Friday 25 July 2008

Bill Henson - Part 4

After three Bill Henson blog posts (see here, here and here) I decided that I had subjected myself to enough frustration over this matter and wouldn't re-visit the topic. This was until I was confronted by Elizabeth Farrelly's frustrating essay "Paint them ugly" in the Sydney Morning Herald (12-13 July). I read it while on a much-needed holiday with my wife Carmen. I tried to ignore it. But eventually, I read it and felt compelled to send a letter to the Editor (which wasn't published!). I also decided that I needed to follow up one more time with a post on Henson's art. On the same day I had a fascinating exchange with a dissenting anonymous reader in response to my third Bill Henson post (here) that dealt with the provocative Art Monthly Australia magazine cover of a naked 5 year old girl. My reading of Farrelly, my letter writing to the SMH and my engagement with the anonymous blogger all overlapped. It took all my emotional energy and much of my time across a whole day to read, respond and write my letter, and so I decided I'd leave the blog post till later. Here it is, two weeks later. The Farrelly essay was in effect an attempt to provide a serious comment that would help readers to reflect on childhood and the transition to adulthood, and specifically the way that power is often imbalanced between adults and children. She made some excellent points. But after providing three interesting vignettes on childhood and family life she attempted to take the high moral ground in relation to the Henson affair:
"The Henson affair was resolved by not being resolved. The pictures were returned, no charges laid but viewable by appointment only. For Henson, for his gallerist Ros Oxley and for any artist or gallerist tempted to show any child, ever, the message was Beware! Beware the moral majority, the expectation of niceness in art, the imposition of 'standards' - not of artistry, or craftsmanship, or skill, but of decency. Decency, in art.

Never mind that decency, in all its small-mindedness, is the very anathema of art. Or that art and pornography are virtually opposite cultural forms. Consider for a minute the questions left by the Bill Henson affair about the nature of childhood, of children and of our relationship, as adults, to them."
As one who had objected to Henson I felt I was being unfairly attacked as "small-minded", part of the "moral majority" and so on. Farrelly proceeded to make a number of basic (almost random) points:
  • "In Shakespeare's time she (i.e. 15 year old Miley Cyrus - who had been in the news that day) might have been married"
  • "We talk as though she's a child being prematurely unnaturally 'sexualised'. "
  • "Beware the moral majority"
  • "The Oz trial and the Bill Henson affair are Australia's main contribution to obscenity scandal"
  • The reaction to Henson is based on the "visceral urge to protect innocence"
  • "We all want to protect our children.... but how much of our construction of childhood as a fragile walled garden is just that - a construct?"
She then moved to a questioning of parents and their motives for wanting to protect their children. She questioned parental motives for protection. She implied that the modern over anxious parent is too concerned with parenting styles, education, nutrition, discipline etc (she has a point here). Children are not perfect she suggested and neither are parents. Where is this going you might ask? It seems that Farrelly was wanting to blame society at large and families in particular for pushing children prematurely into adulthood and never encouraging some young adults to grow up (and of course there is some truth in this). Perhaps her point was badly made and she was trying to say that Henson's work is a commentary on our times.

The frustration with an essay like Farrelly's is that in her endeavour to play to the arts community there is a confusion of liberalism and relativism that leads to a failure on her part to adequately test her own assumptions. On one hand she was acknowledging that childhood and adulthood are different, that childhood innocence should exist, that parents have a role to protect and preserve childhood etc. But at the same time she wanted to promote the relativist argument that childhood is simply a construct anyway; what's all the moral fuss. I haven't the space or the time to do a complete critique of the essay but let me finish with the following quote and one point which I think is telling :
"Hardly surprising, perhaps, that once there (i.e. retreating from the task of parenting), we emit contrary and confusing signals; hyper-parenting, worshipping and yet negotiating. Deciding 18-year-old boys are old enough to die for their country but fifteen-year-old girls are too young even to recognise the power that having curves and pouts suddenly gives them. Turning the family from a hierarchy into a mini-democracy where children, teens and adults have equal status and discipline is no longer imposed but negotiated.

What we do not see, however, is that this perpetual childhood of ours is stolen from our children. Childhood - that particular, magic vision that allows kids to walk under tables, and fly under the radar - relies on being powerless as much as being small; relies on some external, benevolent source of power. We don't see this, because we see all empowerment as good.

So we abrogate. We refuse to exercise proper power over our children, or to recognise that children segue into adulthood by emulating us. We decline to set for them the boundaries or develop in them the skills by which they might securely navigate this process. We build a society obsessed with celebrity, sex and consumption, where advertising ice-cream on the sides of buses evokes oral sex, and then we affect abhorrence at the way our teenagers practise celebrity, sex and consumption.

