2 June 2008

Bill Henson: Let’s have ourselves a hangin’!

"WHEN the forces of public order march into art galleries and walk off with exhibits deemed to be offensive, two things are certain: one, that images which the vast majority would never have seen or wanted to see will be made famous and will be looked up on the internet by slavering hordes, and, two, a great deal of nonsense will be talked by a great many people."

- Germaine Greer

My first reaction to the latest artistic moral panic was sadness and disappointment. Disappointment because the abduction of several Henson works by police was an extreme overreaction to a complaint, and sadness because I knew that when confronted all parties would scurry to occupy mutually hostile sides of the argument, neither side engaging with the valid arguments of the other. This has proved to be the case.

I have extremely mixed feelings about this latest episode in the intellectual life of the nation. Firstly because I dislike Bill Henson’s work. Unlike Sebastian Smee who published a defence in The Australian last week, I find it unconvincing, empty and pretentious, the very definition of mannerism.

I remember as a photography student reading a profile of Henson in a weekend magazine. This is probably unfair to him, but the thing that struck me the most at the time were the terms in which he chose to describe and discuss his work: parallels with classical music were evoked, with romantic poets of the past. I thought, oh dear…

This was an impression that only solidified with Henson’s career retrospective at the Victorian National Gallery I saw a few years ago. So much depended upon the massive scale, the all-enshrouding darkness of the photographs, with bits of pale flesh peeking out here and there from the gloom; large slabs of torn black photographic paper to no apparent purpose other than superficial visual effect, and most irritating of all, the generalised aura of sweaty ennui.

I came away with the feeling that what I had just seen was a contemporary equivalent of a Royal Academy exhibition of the 1880s; grand, very large, but equally cut-off from the currents of artistic history that really matter. We have seen this sort of thing before. Henson’s work echoes some of the most cloying and sentimental Victorian Academy painting, especially that which dealt with the ‘fallen woman’ and the sanctimonious claptrap of Victorian sexual hypocrisy.

Secondly I feel uneasy about this because I am a parent to a daughter and I find the assumptions his work appears to be based on extremely questionable. As images, they seem to me to belong to a rather unsavoury history of adult men musing at their leisure about the sexuality of adolescent or pre-adolescent children. At best, this mode of image-making is self-indulgent and at worst a kind of exploitation based on fantasy that at its extreme margins includes sexual assault.

That’s not to make the category mistake of saying that all art belonging to this history is itself a form of assault. It may be exploitative or it may not. Germaine Greer was admirably precise in unpacking the assumptions of gender and the (sometimes) unconscious habit of making allowances for no other reason than that something was painted and not photographed, coming with the patina of art-historical credibility, when its intention was sometimes literally pornographic.

In my opinion Henson’s work is not and could not be seriously confused for actual pornography. Not by either its dictionary definition or by the widest practical use of that word. To call it pornography is simply wrong in fact. However, it is, at least in my view, exploitative.

I have mixed feelings thirdly because I defend Henson’s right, and the right of artists generally, to explore difficult or contentious territory. In fact, I think artists have a moral responsibility to do so.

But since we’re talking about morality, I think artists have the same duty to operate morally in the world as everyone else does. That is, I do not think art occupies a special zone exempt from the moral precepts that bind the rest of society together.

This is an important point to make because many who dispute Henson’s right to operate in such an ethically complex territory (like, I suspect, the Prime Minister), apparently apply a burden of proof that doesn’t seem to apply to everyone. I mean that we accept different kinds of images in different contexts, without dispute. Society doesn’t seem to have a problem with sexually explicit imagery per se (we have censorship categories to deal especially with it) but we would not accept that imagery in all places at all times.

