What’s Art? What’s Porn? What The Fuck?

Bill HensonEvery time I’ve started to blog on this story it’s escalated, and now it’s just crazy.

Police have seized artworks and are expected to lay child pornography charges against photographer artist Bill Henson and the Roslyn Oxley9 gallery in Sydney. This is because Henson’s works included several photographs of 12 year old girls in the nude.

In yesterday’s SMH, the artist explained his work:

“I’ve worked with people this age for many, many years,” he says. “They seem to be the most effective vehicle for expressing the things that interest me about humanity and vulnerability and our sense of ourselves living inside our bodies. Kids of this age, they seem to, as all those cliches go, be half in childhood, half in the adult world,” Henson says. “They’re at a point where there is an exponential change, both psychological and physically, taking place and this all kind of creates a floating world of expectation and uncertainty.”

The exhibition didn’t get a chance to open. Yesterday a conservative columnist wrote about how awful the whole thing was and how it was sexualising young girls. Then “a member of the public” complained to the cops.

Things got worse. The SMH cropped their photo of Henson because it showed nipples in the background. The ABC’s Lateline held off their report on the incident by half an hour last night while the editors hurriedly put black stripes all over the images. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd happily pandered to the talkback radio audience by saying the photos were “revolting”

“Kids deserve to have the innocence of their childhood protected,” he said. “For God’s sake, let’s just allow kids to be kids.”

-------------------------------------------------------
Advertisement

Support independent, ethically made, award-winning porn. Bright Desire features all of my erotic films and writing. A membership to Bright Desire gets you access to every movie I've ever made and lets me keep making female friendly porn!
Click here to find out more.
-------------------------------------------------------

I’m not familiar with Henson’s work and I haven’t seen the photos in question. But what I think Henson is trying to express with his work is that 12 year old girls aren’t “innocent kids” in the simplistic sense (I was a 12 year old girl once and believe me, no way was I sexually innocent). They’re at a cusp of flowering sexuality… and they’re also dealing with physical changes that aren’t necessarily sexual. It’s a difficult time when they’re really self conscious about their bodies.

Surely that’s worth capturing in art?

The other bizarre thing about this is that it’s not Henson that has done the sexualising here. It’s everybody else – the commentators, the media, the complaining member of the public, the police. They’ve looked at a picture of a naked 12 year old and seen it as a sexual image. Not only that, but they’ve projected all sorts of value judgements about sex and sexual images onto it. They’re the ones who are sexualising young girls, interpreting the photos as dirty pornography.

Think for a moment about the messages being sent to young girls here. The first is that their bodies are first and foremost sexual objects – that there is no way for a 12 year old girl to be nude without it being a sexual thing. And secondly there’s the hysteria and shame surrounding the idea of a girl that age being sexual in any way. She’s supposed to be innocent, remember?

Shall I throw in the obligatory caveats here? Because anyone who defends Henson’s art will automatically be accused of defending child porn. I’m not, of course. It goes without saying the the exploitation of children for sex is a crime that deserves to be punished.

BUT… we’re talking about art. And we’re talking about teenagers who, thanks to puberty, do have their own sexuality. If the girls in the photos haven’t been exploited (they agreed to be involved with their family’s permission), what exactly is the crime here?

This is where we get into thought crime territory (that’s twice in one week). It’s all about the dreaded “criminal intent to arouse” a phrase coined by Tony Comstock, albeit in a very different context to this. There is the assumption that any naked (or even half naked) photo of a child will incite arousal in a pedophile, who will automatically act on it. Hence the growing paranoia about photos taken at school swimming carnivals. There is an assumption that Henson’s art will inflame evil passions and crimes will subsequently be committed.

Thus, censoring the exhibition is an act of “pre crime” policework – stepping in and saving the day before anything criminal actually happens. The cops have already done a bit of pre-crime last week by raiding the home of several Islamists to “send a message”.

I thought we’d already got over this kind of censorship of artwork years ago. The problem is that in the 21st century, stopping child pornography is now the excuse used to justify all kinds of censorious and repressive acts. It’s a near-perfect justification because it’s one that’s very hard to argue against.

Hell, I hate the idea that I’m discussing the dreaded “CP” word on my blog yet again, especially when it’s standard porn practice to not even say or type those words lest it attract the wrong kind of attention. But I refuse to be silenced. This is censorship and I hate it.

