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These photographs aren't sexual: they're just human [May. 30th, 2008|12:31 pm]
Bob Bain
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From The Guardian blogs (United Kingdom)

Australian artist Bill Henson's portraits of children have been seized by police. This is moral panic disguised as vigilance May 27, 2008 1:00 PM

Bill Henson is one of the very few indisputably great contemporary Australian artists - a photographer of astonishing talent, whose work is held in the collections of the National Gallery in Canberra, the Guggenheim Museum, the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, and, in an irony that will soon become apparent, the High Court of Australia.

The subject of glowing reviews, various monographs and a small number of lavishly-produced editions (the best, Mnemosyne, was prefaced by an erudite appreciation by David Malouf, one of the country's finest writers, and New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl), he also represented his country magnificently at the 1995 Venice Biennale. As I wandered through the Australian Pavilion that year, I recall experiencing an emotion conspicuously absent from previous visits; it was actual pride.

But late last week, Henson's reputation took something of a battering, when New South Wales police and detectives from the Child Protection and Sex Crimes Unit, acting on a complaint from an anti-child abuse campaigner, confiscated 20 of his photographs from the Roslyn Oxley 9 Gallery in Sydney, where his latest exhibition was scheduled to open this week. The matter is currently under investigation, and police have indicated that child pornography charges may be bought against either the artist or the gallery, over images of a 13-year-old girl in a "sexual context".

For the record, and according to a friend in Sydney who has seen the images in question, the teenager is naked. She is not engaging in any form of sexual activity. Just undressed.

Were these images sexualised, there might be cause for complaint. They are not: as so often in Henson's work, the youths appear to be engaged in some kind of private ritual, outside of society and even time. But the depiction is not carnal, nor in any sense gynaecological. And over two millennia of Western art attests to the principle that the nude - of whatever age - is not obscene per se. On the contrary, it's a legitimate and accepted field of artistic representation.

This righteous condemnation seems especially absurd when one considers that, in 2004-2005, the Art Gallery of New South Wales hosted a major retrospective of Henson's work, which was viewed by over 65,000 people (including, on three separate visits, this writer), and which included a number of images very similar to those seized a few days ago by the police - including some from the Venice Biennale. At that time, not a single complaint was received, and little wonder: Henson's images may be many things - hypnotic, unsettling, ravishing. But arousing they most definitely are not.

Henson is careful to secure the full permission of parents before shooting his models, and a number of his former models have rushed to his defence, praising both his character and his methods. (Yesterday, Cate Blanchett added her voice to the protest.)

But this didn't stop Kevin Rudd, the country's new-ish Labour Prime Minister, from sounding uncomfortably like his unlamented predecessor, the almost comically provincial John Howard, when he weighed in on the topic last week. Rudd told a national TV network that he considered the images "absolutely revolting. Whatever the artistic view of the merits of that sort of stuff - frankly, I don't think there are any - just allow kids to be kids."

Mr Rudd is of course entitled to his opinion, though one's faith in his aesthetic judgment - never exactly strong to begin with, given the club-footed banality of his apologia to the Australian Aboriginal population - was rather shaken by his quote. (One suspects his taste inclines more to landscapes, tasteful watercolours, perhaps groupings of dogs playing snooker.)

But he badly missed the point: the kids here are being kids: dreamy, abstracted, thoughtless in the power of their youth and beauty. They also happen to be naked - as kids sometimes are. And neither in life, nor in art, is this necessarily a case for concern. Lacking any sexual component, the images are merely human.

We live, however, in hysterical times, when the mere notion of a undressed child inspires howls of terror and fury (as photographer Nan Goldin and Annie Liebowitz both found out recently). This moral panic, masquerading as vigilant protection, has a pernicious effect upon society. It debases every relationship, makes every adult a potential predator, turns art into pornography.

Where does it stop? Is there a Balthus in any of the Australian state or national collections? I cannot recall, but if so, it must now surely be removed, for to make an exception would be both intellectually dishonest and morally inconsistent. Likewise, Huynh Cong Ut's famous photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the nine-year-old Vietnamese girl running naked from a napalm attack on her village. Finally, we should turn a stern eye on those cherubs, in all those terrible Victorian canvases that clutter Australian state galleries. So soft and pink, so appallingly pre-pubescent... out they, too, must go.

There is of course nothing remotely defensible about sexual abuse. But there's also nothing particularly noble about confiscating and censoring works of art - in particular, on terms as grotesquely mistaken as these. The case seems clear: paedophilia is a sexual crime; Henson's images are not explicit - and ergo, not subject to prosecution. And if the nudity per se is so outrageous, then a simple solution presents itself: refuse entry to those under 18 years of age. Classification, not censorship, remains the best response.

Yet Australia has a long and unfortunate history of book- and film-banning, and a deep-rooted mistrust of intellectualism in general and aesthetic experimentation in particular. This is merely the latest installment in a long, painful struggle to grow up, to think and act like adults, in an adult world. Clearly, there is some way yet to go.