The costs are high. In indulging our reluctance to play the grown-up, we sacrifice our children on the altar of our own cowardice, shoving them over the top to face an adulthood from which we ourselves shrink."
Stirring words, I wish I'd written some of them. But somehow, Farrelly seems unable to reconcile her own words (with which there is much that I see as true) with her own desire to argue that Henson, gallery owners, art magazine editors and even parents should be free to use images of naked young children beyond critique and accountability. The public, including people of faith and non-faith, professional educators, parents and grandparents, doctors and health workers, social workers, psychologists, police, lawyers, even the Prime Minister of this country, has questioned the wisdom of allowing children as young as 13 years to pose naked for a photographer. Images that are then placed on public display and distributed via the Internet to the world. With one of Farrelly's points I concur - sex has power. Yes there is power that can be exercised through sexuality. Yes, we should "exercise proper power over our children". Yes, we do have a society "obsessed with celebrity, sex and consumption". Yes, young people in the years of puberty may discover their own sexuality and wish to explot it. But given Farrelly's own words, you would hope that she might see a role for others to offer children guidance in this area, beyond simply offering them freedom to choose. That's why some have questioned the use of these images - any civil society, any community, has the right to raise such matters.

The matter of power seems to be of critical importance for Farrelly and so I have three questions about power for her and other apologists for Henson. Who is in control of the power of the 13 year old girl's emerging sexuality that Henson sought to portray? Who was exploiting this emerging sexual power? And whose purposes were most served by its use?


Hinch said...

Hi Trevor. I'll have a crack at answering your three questions.

Who is in control of the power of the 13 year old girl's emerging sexuality that Henson sought to portray?
Henson was clearly directing our attention in a specific way by composing the photographs as he did. This is not surprising, for all communication between all people is customized according to the responses that are sought. However, Henson's construction of a particular scene is not the same as Henson controlling the girl's emerging sexuality; in the same way that the photographic techniques i use to exemplify the ferocity of an approaching storm cloud is not the same as me controlling the storm.

Who was exploiting this emerging sexual power?
No one. You seem to suggest that "to express" or "to observe" always implies "to exploit". Henson may document, focus, or even exemplify what we see, but this is quite different from exploiting the subject. I think it is possible for artists (or indeed anyone) to turn our attention to a particular topic without the necessity of exploitation.

And whose purposes were most served by its use?
Those of society, by encouraging us to think outside of the box; not with the express aim of changing our opinions, but rather with the aim of encouraging us to critique and better understand our preconceptions.

Thanks, Hinch.

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Hinch, thanks for responding. While there is justification for the points you make, it isn’t a reasonable argument to compare images of a storm with a naked girl. When you use images of the type Henson has used, great care and responsibility is required because the child is not (in the opinion of the majority and the law) capable of consenting to their use alone. I have never questioned Henson’s motivations or his integrity (I don’t know him). While the art appreciator in me marvels at his use of light and shadow and some of his compositions, I question the wisdom of using images of naked children in this way. I would also urge all artists to give these issues careful thought.

“Power” is a measure of a person's ability to control the environment around them. Foucault saw power as complex, having elements of constraint and enablement. He and others who followed him have been able to ‘see’ (or argue for) the exercise of power in many things for which those responsible for them have often been oblivious. That’s why in my first post on Henson I headed it “Was Bill Henson caught out by postmodernism?” and why I argued as follows:

“Postmodernism asserts that meaning or interpretation varies with the individual, circumstances and time….’it's only an interpretation’. Postmodernism shifts the focus from the artist and the work to the viewer and his or her context. In a sense postmodernists would claim that we don’t go to a gallery to discover what an artist has depicted representationally, but rather to experience the artwork and to discover for yourself just what it might mean. The meaning is seen as in the knower not the work, and all such meanings or interpretations are relative.”

If you swallow the relativist lie that there is no meaning or reality in the object, it’s just a representation, it is easy to say it’s just art, leave us alone. At the end of the day I don’t think that Henson, and others who use his images, can hide behind the argument that it’s just art – it’s just a wonderful image make of it what you will. Whether Henson intended it or not, there is power in the exercise of the 13 year-old girl’s sexuality whose images have caused this stir. The point I was suggesting in my last comment is that it appears that various people and organizations have used this power. If an adult with full knowledge chooses to allow others to use images of him or her for their own purposes then society judges this to be acceptable; within the constraints of the law and ‘good taste’ (the latter still has legitimacy in a civil society). The question has always been is it acceptable to use images of children in this way and for the varied purposes for which artists, gallery owners, advertising agencies, magazine editors and even bloggers might put them. And of course, can a child give such consent, and should parents have freedom to exercise this for them without question. My view, and one shared by many (I accept for many varied reasons), is that all of us must take great care with the way we portray children and the way society supports and exercise power over children as they grow from childhood to adulthood.

Thanks for taking time to answer the questions; I have enjoyed our dialogue on these matters in the last two posts.

Anonymous said...