The art critic Peter Craven has written an opinion piece defending the work. I’ll end with this interesting quote:

We are always likely to misjudge an imagination as pornographic because it presents the naked thing that might provoke an erotic response as a form of truth rather than as a sly peep show.

Edit: The curator of photography at the NSW Art Gallery has come out swinging.

“Bill’s work isn’t the problem here, it’s just a convenient kind of whipping boy at this particular moment in time… To take cheap shots at artists … won’t change whatever the problems are in our social fabric.

“The day art museums and artists decide that the only thing they can do is react to public opinion is the day that we are in the same scenario as people were in the 1930s in Germany,” she said.

Edit 24 May: Latest report. The charges aren’t CP related. They’re for “publishing an indecent article”. The person who complained was Hetty Johnson, a very vocal anti-child abuse campaigner. She said: “What’s happening here is that the arts community have felt that they’ve been able to get away with this under the guise of art for a number of years, and I think this is the community drawing a line in the sand and saying, ‘Enough’s enough’.”

The story also quotes Henson in 2006 saying: “It’s an impossibly oversimplified notion, this ‘loss of innocence’. It’s not like you cross a painted line on the floor; it’s a progression.”

Edit 29 May: I hate this, I fucking hate it, but I’m giving in. The police are now going after websites that may have used Henson’s photographs in their reportage. I’ve now cropped the photo used on this post, removing the blurry background image of one of his photos. I’m allowing myself to be censored but there is no way on earth I want to be the subject of that kind of accusation, because it wouldn’t matter that I’m innocent, the damage would be done and my whole life would be screwed.

They’ve also raided numerous major galleries including the National Gallery.

The ABC dared to show a documentary about Henson on Tuesday night including full shots of several controversial photos. I suppose that means our public broadcaster is guilty as well. And I watched it, so that must mean I’m some sort of pervert.

This whole thing makes me want to move abroad.

I’ll say it again: what the fuck?

Edit: 31 May – I’ve written more on this topic, even though I said I wouldn’t. You’ll find my further rantings in the comment section.

Related posts:

21 Replies to “What’s Art? What’s Porn? What The Fuck?”

  1. You can’t have it both way Ms. Naughty. If you want controversial work to be protected because it’s “art”, then you are opening the door for controversial work to be supressed because it’s “not art”.

    Let’s leave deciding what is and is not art to history.

  2. In writing this piece I was well aware of that other dichotomy that pitches 9 Songs against erotica like Damon and Hunter: art vs porn. I did consider going into that argument, but it felt like I would be complicating the matter… How does one argue for the implicit value and worth of sexually explicit images while at the same time defending nude photos of a 12 year old girl? How does one fight for the right for adults to be aroused at images and film while still refuting the concept of pedophilia? Quite the tightrope.

    We all agree that porn’s main intent is to arouse and that it’s intended to be consumed by adults and should depict adults. Porn can easily be art but that’s not to say that art depicting nudity equates to porn. One should not negate the other. My post says “Hey, this is not about arousal” but it should not then be inferred that inciting arousal is a bad thing.

    It all still comes down to thought crime in the end – even if it means defending the awful thoughts of the pedophile who does not act on his urges.

    Just writing that last phrase makes me uncomfortable.

    My main point here is still censorship. The cops that shut down this art exhibition are essentially the same cops who wouldn’t allow the screening of your film in Melbourne. The point is, who are the police or the government to decide what is sinful, what is art, what is porn, and what adults should be looking at and thinking about?

  3. I don’t want the goverment deciding what’s art, what’s porn, what’s sinful, or what adults should be thinking about. Neverminding that this is a fool’s errand; even when acting with the best intentions, governments are notoriously inept in this arena.

    I am very interested in dispelling the superstition that the recording of an act on film has some magic power to turn a legal act into a criminal offense, or visa versa.

