Sunday 15 June 2008

Bill Henson - Part 2

When I wrote a post about Bill Henson's controversial photographic work and the action by Australian police in closing down his most recent exhibition, it wasn't clear where this would end. In the past week we have seen the police drop all charges and Henson's supporters quietly celebrating the defeat of the "the philistines" who questioned his work. End of story? Well no.

As Miranda Devine writes in her opinion piece "Picture this: society draws the line" in the Sydney Morning Herald (14.6.08), the art community cannot simply conclude that art is beyond question from other interpretive communities, even if they choose to show it to an exclusive and 'safe' group of supporters. Devine notes that the art of Henson is not just being questioned by the police and government censors; nor just blogs like mine that have raised concerns in terms of the rights of children as well as moral and ethical concerns. In recent days a large group of psychologists, social workers and child-protection advocates have raised their concerns in a very public way in the form of an open letter. The group believes that the concern about Henson's work has been sidetracked into a pointless discussion about art versus pornography; when as they and others suggest it is about the protection of children and their developmental inability to give informed consent. The spokesman (Chris Goddard) states:

"We are particularly concerned [by the suggestion] Mr Henson's photographs are in some way so special as to be above the question of consent"

As I pointed out in my previous blog post, no interpretive community (even the art community) can hide behind postmodern notions that art appreciation and how any work is 'read' is all relative. The meaning is not just in the knower (rather than the work), all such meanings or interpretations of art are not simply relative. A photograph of a naked 13 year-old girl might be, in the eyes of some simply art, but it is still a photograph of a real naked 13 year-old girl. Like many others (it would seem), I find his use of such images, and the way that he does it, in the name of art to be inappropriate. I'm pleased that I am not alone. As Devine points out, it seems that:

" tolerance for underage exploitation has found its limits

I'm pleased about this and would hope that the community at large might continue to consider where it draws the line on many issues that affect society. I'd also be keen to continue to encourage others to consider on what basis they make such decisions. I know what my yardstick is for informing my worldview and the choices I make about what is just and unjust, appropriate and inappropriate, right and wrong. It is the teaching of the Bible and the wisdom and truth of God that it communicates.


Anonymous said...

I am quite shocked by the variance in approach by the Australian authorities via a vis their VGT colleagues in the UK, Canada and the USA.

The moral vocam doesn't seem to be there at an administrative or institutional setting.

I mean, NGOs complaining of naked 13 year olds being put all over the internet are being compared to the Taliban or the book-burning Nazis. I just don't know what to think.

Trevor Cairney said...

Agreed, some of the responses have been disappointing. Public debate about such issues is so difficult. The widespread unquestioning acceptance of relativistic thinking makes discussion of the issues in the public space difficult (and frustrating).

Anonymous said...

The Caravaggio & new-media comparison may be a product of an arts community with an inferiority complex, lending itself to a staggering reactionary arrogance.

In Boston they just put out the fellers for one or two former Soviet artists when they're in a dry spell, however, Boston, has never been so desperate as to beg a Henson into residence.

His only local defender, newly employed by the Boston Globe had to find an Oz rag to do the needful, it fact, it was Sebastian Smee who got of to such a bad start in his new post.

To New Englanders, there is 'open-minded' and there is 'off-the-rails', it is essential to separate the crass, from the polite promotion.

'it can't be fun to have the Prime Minister describe images of you as "absolutely revolting". '

Well, Andy Warhol had to put up with it, and if 13 is old enough to be squirted naked ( by somebody) all over the internet, one perhaps has to accept the reviews that accompany that kind of thing,

"The unctuous Kevin Rudd might have taken a moment to think of the effect of his comments on her before he spoke, but that would be asking too much."

I tend to think, Henson, contemplated the possibility that not every Australian had him classified as Caravaggio, who in fairness to Milan, didn't do naked 13 old girls.

"We know that abusers of children often peddle in photographic imagery, and the thought, naturally, disgusts us. We want to stop the circulation of such imagery and to stop the abuse."

Bravo, Mr. Smee, however, and sadly, it is a pity we couldn't all zero in on the people circulating auch an image, which it has to be said, is illegal in many countries all over the internet.

