Tuesday, May 27, 2008


I've been following some of the Bill Henson debate, for example here and here. If you don't know what I'm talking about, you can read the story here.

In this country, in our culture, we find truth-telling suspect. We always look for the lie behind the words, the fiction in the fact. We are troubled by writers like Helen Garner and Helen Demidenko who blur the categories so profoundly that we no longer know what is real and what is not. In a post-surveillance age, photographers especially come under scrutiny (sorry that link is a side issue but interesting nonetheless). They capture a fleeting moment of truth, and yet by distilling a moment, by taking it out of time, they distil and inflate that moment. Fact and fiction morph, boundaries blur and collapse. Photographs are evidence - they tell us what is true. But photographs can be altered, they're tricky, they can also convince us that which is false is true. If someone says 'I'm looking you in the eye and I am telling you the truth' immediately we entertain the possibility that they are lying to us. In stories, someone is always withholding or misrepresenting the truth, it's one of the easiest tricks to create tension and suspense. We are not a society based on trust, we're a society trained to always look for underlying motives - whether conscious or unconscious. We see a great deal of behaviour - perhaps even art - as a symptom of some kind of neurological or psychological disorder. Or perhaps as a deliberate attempt to trick, persuade, or hoodwink us.

What is it precisely that these teenagers (boys and girls appear in the photographs, though I've noticed it's only the female models that people have framed as vulnerable and exploited) are to be protected from? I think it is clear that Bill Henson himself isn't a paedophile, I haven't seen any convincing arguments to suggest he is, nor is he wilfully presenting pornographic material. Are we worried paedophiles will look at the photos and feel things? Or that the images will incite repressed paedophiles to act? Or is it exploitative simply for a man to look upon a teenaged body? Or is it the fact that she has been 'used', that meaning has been layered upon her naked body by someone other than herself, someone with power over her? I've read many fears for this naked girl in the future, that while she might have consented as a minor, ultimately she will feel shame and regret at having posed for these photographs in a media age where images live forever (I think it's a huge assumption that a model will inevitably regret these photographs - I think if such photographs existed of me, I'd actually find them an incredible souvenir of my body, of my travels through my bodyscape).

Do the photos challenge our ideas about consent? "Who provided consent for her to be photographed in this way? Should her guardians be investigated and possibly prosecuted?" Dr Anne Smith asks (a spokesperson for the Royal Australian College of Physicians). Her suggestion troubles me far more than the photographs. Is part of the issue here our fear of the power and control individuals have over other individuals - do we want to dissolve families and individual choice about child rearing, including moral values, and make everyone instead a child of the state? I think for some people the answer would be "no, of course not (but everyone should parent the way I do)".

I've read suggestions that artists should have to jump through the same ethics committee hoops as researchers, or be subjected to working with minors police checks (actually the second is quite a reasonable suggestion). But the former, the ethics committee, suggests that art is as measured as research, even that it performs the same function. Art can be spontaneous and sometimes has to be.

Having said all this, I do think Bill Henson is accountable, artists don't live outside law and social responsibility. I don't feel sorry for him. He has created powerful, troubling, disturbing work and some equally powerful, troubling and disturbing forces have said, 'nup, you've gone too far, let's talk about consequences." As bluemilk said:
"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."
Unfortunately though, I am not sure what made her more vulnerable - the photographs, or the way she has been seized in the subsequent moral panic on both sides (one side arguing that she is an exploited child the other arguing that she is an object of art).

I am reminded, as I write this, of Margo Lanagan's incredibly and profoundly beautiful and devestating novel Touching Earth Lightly, a work I struggle to describe but that I think touches on similar themes to Bill Henson (please don't anyone read this and censor that too). One difference is Lanagan writes for teenagers. Bill Henson's work is about them. But I don't think that in itself should be problematic. In a world with a youth fetish, we need to analyse the images we are obsessed with, god forbid that the only public images of young people are the coquettish images in a children's fashion magazine. I think we are particularly terrified by adolescence, we gatekeepers of children's innocence (and I say that as a mother not a writer), because, like photography, like truthtelling, boundaries blur and collapse. When do they stop being children? Where are the boundaries between what is acceptable sexual behaviour or desire and what it not? At what age does nudity stop being innocent and fresh and okay and start being something sexual? Perhaps in the end, censorship is part of the success of Bill Henson's work, thematically if not financially. Because they've found a boundary, they've discovered a place in time and space that doesn't want them, that won't open up to them.