  4. This kind of thing would be comical if it weren’t so scary. Okay, it’s STILL comical! It’s funny that people who are oppressed/protected by these laws can’t decide for ourselves if the work is harmful because we’re usually not allowed to see it once it’s been deigned offensive. It’s funny that the more controversial young people’s bodies and experiences are, the more challenging the issues are swirling around them which only makes them a more interesting subject for art AND jerking off. I do have mixed feelings about a middle aged man shooting nude photos and provocative shots of such young women and I don’t care if the parents consented. Still, it all should boil down to whether or not an actual child was HARMED in a real way, not whether or not someone took a picture of it or someone saw it and got aroused by seeing it. Frankly I doubt this photographer has never jacked off to his work and the memory of seeing those girls in the positions he put them in. If he says he doesn’t, then he’s contradicting himself. The question is whether or not a real crime with a real victim was committed. Honestly? I think everyone is lying to pretend that provocatively presented nude teens who’ve started “developing” isn’t a turn-on even to “normal” people. How many people jerked off to the Abercrombie & Fitch catalogs? Who cares as long as you don’t go out and hurt someone? Like you said, we’ve all been that age before and most of us have pretty intense memories associated with that age of sexual awakening. It seems unrealistic and stupid to me that we attach a sick-o label to anyone who gets off on whatever arouses those memories. The whole CP scare has forced people to distance themselves from human nature and created crimes where there are none which really complicates the issues and does nothing to protect kids.

    From a personal/gut reaction perspective though? I think this guy’s “I’ve worked with people this age for many years” statement is totally retarded and I really wonder what the fuck people are thinking when they whore their kids out to some guy just because he calls himself an artist and has a fancy way of saying “being a twelve year old girl is all kinds of crazy-exciting-hot!” Twelve year olds are not ready to make decisions about modeling nude for someone unless they’ve been living on the streets and it’s a welcome change to be in a studio instead of an alley or have been raised completely removed from and ignorant of cultural norms (which is probably abusive in its own way). No matter how you intellectualize it, I think people’s disturbed reaction to this is partly justified. I don’t have a problem with the pictures or the pictures being seen or even with people jerking off to the pictures (whether that’s what they were made for or not). I do have a problem with twelve year old girls being posed nude by a dirty old man with a smart mouth and their parents who “consented” on behalf of their daughters. If two girls took pictures of each other and sold them? I’d have a different reaction. I also felt differently about Sally Mann’s work with her own children. It would be interesting to hear from the models and their parents.

  5. Ah. I just read the article where he says he shot the models in Europe, not Australia. Those wild open-minded Europeans? Or maybe, “those poor Eastern Europeans who saw a good business opportunity all for a few hours with some grizzled age-inappropriate guy making their daughters feel uncomfortable so he could capture their provocatively special human awkwardness”? Gah. It’s hard for me not to feel contempt for this guy.

  6. I think it’s wrong to automatically make the assumption that Henson is a dirty old man. I don’t want to do that because it’s buying into the hysteria that surrounds the issue of child abuse. There seems to be a growing assumption in popular culture that *all* adult men need to be watched when it comes to kids; that there’s a potential pedophile in every man.

    Maybe I’m just an idealist but I do want to believe that this man has a dispassionate, artist’s desire to capture a human condition – one that does involve aspects of sexuality.

    In doing so I’m not saying that art cannot be about sex or arousal, nor that porn is a bad thing. As Tony has said, the intent of the photographer or artist shouldn’t really be the point, but it is now because charges have been laid.

    In any case what’s happened here is the aim of “art” in the first place, which is to create discussion and thought. And to stir up hornest’s nests, it seems.

    Perhaps I shouldn’t have blogged about this topic at all, since I may find myself defending the post endlessly. This is a topic with many shades of grey and I refuse to see it in monotones, which is what conservatives do. But a complex issue requires a lot of writing to get through it… and I’m off for the weekend.

  7. I find it bizarre that there is a roughly 10 year age gap when it becomes immoral to take or possess a photo of a naked child.

    If you look through my family photo albums, you’ll see the ubiquitous bath time snapshots and pics of a naked (or topless) little girl running around on the beach. After a few years the nakedness becomes wrong or dirty until the magic age of 18 when the Girls Gone Wild bus pulls up and the girls (oops, now women) once again are allowed to run around naked.

    As a society we’re saying there is a 10 (12? 15?) year age gap that artists aren’t allowed to even consider? Huh?

    I agree with Trixie that a lot of the interest in the burgeoning sexuality of that age is going to be coming from a strictly horn dog kind of place. That’s human nature and part of what would make the art so provocative (assumption of course, since I can’t see it). Anything that invokes the memories of that time in our lives when our hormones were running wild, our bodies were changing, and boys and girls started noticing each other for the first time has the potential to be quite powerful.

