Monday, May 26, 2008

This is not an argument: thinking about the Bill Henson debacle

As the farce continues to unravel around the work of photographer Bill Henson, here are a few pertinent scraps. This is not an argument, just some pictures, a couple of quotations, and a few tenuously connected points.

1) You can't 'sexualise' something that is already self-sexualised. Obviously I can't speak for blokes but any woman who tells you she was not sexually aware (not necessarily 'experienced', just aware) and curious by the time her breasts had begun to grow is either lying, repressed or very very unusual.

2) Adolescents are not children.

3) People who persist in framing the debate as one of two clear-cut binaries -- the 'anti-censorship v. wowsers' brigade, or the '"OMG they're enabling paedophiles, arrest them" v. "It's Art, you oiks"' brigade -- are never going to listen to each other. These four groups all appear to have plasticine their ears.

4) Kevin Rudd is a bureaucrat and a Christian. We all already knew that. Also, if your mantra is 'working families', it's dangerously off-message not to Loudly Denounce anything that appears to threaten 'family values'. Anyone who was surprised by Rudd's reaction hasn't been paying attention. Which is not to say that if he finds the Henson photographs 'absolutely revolting' then his knowledge of the history and theory of art must pretty much nonexistent. Which is depressing, but not surprising.

5) Trying to sort these issues into 'left and right', and to attach one's views to one side or the other, is the single least intelligent and most common thing I have seen commentators doing, on and off line, since this business first hit the fan, and has produced some of the most nonsensical commentary.

6) The populist scorn heaped upon the 'arty-farty', the 'luvvies' and so on and so drearily forth is to do with hysterical rejection of anything that is not understood, coupled with eleven years of thought-training in scorning the "cultural elites".

7) Freud abandoned the seduction theory -- that many of his patients' psychological problems had their origin in childhood sexual abuse -- under heavy peer pressure that mostly took the form of ridiculing the notion that childhood sexual abuse could possibly be so widespread, much less involve actual *gasp* fathers. This was in Austria. I mean, I ask you.

8) I've been looking at Bill Henson's work since Peter Craven and Michael Heyward used to publish it regularly in Scripsi, (and do read that, it's terrific, and very informative, and there are some wonderful images) of which Henson was graphics editor, in the 1980s and early 1990s, and it has always weirded me out. But the point is that that is the point. Like the painting of Goya, Heironymous Bosch or Francis Bacon, or Nabokov's Lolita, it is supposed to weird you out.

9) Here's a question: would those who scorn the claims that art is qualitatively different from p*rn in its intents and effects claim that this Greek vase is not art?

10) This is from Margaret Drabble's novel A Natural Curiosity. The character Liz is a psychotherapist; she is on a TV panel, arguing, on the basis of a recent Romeo-and-Juliet type tragedy, that the 'age of consent' law should be abolished.

'But you can't deny,' said the politician, 'that the removal of legal constraint would open the floodgates?'

Liz appeared amused, quizzical, interested.

'You mean you think that everyone is longing to have sex with the underaged, and that only the law prevents it? ... Do you really think,' she inquired, innocently, this time of the unfortunate headmaster, 'that the desire of adults for sexual contact with children is so widespread and so strong that only the most severe social and legal sanctions can control it?' While he hesitated, she pursued: 'And if this is so, does it ever occur to you that this desire itself could be less abnormal than you believe it to be? And less harmful?'

Now, Clive could tell, she really had gone too far, she had broken a taboo, she had said the unspeakable.

... When asked if her views represented those of her profession as a whole, Liz, for the first time, hesitated and then continued: 'No, I wouldn't say so, these views are my own ... But may I say that I haven't really been expressing views. The rest of you have been doing that. I have been asking questions and making suggestions.'

11) Here's another picture; this is a photograph of Alice Liddell, popularly supposed to have been the 'original' of Alice in Wonderland, taken by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson AKA Lewis Carroll. He has dressed her up as a 'beggar-maid'; the reference appears to be to the story of King Cophetua and the Beggar-Maid, popular and well-known at the time, and in essence a love story about adults. Here is Alice. It's 1858, a date most will recognise as mid-Victorian. Alice comes from a secure, loving, educated and enlightened family, her father a classical scholar. This photograph was taken in the earliest days of photography, an art of which Dodgson was a pioneer.

Alice was six.

I find this photograph far more disturbing than any of the Henson ones, and would not like to try to say exactly where that disturbance lies.

To repeat: this post is not an argument. These jostling fragments and images are what occurred to me first in the wake of the Henson implosion, as signposts to different ways of thinking about it.

Every victim of childhood sexual abuse that I've ever seen or heard speak was in some way perceptibly damaged by the experience, and sometimes all but destroyed. But the question of the Henson photographs is entirely separate from that. The photographs are art, and art is an exploration of the human condition and the world beyond it. No subject matter should be disallowed, if we are to know ourselves.


Mark Bahnisch said...


Mark Bahnisch said...



Anonymous said...

Worth a thousand words

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

Ampersand Duck said...

Well said, all of it.

