Whether parents have the right to allow their children to be seen naked in art works?
  • What is the nature of pornography and how does it relate to erotica and/or exotica?
  • Can our society take the chance that some people might consider art works with otherwise principled motivations to be porn?

Since the story broke last Thursday with a column by Miranda Devine in the Sydney Morning Herald, just about every cultural commentator and political pundit has had a go – David Marr, Annabell Crabb, Paul Sheehan, John McDonald at the SMH have all argued the issues to various degrees of relevance. The Daily Telegraph who ran hard with mock outrage editorialised in a blatant attack on cultural elitism.

Here at The Art Life, we’ve had some interesting comments. Norm summed up the disbelief of many in the art community with this comment:

This is going too far. The ignorance surrounding what Henson does is scary. Forget arguments about liking him or loving him, the door is closing on difference in ideas and form. Optimistically this event may blow over and be a yawn in a week or two, however, the pm’s comments wont go away and Rudd wont back down lest he loses face. I mention this because this sorry business ramped up after his comments. If charges are laid against Bill Henson we are all in a new universe.

Meanwhile, Anna spoke for many more:

I am glad that someone has finally stopped Bill Henson. Just because he is an artist it doesn’t place him above common principles of decency. Commentary after commentary of his work over the years by prominent art critics have noted the sexualized nature of his work, even praised him for it but now the same community is now disingenuously trying to claim to the rest of us that his art works are not of a sexualized nature. Artists like him shouldn’t get a free pass just because he can do porn in a masterful subtle way. Porn that is artful is still porn and as must as artists might believe otherwise just because they are artists it shouldn’t mean that they should be placed outside the bounds of propriety and common decency. Often scientists especially social scientists have the same arrogance that believes that as long as its in their case for science then they should be allowed to do anything and treat subjects of their work any way they like even abusive

The inability of either side of the argument to clearly articulate the issues has made the debate clouded and confused. It will take some considerable time to sort it all out, but in the meantime some thoughtful and interesting personal accounts have been swept aside. Egg Shell wrote:

As an adult who as a child faced many a situation of being sexualized, i find all these comments a great debate. It was the era of David Hamilton fame. From my experience, the adults that viewed me in a sexual context was confusing and only brought to my attention my vulnerable allure. Something that wasn’t apparent to me then. I agree that it’s the pedophiles way of seeing, not what actually is intended by the child nor the parents. At no point did i encourage these actions, but believed I was being myself, and feeling happy about myself. It was only when these creeps manipulated what they saw for their pervasive thoughts, did i understand how completely fucked up these particular people’s views on nudity and femininity was. What was disturbing in reflection is that i felt unsafe in the world of adults and hid my body for decades. Understanding that not all ways of seeing are innocent. Henson perhaps has demonstrated this.

A week on and Miranda Devine is back for another attack and it’s no surprise that the target this week is not Henson but the entire art community who have had the temerity to defend him. Devine writes in the Herald today:

So artists want the freedom to exploit budding pubescents as nude models, but they don’t want the Prime Minister to freely express his thoughts?

If the arts community is so creative and “edgy”, why do they all travel in lockstep on such things? Their single voice suggests not originality and boundary-pushing, but a suffocating conformity.

Who in the arts community – whether creator, curator or critic – has come out and said: “This is wrong,” not just “provocative” or “controversial”? They say they are happy to have the debate but they have never had the debate, perhaps for fear of being seen as prudish or out of touch with the in-crowd.

Perhaps if you’re not actually in the art community or you’re not bothering to read the comments here and on other blogs and sites, it would seem that the art world isn’t debating the issues. Yet we are. Devine has a long and illustrious career of misrepresenting arguments and issues for her own purposes. As a member of the conservative commentariat the Henson affair has given pundits like Devine the opportunity to play a double whammy – a victim of minority liberal hysteria and a defender of real moral values:

“Criticising art does not make you a philistine; condemning criticism just might, and comparisons to Caravaggio and Michelangelo miss the point that Henson’s art is photography, which has none of the ambiguity of painting.

“It is fear of being called a philistine, or, God forbid, a “moral conservative” that has decent people quaking in their boots with fear, not police jackboots on the doorstep of their local art gallery.

“Still, I was as shocked as anyone to see the police move in on the Roslyn Oxley9 gallery last Thursday; on the one hand, glad to see a line drawn on behalf of childhood innocence, and on the other sick to the stomach at the cliched image of a police state come to life.

“We don’t like the police jailing citizens for jaywalking during APEC, any more than we like the omnipresence of speed cameras and draconian parking enforcement. No one wants to live in a police state, least of all the poor police…”

Devine accuses the art community of disingenuousness, yet her own complicity in kicking off this controversy goes unaddressed. It’s a breathtaking piece of hypocrisy to claim that you had nothing to do with the issue when you were the one leading with mock outrage over Henson in your column, only to find it picked up by talk back radio and tabloid television. Shocked as anyone to see the police move in? Come on, Miranda, you were clapping your little hands with glee.

Tags :

Andrew Frost

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.