Community Support for Bill Henson’s Nudes

Another of the Nude Teen Pictures under debate by Bill Henson
Another of the Nude Teen Pictures under debate by Bill Henson.
Picture by the Daily Telegraph

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.

[From Open letter in support of Bill Henson – National – theage.com.au]

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”.

[From Defiance as gallery tests boundaries | The Australian]

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.

29 thoughts on “Community Support for Bill Henson’s Nudes

  1. ok
    i dont understand
    why on earth do you guys need nude photos of minors
    there is nothing to be gained for society
    except for a few
    some that will make money
    some that will gain pleasure
    hmmmmm
    maybe thats all there is to it

  2. Yup, JD, you got it. It’s just us horny guys wanting to see naked kids. Oh yeah, and the fact that the majority of the art world thinks that folks who cannot separate sex from beauty might have their own problems.

    Personally, I was never turned on while changng my kids’ diapers (they were nude), but I thought them beautiful.

    You’re right, JD, you DON’T understand.

  3. mr nudist it is nice to see we agree on something
    i was not turned on by my kids either

    but i also didnt not encourage them to parade around the street naked either, you do with yours i am guessing

    i see you didnt argue that nothing can be gained by promoting child nudity
    i dont feel any need to see naked children for any reason
    so i cant see i need to separate sex and beauty
    and does a child NEED to be naked to be beautiful

    i think that we can both agree that we are both entitled to our opinions and feelings and i am happy mine doesnt include exploiting children

    ps i am guessing that the reason you cant stay on subject
    “the photographing of minors and publicly exhibiting them” means you dont have a good reason, other than its art (sigh)
    oh
    by the way in my personal “poll” on the subject, NO ONE supports nude minors photographs

    • You wear clothes because you live in a climate that demands it? Because that’s how you were raised? Because ‘everyone else does’? Believe me, if everyone else was cooking and eating their children, you would, too.

  4. JD we need art, we need all art and we need the freedom to create and view art. it isn’t about needing nude children it’s about needing freedom of expression and creation. there is always something to be gained by art, whether we like it or agree with it or not, our lives are enriched by it. it causes us to think, to examine our thought patterns, to debate it’s merits. our lives have been changed by these works. Society has been enriched by Bill Henson. I think that this media furor has gone further towards degrading these children and peoples perspectives than the original exhibition could have ever done.

    Do you honestly see nakedness as purely sexual? I loved being naked when I was a child, until I was duly informed that my body was a dirty and disgusting thing that should always be covered up.

  5. wow such uniformity from a demographic that is almost pathologically obsessed with being “individuals”.
    What a shame the same level of cohesion couldn’t be demonstrated in developing a code of ethics as it applies to art.

    How do you suppose this kind of image would be recieved if it were being used by someone in the advertising industry say, to sell a product instead of actually BEING the product itself?

    This doesn’t do much to redress the stereotype of people in the arts being pretentious stand-for-nothing fops does it?

  6. Jennie, i realise as an artist you want art to be needed
    but unfortunately it is not
    air is needed, food is needed, water is needed
    without them you will die
    anything else is a desire, art included
    (you likely notice that everything else in the animal kingdom gets by without art and we would too)

    having a 50+ male in what seems to be continuous contact with naked primary school children i cant find to be enriching
    sorry
    the media furore would not of happened if the photos were not taken, that was the initial step in the process

    i am sorry that nakedness was turned into something dirty for you
    but that is still no excuse for photographs of naked children potentially hanging any ones walls, especially strangers
    the photos on the internet are now out of anyone’s control
    unfortunately you have contributed to this too

    • I’ll bet it was enriching for him!!! Including enriching blood flow. So see? Benefits. Kept him from having a heart attack from sitting on his ass writing bone-head commas with apostrophes all over the place and only occasionally where they’re supposed to be. Where ARE photos of naked children to be “hanged” for non-strangers? On the refrigerator? In front of the toilet? You need more naked children in your life. Love, Lady GODiva.

