Friday, May 23, 2008


Yesterday I wrote about looking forward to seeing a gallery show of new photographic works by Bill Henson with my friend James. Last night we rang the gallery for directions, as we were close by but couldn't find the exact location, and the woman James spoke to at the gallery informed us that they had 'taken advice' not to open the show, so the opening night was cancelled.

I'm familiar with Henson's previous works, but didn't really know what to expect from this new show, and I was really surprised that the gallery had taken this step of a last minute cancellation of a well respected artist's show. Since watching the late news last night, and then seeing the morning news and the papers, the issue was that Henson had a series of nudes in the exhibition of pre-pubescent children and teenagers. (Interestingly, 90% of the coverage I have seen has focussed on the young girls in the exhibition, of the footage I've seen only a psychologist being interviewed on the Channel 7 morning news show mentioned that there were pictures of boys in the exhibition as well.)

They showed a couple of the images on the tv this morning, with blurring or opaque bars across the children's breasts, and I really had mixed emotions about them. They were certainly disturbingly frank, but they were also incredibly beautiful and vulnerable, with the children looking somewhat introspective and thoughtful and not in the least lascivious to my eye. My own concerns come from the vulnerability aspect, tasteful or not depending on your point of view.

What has been shocking to me is the media handling of it. One of the morning papers had a full page CHILD PORN 'ART' RAID headline splashed across the front page. Editorialising with two carefuly placed inverted commas and the inflammatory word "porn". A journalist being interviewed on the Today Show this morning on Channel 9 muddied the ethical waters with suggestion and innuendo, under the journalistic guise of 'these questions need to be asked', by suggesting that we don't even know if the children were left alone with the photographer etc. The children and their parents are to be interviewed by police, but there has been no allegations that Henson was ever inappropriate.

Oh, and the hypocrisy of the tv shows! While stating that because the images in the exhibition had been made available on the internet (a dubious decision in hindsight) it was exposing the children to the attention of pedophiles, they broadcast the exact same images. Yes they covered the genitalia, but the identities of the children were not obscured, and they publicised the fact that the images were available on the net.

Henson reportedly wanted to create images that spoke about vulnerability, about that difficult time between childhood and adolescence. I haven't really seen enough of the images to draw any conclusions about how successful he was with that aim. It certainly seems that his methods have been inflammatory to many people and have kicked off a feeding frenzy of accusation and moralisation. I didn't find the images that I (admittedly) only saw doctored versions of at all sexual, and it's kind of sad that there is no room left for innocent admiration of youthful beauty. Nudity = Sex. Nudity = Porn. I feel like I've suddenly been dragged down to the lowest common denominator.


Charisse said...

I agree wholeheartedly. I'm a huge fan of Bill Henson and I have two framed prints of his photographs on my wall at home, both of which feature semi-naked teenagers. The man is a brilliant artist. The treatment he and his work has received in the media over the past 24 hours has been disgraceful at best, although I'm not surprised that commercial television and talkback radio have resorted to what they do best - gutter journalism. If I were Henson I would sue for defamation asap. I think the police's resources would be much better spent investigating actual incidents of child sex abuse.
I think the media's resources should be spent on purchasing a dictionary and looking up the meaning of the word "pornography".
Sorry if this is inflammatory, but I'm really angry about this.
Anyway, I hope the exhibition does go ahead, and if so i'm super jealous that you got invited to the opening :)

The Other Andrew said...

You are right about the use of the word porn. In fact the pics I saw looked decidedly un-sexual to me, but like most of Henson's work they are shot in such a way that they are almost like a blank slate for you to put your own meaning on. The idea that Nudity = Porn is very sad to me, and as a secondary issue is largely targetted at men. I mean, I know that Liebowitz (sp?) came under fire for the Miley Cyrus pic recently, but nobody started innuendo about her motivation, about whether she was 'alone' with Cyrus.

Ur-spo said...

i remember when Mr. Meese called a press conference on his findings of pornography. He stood under a large marble statue of a woman bearing her breasts...
nudity does not equal sex; sex doesn't equal erotic. such a mixed up matter.

Mel said...

Welcome to Salem, 1692

yani said...

Nothing like a good old fashioned media "beat up"... and I agree they're totally hypercritical, they're splashing those photos (without permission?) all over everywhere and so about 100 times as many people will now see them as would ever have walking into that gallery.

But that also means that all the work of Sally Mann is now "child porn", and if we take it out to it's illogicial conclusion, any parent who takes a photo of their naked child in the bath and then sticks it on the fridge... are they now guilty of producing porn? Oh, and we might want to look in all those art galleries, there might be paintings that show naked children...

*rolls eyes with extremem sarcasm*

Michael said...

The furor here over those Annie Liebowitz shots of Miley Cyrus amplifies your point. A bared back is sexual? As your "blank slate" comment suggests, it says more about the viewer than the subject or the artist.

These images aren't what's harmful. It's the ridiculous, self-loathing Puritanical attitude toward humanity (fostered by religion) that's harmful.

Jodie Sorrell said...

I noticed tonight after voting 'No' in the yahoo poll about whether pictures of naked children is porn, that 83% of voters (in that poll 3791/18825) think it is.

As Yani says, should we start locking up parents for those photos of the darlings in the buff in the paddling pool? If we are, my Mum needs locking up, stat!

John C said...

We had a similar media-inflated kerfuffle last year over a Nan Goldin photo in an exhibition. By coincidence she was in the Guardian yesterday discussing her work and referred to that. Having been censored myself (for different reasons) I have a long and involved theory as to why this keeps happening but I won't bore you with it here. One rule is that the police anywhere are always the last people you should ask to make an aesthetic judgement about anything.

weez said...

False kiddie porn complaints closed Henson's exibition- and my blog was suspended by my webhost after another false kiddie porn complaint, oddly enough by a neo-nazi/white-supremacist pornographer and sex-toy merchant, regarding my criticism of the Henson affair.

worldpeace and a speedboat said...

yerrsss.... this is an interesting one.

I do think the word 'pornography' has been bandied about way too much, in exactly the way you think mass media will bandy.

I admire henson's technical skill with a camera. yes, he IS a great photographer. I have, however, found his images borderline before and I reckon some of them are pushing it.

I don't admire his choice of model, I think it was unwise. stick to overage models if you're going to do nudity.

I also don't think you need to be naked to show vulnerability. there are other ways of showing the vulnerability of a pre-pubescent without them being nude. I find that sort of tack obvious, unnecessary, and rather lame in a way sometimes. and it is exactly that vulnerability that people are attracted to, to either exploit or protect. this is, I think, more important than whether one would classify the images as 'porn' or not.

and no, I don't think people who take photos of their own children and display them on their fridge are doing something terrible. but if they stick them up on flickr without setting the photo to 'friends and family' they should know that their children's images are in a public forum and can be appropriated by anyone. this is the reason why I have no photos of my child *in public* on the net. I have no problem with nudity in the context of the family home (hello children of the 60s and 70s, we all ran around naked and it was/is great) but guess what? the internet is not the context of the family home.

it really bugs that the gallery had the photos in question online. even if hanson's motives are without reproach, there are plenty of people who would access those photos whose motives aren't. was the gallery being naive or thoughtless?

you can call them what you want, but they are still naked photos of people who are underage and there should still be some sort of mindfulness surrounding that.

I've been trained from a young age to view the naked body as a thing of beauty. for about 20 or so years I've drawn it, painted it, used it in printmaking. but I think this is a very grey matter - and I don't agree with either extreme of the argument.