Henson’s work operates in special contexts. The first most important is that it is ‘art’. It is usually encountered in a gallery where people have to make a special effort to attend. It is a certain size, has certain characteristics, etc. That is, even though they are photographs and are reproducible, the artwork itself is the print, not the reproduction of the print. By endlessly reproducing the work or part of the work on websites, television screens and so on, the work is stripped of its qualifying contexts and presented as something else. This has important effects on what it is that we are arguing about. When the Prime Minister is presented on a morning TV interview where the discussion has strayed onto child pornography and the media’s creeping sexualisation of children, he responds that it is ‘disgusting’. It is entirely predictable that he would do so, no matter how much we might like him to be aware of its special contexts. The context has changed, and the man who is anxious to be seen to represent the population as a whole, reacts as the population as a whole reacts when such an image is seen in a new context. He might have responded very differently if he had been standing in a gallery before the work itself.

It is not pornography but unfortunately Henson’s work may still meet a legal definition of an offence at some point in the future. I have heard various legal authorities over the last few days make the point that he could be legally vulnerable if one of his models retrospectively decided to lodge a complaint. This seems to me to be credible and Henson is also morally vulnerable on this point. To what degree can a child give consent to participate in the making of an image that will have a life of its own forever afterwards? Henson’s work is freely reproduced without reference to anyone but him. This has been demonstrated to an almost ridiculous degree as the contentious images are endlessly reproduced on every newspaper website, the hypocrites claiming that the issue is one of ‘child welfare’.

It strikes me that there is an absence at the heart of artistic debate in this country, at least regarding the visual arts, and that is the artists themselves. I totally respect Henson’s decision to remain out of the controversy while he is burned in effigy by talk-back callers and tabloid TV (I think of what the 1943 Archibald Prize controversy did to the health and peace of mind of William Dobell). However, I can’t help but yearn for a visual artist at least as publicly articulate as so many of our writers. Celebrity is the language of the mass media, and while the subjects of the discussion remain absent, the wolves will go on playing with the corpse of their reputations. Artists don’t have to be celebrities to regard themselves as public intellectuals, just as writers so often do, with a role to play in informing and educating the public and fostering discussion. The result is that artists are regarded as little better than perverts and kiddie-fiddlers.

Believe me that I agree with John McDonald when he fumes that the Prime Minister should be aware of the name of one of his country’s premier visual artists. Where we diverge is that I think that visual artists are at least partly to blame. Visual artists (unless they are populists like a Ken Done or Pro Hart) will always be marginal with reference to the mainstream of popular culture, just as classical musicians are. The responsibility is not with the popular mainstream to understand how special we are and to respect our priorities; if we want acceptance, the responsibility is on us to explain, interpret and participate in cultural discourse in something other than a precious, resentful, condescending way.

Many of the defenders reveal their bad faith when, like John McDonald in the Sydney Morning Herald, they deny that ordinary people don’t have the right to an opinion at all. He said:

"It is no secret that rank populism is now a fact of life in Australian politics. But in an age when every message is refined and spin-doctored to avoid offending anyone's delicate sensibilities, it appears to be OK to pronounce judgments on unseen works of art in the name of public morality."

I can’t say whether he finds it worse that people can have an opinion about works of art in the name of public morality, or that they can have an opinion when the work is unseen. At any rate, the Prime Miniser was looking at an image when he gave an opinion (not, I add, the work but an image of the work), and he prefaced his remark with the words “I think…” My point is that he has every right to have an opinion, just as every talkback caller has the right to an opinion. They are not informed opinions, but then whose fault is that?

Most defensive discussion of the work has largely avoided facing the fact that while we so often denounce ‘corporate paedophilia’ and the creeping sexualisation of children in the media, the onus is on those who defend Bill Henson’s work to explain how or why it does not belong on this continuum.

A few things need stating, that despite the special art-context and all that that implies:

1. The images frequently depict children, and

2. The images are frequently sexualised.

These are almost statements of fact, rather than interpretation. The images are ‘about’ sexuality in a sense that includes adolescent sexuality. That is why they are so edgy. It is part of their power as images, it is also why so many find them disturbing, including some that were so disturbed they took their complaint to the police. For curators and the general art mafia is disallow this as part of the conversation is irresponsible and intellectually dishonest. This is why I find so much of the defence of the works unconvincing.