  7. “why on earth do you guys need nude photos of minors”

    It is a sex thing as has been recognized in the past quite publicly by some of Henson’s current defenders. What else could it be?

    We were thankfully able to criminalize his kind of ‘art’ in the United Kingdom. You may also notice that outside of his Oz pond and the unbiquitous fetish prone Japan, nobody important is rushing to defend his child photos.

    Gregory Carlin

    Irish Anti-Trafficking Coalition

  8. if this exhibition was one of paintings everyone would be extolling its value. just because this artist used a modern medium and digitally ‘painted’ his pieces it does not makle him sick. if the great masters in europe had the digital medium to work in i am sure the art field would be a different place today. i am particularly bored with the present blinkered, bigotted society of today. perhaps those who tend to see pornography in everything should go and have their hair done.

  9. “having a 50+ male in what seems to be continuous contact with naked primary school children i cant find to be enriching”

    Sounds like most paediatric surgeons I know …

  10. I have done a lot of reading over this debate. Personally i think the Open Letter of support in the age sums up the intention beautifully.

    ‘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.’

    The images are an attempt to capture the awkwardness of being a teeneager and the journey we have all been on. For me the images say that no matter what you look like in those years, its all a natural, beautiful transition. When I look at Bill’s images I’m cast back to my teenage years. When nothing felt natural and not matter how hard I tried, everything was awkward and uncomfortable. Jannie sumed it up when she said that,

    ‘until I was duly informed that my body was a dirty and disgusting thing that should always be covered up.’

    If I had seen these images when I was going up through those years, I may have felt different and more at ease withing myself.

    This is purely my opinion, but his work is art. And stunning art too. I wish I had a eye that could capture the human form so exquisitely like he does. I want to finish by saying I cannot believe that the police, government and public opinion are so quick to crucify Bill for these images thanks to (so the media have made it out)one persons objections. Why did this patron go straight to the police? Why didn’t they request to see the curator instead? These works have been displayed for years without objection (I think the ABC docummentry was filmed about 4 years ago). Unitl now. For heavens sake, the subject in the photos in question was photographed when she was twelve. Now 19, she a happy well adjusted person who defended Bill’s method and final work. Also in her statment she mentioned how proud she was of the images.

    I can’t think that this is just hyper sensitivity and extreme over reaction.

  11. ‘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.’

    That was a bit like ‘Pedophilia the Radical Case’ so I think I will agree with that. Just drop ‘human’ and insert ‘child’ and it is a straight idea swop, it was a child in the photo, so no sleight of hand.

    Gregory Carlin

    Irish Anti-trafficking Coalition

  12. “These works have been displayed for years without objection ”

    Not true, he was the inspiration for child porn laws, he is banned from exhibiting the material in various places, Britain for example.

    It is silly to suggest the rest of the world is begging to stage a Bill Henson child porn show, they’re not, he has found himself his own puddle to splash, with friends to protect him,

    some of those friends are pro-prostitution fanatics, and the porn and sex trade in Oz, was happy to support him openly and behind the scenes.

    The lies, told by some of his friends were astounding.

    Please accept, if he tries it in London, he gets arrested at the airport, they won’t even let him start. he will be arrested immediately the police are aware that he is up to something along 13 year old lines.

    Gregory Carlin

    Irish Anti-TRafficking Coalition

  13. Carlin,Worry about your own side “of the pond”.People who see perversion in all are merely mirrors of the perversions that they perceive,and “squeaky wheels” are far more dangerous to our children by the very acts of prohibition that they propagate.I would guess that I would find nothing to surprise me in your definitions of pornography or “offensive”.Michealangelo and his peers would have stifled in the social climates that some would prefer today

  14. The UN has prohibited art galleries establishing a trade in child pornography.

    And neither the Classification Board, or Alison Croggon, have an office in Geneva or New York. So that is all sides of our pond adequately covered.