'But despite the girl's nakedness, I did not find them sexualised in the least. Undoubtedly I was influenced by my familiarity with Henson's previous work, but I found them respectful, poignant, moving. '

Well, many of his other viewers viewed them, both friend & foe, (at least historically) as very sexual, to the extent he was 'the dark lord' of a genre he was intent on making his own.

That fact, resulting in few (if any) galleries being prepared to exhibit that work in the USA, Britain or Europe. Indeed as I've stated, some of them wouldn't be able to to, ( for legal reasons) even if they wished to lend an opening.

'"You can't control the way in which individuals respond to the work," Henson has said. And he is right, of course. But, as it turns out, it's not so much individuals he has to worry about; it is groups, and individuals claiming to represent groups: people, in other words, who have given themselves the task of speaking on behalf of others.'

Like the United Nations, which I gather is being petitioned (UNCRC) by other groups, in the USA, South America, and Europe to review the publishing of an image of a female/child at a time when same female/child was subject to a police investigation.

To that complaint, being naked, is only an added violation, of a kind, where all the previous violations, have been associated with the people Mr. Smee, now working in Boston, defended in his op-ed May 28, 2008 The Australian.

One doesn't have to be a Boston Brahmin to know wrong, when wrong is staring back.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thank you 'Anonymous' for these thoughtful comments. Whether Henson is the new Caravaggio is probably better left to others with more knowledge of art than me. But as one interested in art but a non-expert, while I can see that Henson is a wonderful photographer, I can't see the justification for such comparisons, either at the level of artistic achievement or even in terms of the comparison of such different media. Being able to make such a comparison is dependent on a postmodern acceptance that we can allow meaningful comparisons, for example, of a photograph, a painting, a sculpture, a wrapped and indeed even a well designed object. There are differences between such works that make such comparisons (in my view unhelpful) difficult and almost pointless.

However, with these comments by way of an aside, the James Smee defence of Henson's work from which you quote quite extensively (see Australian newspaper of the 28th May) is yet another example of the art community not being prepared to understand what the issues are here.

For me, and most others, this discussion has never been about the art, it has been about the way he and others have gained and and used images of young boys and girls.

Like you I believe that he is wrong to use images of children in the way that he has and others are right to question him and the gallery on these grounds alone.

Thanks for taking the time to post such a thought provoking comment, I enjoyed reading and pondering it

Greg T said...

I think I agree with the overall thrust of your blogs on this issue, Trevor. Just to put in my two cents’ worth….
My initial reaction was, I suppose, along similar lines to the P.M’s – revolting, borderline pornographic, etc. Having read a good deal of the argument, pro and con, since then, I think my view has not exactly changed (though it is probably not accurate to label the images pornographic), but has become more focused on a particular aspect of the whole drama. I suspect that those who seek to justify the existence and displaying of the photos in question on the grounds of artistic freedom and/or merit, the stature of the artist, etc, are missing the point somewhat. Important though those concerns are, I think there is a more important point still, and that is the rights of the child concerned, and the duty of care we as a society owe her and others of tender years. Children under a certain age are regarded as being insufficiently mature to make decisions concerning their sexuality, which is why there are laws prohibiting them from engaging in sexual activity (or, perhaps more to the point, prohibiting adults from engaging in such activities with them). I think a similar principle might be seen to apply here: our society ought to have in place, and to enforce, laws that prevent children from being involved in certain activities whose implications they might be too young to comprehend. This is why pointing out that the girl concerned gave her consent, as did her parents (in the interests of charity and decorum I will not spell out what I think of the latter decision!) is not necessarily valid. Sadly, it is a fact that there are certain individuals who might use such images for purposes of sexual titillation. Furthermore, once an image has been posted on the web, there are no effective controls on its distribution, or the uses to which it is put. If adults wish to have such images of themselves created and propagated, however unwise that decision might be, it is reasonable to expect that they should have the right to do that. With children, different criteria must apply. For one, who can be certain that the girl concerned will not bitterly regret, later in life, the fact that such images of herself have been created and disseminated?
To say that the images concerned are “art” (and I am not necessarily disputing that they are) has little to say to such (as I consider) more important issues.


Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Greg, I appreciate your comments. I agree with the issues you raise. The arts community has failed to see that there have been genuine questions of the type your raise that are focussed on the rights of children and the need to apply laws designed to protect them. For most of us, it has not been about the 'art', but the child.