I couldn't get out of my head how much"Art" is out there exploiting children in the naked form. Because even if at 12yrs old they give permission, do they really understand the enormity of that choice at that age? Or do they see the £50 model fee? Doing my best to not focus on these kind of issues as I feel it will get in the way of my ability to experiment with other subject matter.
In 2008, Bill Henson, one of Australia’s ‘greatest living artists’, was the subject of nation-wide scrutiny, which threatened him with a charge of child pornography. New South Wales police seized 21 of Henson’s portraits of naked adolescents from the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery just hours before the exhibition opened (Arts Hub, 2012). Henson’s works cannot be simply classified as either art or pornography, and for this reason they have since been the cause of much controversial debate amongst art critics, the general public and the media. In order to analyse this major art controversy, it is important to examine the social and historical factors that shaped the reception of Henson’s 2008 exhibition, in conjunction with the possible implications of the works themselves and the seizure of them. Consideration of the public and political climate in Australia at this time is crucial when assessing the artistic merit of this controversial artwork.
The public reception of Henson’s exhibition was fuelled by, and in turn contributed to a raging nation-wide debate regarding ‘art, children, censorship, paedophilia, the internet, the police and the media. The prevalence of historical, contemporary and social context is highlighted when Henson’s previous work is examined. For years, Henson’s work had explored similar themes, from naked junkies of the 1980s, to ‘gawky adolescents’ of the 1990s, yet he was met with widespread criticism in response to his 2008 portraits. Why did this happen? David Marr partially attributes this sudden moral panic to timing and more specifically, the conviction of New South Wales politician, Milton Orkopoulos, for ‘government protected paedophilia. The Orkopoulos conviction made headlines just days before the raid of the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, and with this in mind, there is no doubt that readers feared that Australia was becoming ‘soft on paedophilia’ But I also see this as a shift in what was publicly acceptable years ago to what is okay now. Times change
It is in this context that Henson’s works were described as ‘strangely obsessive photos of pubescent teens’ by the Telegraph. The Oxleys concluded, individuals with a specific political and moral agenda used the NSW police to achieve this and ‘make an example of Bill Henson and his work.
Beyond the Orkopoulos case, Henson’s works were widely received by the public as condoning paedophilia and child exploitation. For this reason, it is also important to examine the potential implications of Henson’s work when evaluating the role of censorship.
Henson described adolescence as a ‘bridge’ between childhood and adulthood, which represents ‘a certain disposition. Photography is the medium Henson used to capture this transition but as curator Capon asserts, it is through the manipulation of images that he expresses idea and sentiment. Henson described the challenges that come with choosing photography as his vehicle for expression, saying: ‘people are accustomed to seeing a photograph as authoritative evidence, as proof of something. Furthermore, the use of this medium to explore adolescence, contributes to audiences’ preparedness to analyse Henson’s artistic intentions. In the realm of art making, photography is not commonly awarded the same artistic acceptance as traditional art forms such as painting or sculpture. Rather, it is seen by some as a vehicle merely capturing a moment, a truth, which does not require the same interpretation as traditional art forms. This highlights the fact that an understanding of artistic intentions is necessary to differentiate Henson’s photos of naked minors from child pornography.
In defence of Henson’s critics, the artist’s intentions were never clearly defined. Despite having a fascination with adolescence as a transition towards adulthood, Henson has not made many statements about his choice of such young models, nor why they are naked or semi-naked. Henson says he prefers to leave viewers to decide that for themselves. Henson supporter, Edmund Capon, argues that the works are ‘profoundly considered’ but the fact he hasn't made statements about his reasons why it is hard to say if it is totally considered.
Finally it is important to consider the implications of the seizure of Henson’s work when assessing art censorship. Marr describes this as one of the many consequences of the immediate, savage condemnation of the works. Subsequently, the seized works that had been labelled by Kevin Rudd as ‘revolting and devoid of artistic merit were then ‘returned to the gallery and given a PG [Parental Guidance] rating by the Australian Classification Board.
In response to the controversy surrounding Henson’s photographs the government introduced changes to ‘its child pornography laws in 2010, removing the defence of artistic purposes. It became compulsory for artists creating images of nude children to pay for the classification of their works.
Furthermore, The Australian newspaper concluded that ‘the threat of criminal charges’ against Henson had been withdrawn, and the artist was free to display his artworks once again. There was then a simultaneous exhibition of Proof of Age at the Albury Art Gallery, a collection of three small black and white Henson nudes, ‘exploring the attitudes, culture and style of 21st century youth.
Curator Jules Boag commented on the popularity of Henson’s artwork amongst young people.
Marr states. This highlights an important point: the voices of youths – the very group supposedly being ‘protected’ – were excluded from the controversy surrounding Henson’s work. More specifically, Henson’s models were not questioned about their involvement, or the way they felt about the sexualised images. It could be argued that in the moral panic of Henson’s work, his models, especially N, were further harmed and exploited by the public attention. While child exploitation and pornography are not accepted in Australian culture in the 21st century, and the seizure of Henson’s works seemed necessary to some people, it would have been more effective to also ban the reproduction of such images on the internet and for publicity purposes.
Today, ten years after the Henson case, these images are readily available on the internet. With reference to such outcomes, it could be posited that art censorship is perhaps driven by public response and media. In this particular instance, the value of art censorship was intended to ‘protect’ the young models, however, the lack of implications and failure to listen to the young people’s opinions leads to the conclusion that it was in fact a ‘token’ raid – an attempt to be seen as taking a stand on child pornography and exploitation.In essence, multiple factors contributed to the reception and interpretation of Henson’s artwork. Firstly, the public reception of Henson’s exhibition was shaped by its historical and social context. Secondly, it is difficult to evaluate the implications of Henson’s work without a statement of his artistic intention. Finally, after considering the consequences of the seizure of Henson’s pieces, it could be asserted that this was a ‘token’ act of art censorship.
Very similar to Sally Mann and various other Artists.
Aesthetically some of his works are inspired by the flemish Caravaggio like my own work. He does focus on just the models though which is where I am taking my work away from and trying to do scenes. I love his lighting and how he sculpts the body, I just feel very uncomfortable that it is a child.
This video briefly explains what the book is about by Marr. Isn't it enough to just disapprove?
The more I googled the more stories very similar are out there. Many images when stopped have gone on to be released. With the thoughts they are not sexualised, but does that make it okay?
Marr, D. (2008) The Henson Case, The Text Publishing Company, Victoria.
when evaluating the artistic merit of controversial art. broad media coverage. Marr, 2008).