I find other artists and photographers don’t often have much to say about Henson’s work apart from noting his obvious technical mastery. Those that crow the loudest in his favour tend to be curators and the sort of people who get done for tax evasion. You would be mistaken if you thought that Bill gets down to the seedier parts of Darlinghurst to look for models, even though that’s just how he makes them up. Oh no. These are private school boys and girls, their parents the art equivalent of wealthy stage-mothers, lining up to pimp their kids for the social cache of being part of a ‘Bill Henson’. These parents have Henson’s work on their walls anyway – they can afford it. If you had any doubt, the Shadow Treasurer and wealthiest person in the federal Parliament Malcolm Turnbull had to ‘fess up the other day and admit that he quite liked Bill Henson’s work and in fact he had some on his walls at home. Was he hounded in the parliament as a pornographer? Of course not, he’s a Liberal and a toff and we expect that sort of thing from people like him, but woe betide any Labor politician who evinces any sympathy for the arts. Latte sippers! Elitists! Witness the abuse heaped on Kevin Rudd for the expressions of support directed his way by the ‘Creative Australia’ segment of the 2020 Summit.

I have heard talkback callers state simply that to photograph a child in any context without clothes is wrong. I can sympathise with those who hold this view without agreeing with it. This would include any image that is taken of an unclothed child for any reason whatsoever. It would also sexualise images that are in no way sexual, imposing such an interpretation on any image regardless of the context. We should avoid this extremism no matter how shrill public moralists like ‘Bravehearts’ may get.

To simply say that art can never intrude upon some aspect of life is a principle that we should never embrace. It is a statement like “No comedian should ever tell a joke about cancer, because cancer is never funny.” That statement is wrong not because cancer is funny, but because it remains to be seen whether a joke about cancer is funny. That is, we need to hear the joke first.

Similarly, art about adolescent sexuality may be smut or it may say something original, something affecting, something worth saying about that aspect of life. The point is, we need to see and judge the art first. Does Bill Henson’s art say something original about sexuality? In my opinion it doesn’t. This doesn’t preclude the possibility that it might say a few interesting things about adolescence, for example, and I have no doubt about Henson’s seriousness of purpose. Certainly he thinks it does and many people (Sebastian Smee, for one) believe he does. That should be enough for any community to tolerate its existence.

Henson’s work must also be seen in the context of his reputation, even though it doesn’t insulate him from criticism. He has represented his country at the Venice Biennale. His bibliography is several pages long and the list of institutions that own his work includes many of the premier art institutions in the world and in Australia. By anyone’s estimation, he is one of the nation’s most senior visual artists in any medium.

I have no doubt that the courts will find against the complaint. Henson’s work is plainly not ‘obscene’ in either the legal or the usual sense. More explicit images of adolescents can be seen on many newsstands and on television. This makes the whole affair potentially embarrassing for any politician or other public figure who may still have something even more inflammatory to say about the work, sensing that there is now a competition on about who can denounce pornography the loudest.

What we are left with is a sense of sadness that the climate of intellectual debate in this country is the loser. Bill Henson is a loser. Kevin Rudd is a loser. The only winners are those like commercial talkback radio, tabloid current affairs television, morals crusaders and media proprietors whose economic interests are served by a good old witch-burning.


Inkster said...

Your blog is a very elegant contributon to the debate. Thank you!

However, "the climate of intellectual debate in this country is the loser" precisely because so many people have sought to use the Law to enforce their own morality or sensitivities on others.

Many people seem to think it more important to enforce their own Morality on other people than it is to enforce the Law as it exists for us all to read and obey.

You say, "I think artists have the same duty to operate morally in the world as everyone else does."

This might be a moral duty, but it is not a legal duty, unless the moral obligation is elevated to a legal obligation in some formal Law.

If you breach a moral duty, the sanction should be moral or social.

There should not be a legal sanction, unless there is a Law that elevates the moral duty to a legal oblication.

You say, "I do not think art occupies a special zone exempt from the moral precepts that bind the rest of society together."

In the context of the above arguments, I would reply, "So what?"

In Bill Henson's case, there is a Law that applies to his activity and it (the Law) gives artists a defence, within defined limits.