  8. You make very good points Kris and that weird “blind spot” is one of the reasons I wanted to post about this. The need to protect girls of that age is real but how far do we go in that protection? The burqa?

  9. Come on now, we know this isn’t about art and young girls burgeoning sexuality. It’s about pudendas, and Mr. Henson’s keen awareness that there’s a line that he dare not cross, no matter how magnificient an artist he is, no matter how sincere his intentions, most importantly, no matter the age of his models.

    If Mr. Henson were genuinely interested in adolescent sexuality, the confusion, the ambiguity, then their sexuality wouldn’t be so conspicuously absent from his work.

    But he isn’t an artist of any sort. He’s a cheap provocateur with a keen sense of just how far he can go and count on his chablis-drinking pals to rise to his defense. He’s out the bait; and we’ve all taken it, “But it’s art! It’s Art! IT’S ART!”

    Is there anything illegal about a midaged man whiling away his afternoons with naked 12 year-old girls? I don’t know. What I do know is that carrying around a camera while you do it, making art doesn’t make it any more or less illegal.

    So again, let’s please stop asking where the boundaries for artist are. It’s a stupid question with a simple answer: The boundaries are in the same place for artists as they are for everyone else.

  10. I’ve just re-read my comment on your blog (http://www.comstockfilms.com/blog/tony/2008/05/23/a-modest-proposal/#comment-85187) and your comment here… and now I don’t know what we’re talking about anymore. Because now you’re speculating on his intentions (“being a cheap provocateur”) which is what I thought we were trying not to do. And now you’re the one defining art by denying that Henson is an artist.

    Neither of us have seen the work so what we’re doing now is just speculating – on meanings, on intentions, on facts. Is sexuality conspicuously absent from his work or is it all about sex as Hetty Johnson maintains? Who knows? We’re not allowed to see it.

    And it feels like we’re still just agreeing with each other in strident terms.

    So given my real ignorance of the work and the artist, why am I taking Henson’s side?

    I’ve realised I’m on his side because the art galleries, his fellow artists, the art lecturers and the freedom of speech activists are on his side. Which sounds far more appealing than siding with the talkback radio hosts, the conservative columnists and the people who want to burn down art galleries.

    You’ve used the term “chablis drinking pals” which I believe is the equivalent phrase to “chardonnay sippers” here, most often used by conservative columnists to dismiss all those nasty “elites” in the universities who think for a living.

    I like chardonnay. I’m often inclined to sip it. 🙂

  11. Shall I muddy the waters by trying to define art right now? Because you have asserted that I’m defending Henson because he’s an “artist” and that by doing so I’m denying the legitimacy of porn as an artform.

    “Art” may be defined by history as you say but it’s also be defined within the eye of the beholder – as you have done in your comment above.

    I think individuals should have the right to personally decide what they think is art and what isn’t (and what is good or bad art). As opposed to the government making the decision, which is what has happened here, and it’s what I’m protesting against.

    I did the obligatory surreal musing about definitions of art when I studied it in high school. Now I’ve got a more practical view of it, which informs my original post. I tend to think of “art” as a creative expression that discusses or depicts ideas, thoughts, nature or the human condition. Yes, it’s a broad and quick definition but it does the job. It’s a definition that easily includes porn although my personal ethics would preclude child porn as art (and I’m not going to go into that here).

    Who is an artist, then? A chardonnay sipper with tenure at uni? The landscape painter? The embroiderer? The chef? The sex blogger? The pornographer?

    Can the graffiti spray painter be an artist when their actions are against the law?

    Your original objection is against the way that authorities and free speech defenders like to draw a line down the middle and divide expression into “art” = good and “porn” = bad. I too reject that idea.

    But in trying to remove that line it feels like you’re saying that nothing qualifies as art because the term is too nebulous and easily misused.

    If nobody can be an artist, what do we call ourselves when we creatively give expression to thoughts and feelings?

    Surely you feel that your films are a form of art? And by using film stock and good lighting and putting sex into context, I’m sure you feel your art is better than, say, Dirtpipe Milkshakes. Although the raincoater who loves said Dirtpipe film may disagree. Again, personal opinion defines art.

