I haven’t sifted through all my thoughts on this current furore over the Bill Henson photography exhibition so I will re-visit this with time (like some time next month when I facilitate a feminist discussion group on this very subject) but I have some initial thoughts. In case you’re not up to speed on the art world scandal to which I’m referring, Bill Henson is one of Australia’s most well-regarded photographers and he is particularly fond of adolescent subjects for his work. As he says, adolescents represent “moments of transition and metamorphoses”. He has often photographed adolescents in what appear to be very raw moments of vulnerability including being naked, intoxicated and engaged in sexual activity with one another. I have long been familiar with Henson’s work although I’m by no means a knowledgeable art viewer. I have always found his work to be beautiful and disturbing – at the very least I find it intrusive in young people’s privacy.
Last week the police raided his current exhibition and several pieces have since been removed by police as part of an investigation. The subject of these pieces is a naked thirteen year old girl. The gallery raid has infuriated the art community. They’re right in arguing that Henson’s exhibitions have previously included similar subject matter and haven’t been met with the police and community reaction that this one has. (For instance, Prime Minister Rudd has called the images “revolting”). Additionally the art community has argued that Henson’s work does not sexualise children. This, I find debatable.
I am extremely uncomfortable with the censorship of art. And there is no doubt for me that Henson’s images constitute art. But art is not immune from exploitation. I found it short-sighted that so many of the comments defending Annie Leibovitz’s photograph of Miley Cyrus came down to the beauty of that particular image. Yes, these photographs are beautiful, but whoever said exploitation always looks ugly, grainy and artless? Henson’s photographs are of a young girl, one who is very recognisable from her photographs, and one who will have to live with the Internet-permanence of these images. For this reason I find comparisons of Henson with artists like Caravaggio a little irrelevant. (And when will art involve photographs of naked females who don’t routinely look quite so subdued by the viewer’s gaze? Ugh.) Consent for this girl’s modelling was provided by her parents but can she and they possibly have given informed consent to what is the capacity for distribution, use and controversy of these photographs in the Internet era?
The world was different when Henson began his career and not just in terms of the growing power of the Internet, but also on account of an increasing understanding of the rights of the child and the damage of inappropriate sexualisation. Henson, the art world, and the critics of this exhibition will undoubtedly survive this debate intact, while also remaining completely clothed and I can’t help but contrast that with the vulnerability of this young naked girl at the heart of this scandal. We should use children in all our media, including art, with incredible caution. Clive Hamilton, executive director of the Australia Institute (the research group that produced the report Corporate Paedophilia) was interviewed on this subject and has raised a number of salient points for me.
CLIVE HAMILTON: Well I think the way childhood has been sexualised so heavily, particularly over the last 10 or 15 years, has inevitably changed the way we see children in their naked form.
I’ve argued that previously when perhaps it was a more innocent age, then artistic representations of children, as is the case with the Bill Henson exhibition, wouldn’t have provided difficulty.
But in an age where children have been so heavily sexualised by commercial organisations and by the wider culture and where there’s so much more alarm about paedophilia then I think the presentation of a 12-year-old girl, for instance, naked to the public, really has quite a different impact and raises new concerns.
In particular, when they are placed on the internet, you know they’re flashed around the world within hours and even though the website from the gallery in question has been taken down, the images of this girl who is about 12 we believe, are all around the world and can be used for all sorts of unpleasant purposes.
And I argue that she, the girl, the model, could not possibly understand the implications of being presented naked to the world, even though the presentation is very aestheticised and that therefore she could not give informed consent.
So there are serious ethical problems with having these child models presented in this exhibition in this way, particularly putting them up on the internet.
EDMOND ROY: Are you accusing the gallery owners, the parents, the artists of a certain naivety then?
CLIVE HAMILTON: Absolutely. I don’t think their motives were nefarious or exploitative but I think they were very naive to imagine that nowadays you can put pictures of a naked girl with all of her, you know, budding sexuality on public display and not expect it to have all sorts of impacts including some pretty unpleasant ones.
EDMOND ROY: What do you say to the argument about artistic freedom? The question has been raised about how artists should be allowed, as you point out, push the boundaries.
CLIVE HAMILTON: Well it’s not so much that artists, I mean it is in a way the duty of artists to push the boundaries, but it’s also an obligation on society to push back.
And we’ve seen after a decade or more in which children have become increasingly exploited in the media and popular culture and presented in more and more eroticised ways, we’re beginning to see a reaction against that and Bill Henson’s exhibition has been caught up in that.
You know, arguably he and the gallery owners are innocent victims but they should have known better. They should have been aware that the way that children have been presented in recent years is bound to create difficulties when you present them not in an eroticised way I’d stress, the pictures aren’t in any sense pornographic, but the context makes the presentation of children in the nude, you know, troubling.
EDMOND ROY: You did mention the internet earlier. Has the invention of that new medium changed the argument somewhat?
CLIVE HAMILTON: I think it’s changed it completely. I mean if we imagine going back 30 years and this sort of exhibition being put on in a gallery and it was seen by its intended audience, that is those who have presumably a sophisticated appreciation of photography as art, then I don’t think, I certainly wouldn’t have a problem with it.
But when the same pictures become consumed, if I can use that commodified term, by a range of people for quite different and unintended reasons, which will have impacts on the child models in question, through the internet, then I think there are serious worries about that.
I mean, if this girl at age 30 has a completely different, you know has a career and an integrity and, you know, a history behind her and suddenly these pictures pop up in a magazine or on the internet, I mean, I’d imagine there’s a good chance she’d be humiliated.
And yet it seems to me that the adults around her who have her interests at heart and organised, approved the exhibition, were not fully aware of these dangers and have probably caused that child some damage.
P.S. I have deliberately not linked to the particular photographs discussed in this post. If the debate is important to you then Henson’s photographs are easily found on Google but I don’t want to participate in their gratuitous observation.