Monday 26 May 2008

The Bill Henson thing

One of the interesting aspects of the furore over the seizure of photographs by Bill Henson due to open in an exhibition at Roslyn Oxley's gallery in Sydney last week is that 'art experts' seem to be getting some space in the media coverage.

[The photos were seized by police after complaints from members of the public of child pornography. A column by Miranda Devine in the SMH put Henson's work squarely into the context of child sexualisation; PM Kevin Rudd denounced the photos as "revolting". The seizure has raised discussions about art censorship in Australia, and the RO9 Gallery is getting phone threats. Their site is still offline]

AGNSW curator Judy Annear

Former NGA director Betty Churcher

'Artists jump to Henson's defense' (oddly, no visual artists are quoted, but hey)

Anna Schwartz describes the seizure as a 'dark day for Australian culture'; her daughter recalls posing as a child for Henson (not nude though)

And the ever-popular vox-pop: Punters at the AGNSW have their say

Credit has to go to Why Are They Getting So Mad At That Dude From The Muppets? We Thought Kids Loved Him?

Meanwhile, Outpost (the AAG blog) was the first to talk about the story in NZ, with Sarah Eades making a comparison to the criticism the Gallery received at the time of Robert Leonard's 'Mixed Up Childhood' show.

UPDATE: I forgot I meant to link to a recent discussion on Ed Winkleman's blog, about 'Exhibition spaces responsibilities with regards to potentially offensive material'. Interesting comments.


Anonymous said...

What is Best-of-3's view on this?? Personally I am firmly on the fence. I am in defence of ART but there is a line somewhere. I'm not sure what that line is or if Henson has actually crossed it. If it were paintings in question I do wonder if the outcry would be so loud and what does that say?

Courtney Johnston said...

Well, I don't think there's any doubt that Henson's photos are art - they pass most of the ARTH101 tutorial tests: shown in art galleries, written about by art critics, sold on the art market, made by a person who feels themself to be an artist (have I missed anything from Mona Lisa Smile?).

Actually, one commentator noted that with web searches like Google Images, works like those of Henson can be easily seen outside the art context - and thus possibly outside the context that the person in the photo expected.

Your comment about photos v paintings is similar to an observation Sarah made on the AAG blog. Would the outcry be as loud if we knew for sure that a nude 12 year old sat for a painted portrait? I guess with photos we "know for sure" (even though that's pretty debatable).

Over all, I'm not sure what my own opinion is. I like a lot of Henson's work - it's dark and sexy and troubling, and the knife-edge between beauty and bad behaviour is part of their power.

And I believe that art galleries should be places where ideas and morals and anything else humans dream up should be able to be explored and tested. I don't think art galleries should be censored by public taste/morals any more than I think Harry Potter should be banned from school libraries.

And yet - and yet. The second half of the sentence above is 'so long as there's nothing illegal and no one gets hurt'. I don't imagine (or I certainly don't like to imagine) that anyone is hurt by Henson's photos. Are they illegal? That I don't know.

So I guess I know my opinion after all. I think charging Henson and his gallery is ridiculous. But I can't tell if it's legally wrong.

Anonymous said...

"And yet - and yet" - exactly. I think we are of similar opinion in that charges are not the right course but.....what is? I think in this case it will probably come down to intent - my worry being that REAL child pornographers will get away with things by crying "ART"

Anonymous said...

Oh and I have no doubt that Henson's work IS art either, but....

Abby Storey said...

Thanks for all the links.

One has to wonder though, who are the naysayers concerned for? It is that the artist is a rampant pornographer who must be stopped? Is it the viewers who might be influenced by these photographs and suddenly begin thinking of adolescents as sexual beings? Or are the children of the world being protected by the seizure of these photographs?

I agree that labeling something art should not (and generally does not) grant immunisation from non art based criticism, however these claims need to be put in context. Henson's works are provocative and they are sensual. And yes, when searched for they are available outside the relatively controlled environment of an Art Gallery. However using these images to make a point about child sexualisation and pornography is almost farcical in the context of contemporary media, teenage fashion and ... well.. television.

Such an emotive issue is bound to raise controversy and elicit impassioned opinions; our deepest instincts demand for us to protect our children above all. I'm of the opinion that by accusing Henson, and his gallery, the concerned public are looking entirely in the wrong direction.

Anonymous said...

"Over all, I'm not sure what my own opinion is. I like a lot of Henson's work - it's dark and sexy and troubling, and the knife-edge between beauty and bad behaviour is part of their power."

A Bill Henson photo sexual, are you mad? That wee lassie simply forgot to put her clothes on. Bill doesn't do sex, he does non-sexual naked kiddie pics