Hi Trevor,

I can certainly empathise with your expenditure of emotional energy on the Henson affair and related matters; and also with your (I presume) frustration at not being published in the SMH (I have sent in at least 3 letters on the subject, without success!)
Turning to the piece by Elizabeth Farrelly you refer to (“Paint them ugly”), I should say at the outset that I find a lot of her material difficult to fathom, so it is quite possible that I have misunderstood some of her arguments…but I’ll have a stab. I agree with some of the points she makes about parenting: inter alia, that modern parents tend to be overly anxious (in certain respects), and are too concerned with aspects of parenting “technique”; that in many families, negotiation has replaced strong parental leadership and discipline; and that many parents deal poorly with that difficult period known as adolescence. I’m not sure, however, that this piece ultimately provides a great deal of value to the debate surrounding Bill Henson’s controversial photos.
I suppose my main problem with the piece is that I don’t quite see how such observations concerning what ails parenting in the West connect with - or lead naturally to – some of her views on the Henson affair (to which, like you, I take exception). She seems to see fear as the root of all evil in the matter (by that I mean both the Henson affair, and the modern parenting malaise). Like the Renaissance artists to whom she alludes, it is fear, in her view, that discourages us from feeling comfortable about certain ways of representing children. Similarly, it is fear that prevents many modern parents from doing anything with, or to, their children that might incur their displeasure on the one hand, or put them at any kind of perceived risk, on the other.
In all of this, it seems to me that she doesn’t engage sufficiently with the notion that some fears are justified – not just constructs created and fuelled by misconceptions of the nature of childhood, or what constitutes true danger, etc. She notes that “supermarkets sell lipsticks and high heels to six-year-olds” without engaging with that fact, in any real sense, or questioning the acceptability of such a scenario, or asking what this sort of marketing strategy might be doing to generations of pre-teen girls. She recounts her childhood experience with a “flasher”, seemingly wishing to downplay it, while apparently ignoring the fact that children are actually molested every day of the year. She seems to ignore, in fact, what I see as the strongest argument against the Henson photos: that the issue of paramount concern (more important even than the right of artistic freedom) is whether such images constitute an infringement of the rights of children – the right, among other things, to be protected from those seeking to use children for their own purposes, when those purposes conflict, or might conflict, with the interests of the children themselves.
In this, Farrelly does not differ essentially from most of the Henson apologists. What is different about her slant is that she seeks to position the views of Henson opponents among the various modern misconceptions as to the proper role of parents. Despite her sometimes excellent observations on the last point, she seems willing to downplay or ignore the fact that children all too often are used, abused and exploited, and that it is a normal human reaction on the part of parents to wish to protect them from such treatment. While the methods used by parents in this regard are sometimes wrongheaded, this is by no means always the case, and seeking to demonise those who hold a contrary view by the use of such (in her lexicon) disparaging terms as “moral majority” merely confirms her own prejudices.
Children are exposed to dangers that we (I speak as someone in his 50s) in many respects didn’t have to face. It is simplistic to suggest that what a 15 year old may or may not have done, or been subjected to, in Shakespearean times will necessarily constitute a valuable guideline for how we should see the issue of the sexualisation of young girls in modern western society, given the fact of child pornography, its proliferation on the internet, extravagant use of sex in advertising, the pressure on children to look, act and think in a manner older than their years, etc, all fuelled by a consumer and mass media culture that even a century ago would simply have been beyond the powers of imagination.
In certain areas, I suspect we might have made things too safe for our children (in what we have come to regard as an acceptable level of risk in play, for example). I remain to be convinced that the part of childhood touched by the Henson affair belongs in the same category.

Greg T

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Greg, I really enjoyed your insightful comments. As you say, Farrelly says many useful things but it is hard to reconcile her at times conflicting arguments. You're right about the importance she places on fear and bad parenting being key problems (and there is truth here). But as you also say, she fails to address the legitimate concerns that many people have raised about misuse of power and as you put it the rights of children. My suspicion is that the rather confusing mix of arguments might simply be the inevitable outcome for anyone who attempts to sort through issues such as these, when they do so from a relativist position and without a clearly articulated worldview with its own inbuilt clearly beliefs, values and morality. A world without a moral base can be a confusing place. A worldview built on the shifting sands of postmodernism can be rather arbitrary and scary. Tim Keller in "The Reason for God" (which I've just reviewed on this blog) has a great chapter ("The knowledge of God") in which he talks about "free-floating morality". He makes the comment that "our culture differs from all others that have gone before. People still have strong moral convictions, but unlike people in other times and places, they don't have any visible basis for why they find some things to be evil and other things to good. It's almost like their moral intuitions are free-floating in midair - far off the ground". That's how I feel about the nature of Farrelly's arguments. She knows what she doesn't like and a few things she feels passionately committed to, but what the moral framework is that binds this together is unclear to me and not well articulated by her. Nice to hear from you - keep sending those letters to the SMH.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Henson's child stuff is so banned in London, and if you can't sellit in London, it isn't commercial art,

I feel sorry or Dr Marcus Phillips, in the following example, I really do, but certain things are illegal, and they have to be.

Bill Henson, contrary to what his fan club have stated, is banned from London, because his stuff is illegal in London.

University tutor asked to photograph semi-naked children convicted of pornography