    So then we get the “high art” of the opera I went to last night versus tonight’s Eurovision song contest or an Idol show. That same “art vs porn” dividing line comes into play here. It’s all just a matter of snobbery in the end.

    So… does the work of Henson qualify as art or is it child porn? The boundaries apply to everyone like you say, but where are those boundaries? The police say Henson has crossed them, the mob with torches says he’s crossed them, the art community disagrees. I can’t make a personal decision on whether it’s art because the work has been censored and I haven’t been allowed to make that call. Except that I’m siding with the artists on free speech principles. Or I’m possibly being snobbish, I’m not sure.

    It’s midnight. Time to go to bed. This post doesn’t really resolve any issues and it’s possible that it contradicts some of my previous thoughts, but I had to write it down to get it out of my head. It’s too late to debate such weighty issues, especially after seeing the Sex Bomb skater win the Eurovision song contest.

  12. Just came back for fun; I hope you don’t really regret posting the entry because of people like me who like to play devil’s advocate, etc. This issue can be looked at so many ways from so many perspectives which is what makes it so . . . invigorating and crazy-making.

    I don’t like to assume all men are “dirty old men” either, BUT. And I’m not assuming this guy is, just saying that is/was my gut reaction and I’d personally bet money on it. Another way to look at this is as similar to cultural misappropriation. He says he’s using young women’s bodies to artistically convey something about the human condition. I’m not denying that he is, and perhaps successfully (which is part of what makes it art, even if he fails, or at least a pretty good way to con himself and others into thinking he’s doing more than making high brow porn). But part of what chaps my hide and makes me judge him is that *men* so OFTEN do use women’s bodies to make their statements instead of speaking from a perspective that they own. It’s like he’s speaking FOR young women. Maybe I’m muddying the waters here by bringing in more issues than just whether or not he should be censored and whether or not legal action is warranted, but for me this kind of behavior and posturing automatically makes his intentions suspect. I’m not saying that middle-aged men shouldn’t be able to make art speaking with their rendition of teen women’s voices, I’m just saying that I personally feel a bit contemptuous of it and suspicious about it, in a similar way to how I feel about white people trying to write characters of color or rich people trying to write poor characters. When you add the element of sexual exploitation of a minor into the mix, it raises my hackles even more.

    Do I think he should go to prison? Probably not. Do I think the outrage over it is bizarre considering the other things people turn a blind eye to? Yes. But I also think people have good reason to be highly critical of his work, along with the parents who facilitate its creation and his defense of it.

    Again, coming from my own dirty old man perspective I don’t have a problem with people seeing it, wanting to see it, or being aroused by it; while I acknowledge it has an artistic component, I’m less interested in defending that and more interested in recognizing that even if it IS erotic, it shouldn’t be criminal or viewed as pathological to view it and enjoy it, even from that “base” perspective. BUT looking at it from the perspective of women, especially young women, and the desire to protect them from being sexually exploited and manipulated I think “art” is a flimsy shield to defend that. I don’t care if it’s art, or next top model, or porn if the end result is the same: a young person put into a potentially painful experience, exploited and publicly exposed and sexualized in a way that she has no control over. I’m not saying that young women are NOT sexual, or that people who recognize that sexuality are monsters, I’m just saying I don’t like seeing kids suckered into situations where they are manipulated into sharing that and having it twisted and packaged to meet the needs of an adult where there is a major power imbalance. While it may be unfair to judge this guy as a dirty old man right off the bat, it’s also unfair and dangerous to disregard the realities of age, gender, and power all acting to make shooting with someone like this guy a really yucky experience for these girls. I don’t think it’s irrational or hyperconservative to be extremely concerned about his models or the slippery slope of allowing “artists” to have access to and depict real-life (not computer generated or body-doubled) nude adolescents. Twelve is really young. It really, really is, and no amount of intellectualizing the end product can change where most twelve year olds are at, developmentally.

  13. I find it sad that people are judging Henson’s work without having seen it. Of course it’s art. Of course it’s not paedophiliac. Yes, it does sometimes portray adolescent sexuality, sometimes in troubling or confronting ways, but the gendered argument here is highly problematic: there’s a lot going on in these photos, including a critique of the gaze. He takes photos of both boys and girls, but more often of landscapes. His models (including the family of the girl at the centre of the fuss) have defended him and are refusing to speak to police.

