Support for Bill Henson and his art has been pouring in from all sides of the community. an open letter, signed by over 40 arts leaders in Australia – including actress Cate Blanchett, has been published in The Age calling for Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to review his statement and the controversy surrounding the works.
The work itself is not pornographic, even though it includes depictions of naked human beings. It is more justly seen in a tradition of the nude in art that stretches back to the ancient Greeks, and which includes painters such as Caravaggio and Michelangelo. Many of Henson’s controversial images are not in fact sexual at all. Others depict the sexuality of young people, but in ways that are fundamentally different from how naked bodies are depicted in pornography. The intention of the art is not to titillate or to gratify perverse sexual desires, but rather to make the viewer consider the fragility, beauty, mystery and inviolabilty of the human body. In contrast, the defining essence of pornography is that it endorses, condones or encourages abusive sexual practice. We respectfully suggest that Henson’s work, even when it is disturbing, does nothing of the sort. I would personally argue that, in its respect for the autonomy of its subjects, the work is a counter-argument to the exploitation and commodification of young people in both commercial media and in pornographic images. Many of us have children of our own. The sexual abuse and exploitation of children fills us all with abhorrence. But it is equally damaging to deny the obvious fact that adolescents are sexual beings. This very denial contributes to abusive behaviour, because it is part of the denial of the personhood of the young. In my opinion, Mr Henson’s work shows the delicacy of the transition from childhood to adulthood, its troubledness and its beauty, in ways which do not violate the essential innocence of his subjects. It can be confronting, but that does not mean that it is pornography. Legal opinion is that if charges were laid against Mr Henson, he would be unlikely to be found guilty. The seizure of the photographs, and the possible prosecution of Mr Henson, the Rosyln Oxley9 Gallery or the parents of Henson’s subjects, takes up valuable police and court time that would be much better spent pursuing those who actually do abuse children.
Around the country, while some galleries are cravenly pulling their Henson pieces out of their collections and off the walls other galleries are standing firm and standing up for freedom of artistic expression.
In an act of solidarity with the embattled artist, leading dealer Denis Savill hung a Bill Henson image of two nude young people in the window of his Sydney gallery.
“This will give them something to grizzle about,” Mr Savill said as he hung one of the works from Henson’s 1992-1993 Untitled series.
Mr Savill, like many of his art industry colleagues, was appalled when police last week confiscated photographs by Henson – one of Australia’s leading contemporary artists – and decided to hang the picture beside an Arthur Boyd nude, “to remind people that nudes have inspired artists for centuries”.
This travesty of a case is already being likened to Hitler’s book burning and Howard’s Children Overboard scandal. the media seems to be turning itself and has stopped referring to the artworks in question as “”art”” and now seems to be on the side of the besieged artist. Some have been wondering if all this is a desperate bid by the PM to regain right wing votes but it seems very ill conceived to me. International media have been discussing Australia’s history of censorship and restrictions in artistic “freedom” and are referring to Australia as a cultural backwater, a country that handles it’s artistic resources like a tyranny.