Saturday 23 April 2011

Here we go again

Guy Barnett, a conservative Christian Australian Senator and critic of photographer Bill Henson, is chairing a Senate inquiry into the classification of film, books and artworks. According to the Sydney Morning Herald submissions have been heard

calling for any film containing full frontal nudity to be refused classification; artworks and books showing nudity to be classified; and all artworks to be restricted to certain age groups. ''Artistic merit'' should be abandoned when classifying art.

The inquiry, the Herald continues

is a dress rehearsal for a bigger debate about classifications and censorship that will take place when the Australian Law Reform Commission's review of the classification scheme starts this year.

Coincidentally or not, the inquiry is taking place at the same time that Henson has had a show in Melbourne. John McDonald's review, also in the Herald, discusses the work, the context of the 2008 accusations of child pornography, and the media's attempts to whip up another controversy:

Perhaps we're finally ready to approach this business like grown-ups. The Age asked its readers if they found Henson's work offensive and 83 per cent answered in the negative. The unsmiling Channel Ten reporter standing on the footpath in front of Tolarno Galleries spoke ominously about the artist's "trademark nude photographs of children" and mentioned "accusations of paedophilia" levelled at Henson in 2008 but there was nothing in her story that resembled news.

The tabloids have also had a go, telling us that Henson's new photographs "are sure to offend" and have already caused "alarm". But there is a notable lack of alarm this time around. It seems unlikely that we will see any repeat of the hysteria and moral panic that greeted Henson's Sydney exhibition of 2008. Even the Victorian Premier, Ted Baillieu, has come out in defence of Henson, which shows an unusual maturity for a politician.

McDonald raises a point that I haven't heard before, an opinion that I find repugnant:
The current crop of Henson stories shows a media bereft of ideas, trying to create a blaze from a few dying embers of controversy. The blogs are crowded with conspiracy theorists who believe Henson is an evil genius of self-publicity who has orchestrated his own persecution to sell more photos. ...

The most egregious idea, aside from the child pornography claims, is that Henson is deliberately courting controversy for his own profit. A publicity hound doesn't keep the TV cameras at bay or refuse to do interviews. If Henson really wanted to make some money he could begin systematically suing all the people who have slandered and libelled him.

The comments on McDonald's review neatly summarise the two camps of opinion and are worth a read.

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