Bill Henson is entitled to have the Law applied soberly and judicially.

If we respect the Law more than our own Morality, we should stand by and sympathise for his predicament, because one day, in the absence of respect for the Law, his predicament might be ours.

Anonymous said...

"In Bill Henson's case, there is a Law that applies to his activity and it (the Law) gives artists a defence, within defined limits."

In England, it is simply child pornography, so if what you are saying were to be true, it is something that can't be allowed to travel.

Bill Henson was one of the reasons the British had to re-jig their child pornography laws. What Henson does is a very serious crime in Britain.

I also must point out that the photo of a child who is the subject of a sex crime investigation would never be published in British newspapers, indeed, the only country in the world to do that, is Australia.

I would argue that Australia should not be setting so-called standards, for the rest of the civilized world, because, you are still on a learning curve.

To reiterate, the Sexual Offenses Act 2003, in Britain would have Mr. Henson as a child pornographer, which is what I also think he is.

Inkster said...

I assume that anonymous means that we must now amend Australian Law to comply with English Morality.

There's nothing wrong with being on a learning curve, just jumping off when you think you can learn no more.

In commenting about the English Act, I understand that Lord Justice Rose said: "If a history of criminal legislation ever comes to be written it is unlikely that 2003 will be identified as a year of exemplary skill in the annals of Parliamentary drafting."

Anonymous said...

It is the law, & photography, not morality as such, it is difficult to legislate for morality.

Henson because of certain habits, interests, call it whatever, doesn't have much support in the USA or the EU. which is why nobody is trying to save his career in London or Berlin.

I gather Sebastian Smee took a shot at it on his first day at the Boston Globe. That was via a paper in Oz, and I don't think that counts as American..

and the Englisher Boston Globe will not be pushing out the boat for Henson. I'm an old Southie hand, and I know the way the darn Englishers at the BG are.

And as Australia is supposed to be a VGT partner, it might be an idea to sing from the same song-sheet, however, regardless of that, Henson is unable to exhibit some of his photos in Europe.

I gather Henson has a solid cachet in Japan and they would know about U18 photography, the US Ambassador was chiding them about it the other month. Henson is still a big hit in Japan as one might expect.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever met him? Lord Justice Rose wouldn't be too pleased with images of naked 13 year old girls being squirted all over the net?

I wouldn't rate Bill Henson's chances on appeal, he'd need a pro-pedophile beak with a porn habit.

Henson is a disgrace to Australia. What an example to hold out to the rest of the world. Other countries put forward real artists, and you have a pornographer.

Crritic! said...

Don't be ridiculous, Anon, he's not a pornographer.

The complaint resulted in no charges being laid and I would be extremely surprised if they went anywhere at all even if they were.

Anonymous said...

Henson was banned from a long list of galleries because, well, that kind of 'work' is often illegal,

there are not many countries that give a prize for saturating the internet with photos of naked 13 year old girls.

It will probably take a while before the rest of the world get tuned into the artistic wonder of it all. Did te thought not cross your mimnd why he does it in Australia rather than say London?

Bill Henson has 'difficulty' written all over his portfolio. He can make money with it in Australia,

but it is not a vogue that is universal, it just isn't. So if one can't openly trade in something, it is restricted.

Crritic! said...

Anon - which galleries have 'banned' Bill Henson?

Also I'm not aware that Henson has ever put an image on internet at all, let alone "saturated" it. He produces photographic prints. Of course, the work continues to circulate in the form of invitations, reproductions, etc. And something I say in my blog entry is that his approach (and that of the vocal supporters) does not take sufficient account of this, but to make him sound like a producer of porn is stupid.

You say he doesn't 'do it' in London. That's basically because he lives in Australia. If you mean he doesn't exhibit in London, then you are completely wrong. His exhibition CV is longer than this desk. He also represented Australia at the Venice Biennale without incident, not was there any fuss when the NGV mounted a career retrospective. Might be an idea to do a bit of research there, I suggest.

He does 'openly trade' as you put it - around the world.