  14. I wasn’t going to comment or write too much more about this topic because it was sucking my will to live. But now I’m feeling chuffed because the author of the 2020 protest letter about Henson has made a comment on my little, porny blog – thank you Alison!

    Anyway, thanks to a brave and commendable decision by the ABC to change their schedule on Tuesday night and show the profile of Bill Henson, I’ve now seen examples of his work, including his landscapes. My personal response was to find his photos quite beautiful, to be honest. There’s a real painterly aesthetic to them. The show also showed several of the nude teen pics, including several of a boy. Most of them looked very serious and meaningful, posed with infinite care. A couple did have a sexual aspect that was both intriguing and slightly disturbing.

    I found myself thinking that if Henson IS a dirty old man as is being alleged, he’s got a very complicated way of expressing his urges. But if I were to judge purely on the appearances of that show, it looked like he was far more concerned with framing and light than getting a hard on for his models. And then again… I feel like this shouldn’t even be an issue.

    And the other thing I thought is that it’s Henson’s status as a middle aged male that has probably drawn the fire. If these pictures were self portraints by teens, would there be this much fuss? Another Australian photographer recently held an exhibition featuring photos of her own naked children (I can’t remember her name). She was making a statement about the nascent sexuality of children with her work but you could argue that her pics are child porn. Certainly there’s less consent involved because her kids are only little.

    It looks like the argument is coming back to definitions of child porn according to the law and social mores. Plenty of people have been saying that there should be NO images of naked children or teenagers shown in public at all. And I guess the next step is that we shouldn’t take pictures of kids in the bath. A society that declares that there’s no such thing as non-sexual nudity and no such thing as a non-sexual photo of child nudity, is a very confused society indeed.

    In theory child porn is illegal because it documents child abuse which is a crime. But if no crime has occurred, why is the photo still illegal? The “criminal intent to arouse” theory is well and truly in operation here. And I really don’t like the idea that we go around censoring things just in case someone wrongly gets aroused. Saying “the photo made me do it” is a cop out and makes society complicit in the pedophile’s decision to act on his thoughts.

    Yuck. Here I am defending pedophiles… I hate having to do this. But I guess it has to be said. There should never be a law against thinking about something – even if that something is a criminal act. It’s when you DO it that the law should be involved.

    In the case of Henson, no illegal act has actually occurred. The models and their parents support Henson and aren’t making any complaints. So, as I originally said, people are debating the motives of Henson (including myself). He’s in trouble for thought crime.

    The idea that a photo is illegal because of what it might make you think sets up a dichotomy of those who are authorised to view it and those who aren’t. Apparently the police who have confiscated those photos are lofty individuals who are able to handle looking at them, as are the moral guardians who will be deciding on the case in court. The public, on the other hand, need to be protected. This is the essence of censorship.

    Trixie, your feminist perspective about whether Henson should be the person speaking on behalf of the sexuality of teenage girls is a valid one. I guess the problem now is that the topic is officially off limits thanks to this incident, so no-one, not even teen girls, will be allowed to go there. The Americans call it a “cooling effect on free speech” I think.

  15. And you know what else? Tony was right when he said that the artists and the talk show hosts were on the same side. Because this week they’ve all been very quick to use the word “porn” in a thoroughly negative sense, depicting any kind of sexually explicit material as the essence of all evil. Alison Croggon’s otherwise good letter from the 2020 artists still said that all porn was abusive and abhorrent. In this debate, ANYTHING that is sexual or sensual or titillating is bad.

    Not surprising, I guess, given that those for Henson are trying to disassociate him from child porn. But no-one is going out of their way to make any distinction between illegal CP and the legal porn that the majority of Australians own or watch at some point in their lives.

    “What pornographer has his work in the collections of public museums around the world?” asks art critic John McDonald. Good question. Why is porn considered to be non-art? Why must “high art” make so much effort to declare itself to be above the “baser” urgers? Does being turned on preclude all other thoughts and senses? And why is the human response of sexual arousal to be spurned when any other emotion or response is acceptable?

    Yes, Tony and I may have differed on all sorts of points in this debate, but I’ll definitely hand him this one.

    And yes… dammit. I’ve spent even more time thinking about and discussing this topic when I said I was finished with it. Now, I’ll try and leave it be.

Comments are closed.