I think this is the event that takes away a bit of Kevin's Awe Factor. I don't think he'll ever get undivided attention at an art opening again.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking about Alice too, and Chloe at Young & Jacksons.

Mindy said...

Above all KRudd is a politician and will say what he thinks the public want to hear. I'm not suggesting that he isn't worried by the photographs, but I think he went a bit OTT.

tigtog said...

Lots of interesting points & questions, PC. I agree that the division into the four camps of shouting certainly isn't doing the cause of child protection any actual good, and that the emphasis on child sexual abuse is not actually relevant to these particular photos, even though it is a very important issue that needs to be more rationally addressed.

Penni Russon said...

It's a deeply intriguing issue - I feel like somewhere wrapped up in it all is the Answer to the Problem of the way we feel about children and sexuality and portrayal and photography and moral panic and consent etc etc.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that such strong censorship in the name of protecting minors from child abuse actually indicates that perpetrators of abuse have gained the upper hand in contemporary Australian society. Remarking visually upon the human form is not comparable to child abuse.

As for the politicians...between this and the Gippsland by-election/explicit sex-show ruckus, it appears we are being governed (and hope to be governed) by a bunch of out-of-touch ultra conservatives. Comforting!

Anonymous said...

I have posted this in a few places now because it is something I feel has to be said.

I was sexually abused as a child in the 1980s. Thousands of photographs were taken and two or three super 8 movie reels. I can tell you it looked nothing like the Henson photographs.

I think we have to accept that paedophiles potentially will find any image of a child potentially erotic. I think this is inescapable but, I also believe that for most of them the Henson images would really be way down the scale of interest. If everyone is serious about stopping these people finding something titillating in the images of children, then the only logical answer is the most extreme which is to stop people photographing children altogether, which is absurd.

I do not believe closing down the exhibit because someone might find the images titillating–like I say I do not think they would–really has any traction here. This controversy has brought out the worst in society, now with the gallery owner being threatened.

Also, we as a society are in real trouble if we start equating nudity inescapably with sex. Why, because this makes every parent or family member who has ever taken a naked photograph of their child a pornographer.

For me to come to this conclusion is difficult because of my history of being abused and suspicion about the motives of photographers. But like I said before, any image of a child is potentially stimulating to a paedophile, so drawing a line based on potential provocation is the beginning of a very slippery slope indeed. This is something I think neither Hetty Johnston or Miranda Devine, who is appears started this widespread community outrage of two, thought of. The Law Society summed it up when they said that the next thing is police examining the baby photos at 21st birthday parties.

Hetty Johnston is certainly a problematic in all this. Because she is an anti-paedophile campaigner, everyone is too scared to question some of her other underlying motivations and philosophies lest they be paedophile sympathisers! This is problematic because she does not represent the voice of all abuse survivors and it is sheer hubris on her part that she might think she does. We are certainly dealing with a serious issue in the community, but her scatter gun, bordering on witch hunting approach is wrong.

Coming to these conclusions is difficult, but I am decisive. I am still getting over my abuse. I found out 8 years ago a friend of mine had abused children before he suicided. So there are complex issues to deal with at the outset that I ruminate over them for sure. But in the end, picking on Henson’s art is madness and if the charges stick, woe betide anyone who photographs children again.

audrey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
audrey said...

Hi Pavlov,

Just read this tonight (Wednesday) after what feels like years of trawling through different opinions, rewriting my own, reassessing, email debates/arguments, news articles, radio monitoring etc etc etc.

I had already basically reversed my original position anyway, but reading this post really cemented it for me. Thanks - it was very concise and persuasive.

PS Although I'm not sure where that places me in your Four Groups... this is one issue where I've tried not to be pig headed with the plasticine in the ears and so forth.

audrey said...

Oh, btw i also find Carroll's images of "Alice" particularly creepy.

Is this because of her knowing gaze in each of them, or compounded because of the dodgy history surrounding Carroll's obsession with her?

Anonymous said...

In my better moments, I can imagine we're watching an elaborate satire. However reality overwhelms one. Thank you for the post - frankly I'm too shocked at the news of police rifling through public galleries holdings, and a very widely revealed sense that Henson is getting all he deserves. Where are all these keepers of childish innocence as churches harbour pedophiles, beating children is still sanctioned under Australian law, and most victims of child sex abuse will continue to be attacked in their homes by family?
And don't get me started on Hetty Johnson - ask Indigenous health & community workers what impact her "crusade" has had in Qld.

D. said...

I agree for the most part, but I do not agree on the idea that adolescents are inherently sexualised. many are, some are not.

I hit puberty and started growing breasts at age 11. I had zero interest in or curiosity about sex (or even dating) until I was 17.

It may be unusual, but it does happen.

Anonymous said...

In Great Britain and Ireland the internet images are being treated as child pornography, because they are child pornography, that being the way the law stands there, it is therefore not a wicked agenda by child abuse advocates in Australia. In fact Bill Henson is one of the reasons Britain updated her child pornography laws.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

I wonder if anyone can explain to me why it is that people who are unashamed enough about their opinions to go splattering them about on total strangers' blogs are nonetheless sufficiently ashamed of them not to sign them. It's one of the mysteries of the universe.