    Henson’s material is remarkable for its restricted distribution, the internet, on the other hand, is his real medium, Henson unleashed, like a character from Silence of the Lambs, and that’s definitely intentional.

    Rather than Carravagio, Henson’s real influences, are far darker, sinister, and much more shocking, and I don’t think that is a secret.

    I set out, over a period of years, to criminalize what Henson does, and as part of that process, I had to ask what Henson is, and I think I know.

    Gregory Carlin

  15. Once again, you insidiously work the term “child pornography” in a reference to an instance which has clearly and legally been demonstrated not to be so.Your soapbox clearly has no room for anything other than your biased interpretations of such,and no doubt other,instances of contemperary social phenomena.Whilst I applaud and agree with your stance on child abuses I fear that a tone of dangerous fundamentalism taints your views.You state the UN prohibition Against Child pornography as if it is pertinent to this case,thus implying that this is so, when in fact it is not, a ploy abused time and time again.I think you need to spend some time in reflection on the true definitions of ponography rather than the rabid leanings of those of like-minded repression.I am most interested in your degrees of classification, once again harkening back to classical art mores.

  16. The Henson issue is being referred to the UNCRC, that kind of things motors along, and will resolve out, along certain lines. The legal issue iswhether the police had an official investigation into

    (a) sexual abuse (b) indecent images or (c) child pornography when a major newspaper in Australia published something. That’s the top-line of the complaint to the UN. (a), (b), (c) don’t have to be qualfied with a conviction.

    The material has been classified as child pornography on one side of the planet and as wholesome viewing in another part, I’ve never denied that,

    Topless teen OK, board says | NEWS.com.au 18 May 2008 … Topless teen OK, board says. By Jonathon Moran and Catherine Caines … In the foreground are four bottles of Moet & Chandon champagne. …
    http://www.news.com.au/story/0,23599,23713504-2,00.html – Similar pages

    So the above is your PG/G culture. That kind of thing would not get bail in London, it would be so over the line, the culprits would get remanded in custody. If you can’t grasp that, your problem is, that you can’t grasp it.

    So London, it is child pornography & in Ox it is a PG/G. That raises the notion that it is not white-money art, it just does. If you can’t trade it without legal or criminal restrictions it is not really mainstream art.

    I’m just wondering how many more chickens and horses have to die before the hicks in Oz move onto landscape gardening or something.

    I’ve been involved in the arts world for decades, and if I could, I’d add ‘being compared to Caravaggio, to the list of charges’.

    Because, we all know, if we are being honest, that his corpse or his zombie photo style, is from ‘Silence of the Lambs’. It’s faux cine trash art.

  17. Maybe so,but pornography it isn,t.Is Wilfed Owen’s obscene content not made beautiful by his rendering of it?Give me a life amongst hicks rather than ruined minds.I think perhaps you are merely reacting to the fear that perverts will be created by the merest hint of young flesh,and all the children will suffer.Turn on the news if you want pornography.

  18. We ordered indecency ‘our test’ for London to be legislatively linked to ‘child pornography’ as a statute term.

    And it is child pornography in London, similarly one of your magazines is on a flagged list for the UK.

    I think that may turn out to be an intel operation. We had a series of child pornography convictions lkinked to brown wrapper imports (nudism).

    ( buy it and go on a search warrant list)

    I’ve no doubt, Alison Croggon will tell me Caravaggio would truss up Japanese schoolgirls and that the Vatican has a huge painting of a trussed up schoolgirl prominently displayed somewhere.

    Also, trussing up Japanese schoolgirls is not sexual etc. and only a sick pervert wowser would see anything pornographic etc.

    I can do Croggon by remote these days.

    Gregory Carlin

  19. God save us from zealots.You calling something does not make it so.Suddenly nudism is pornography.You would have made a good christian missionary saving all those poor polynesion savages from their innocence.I’d feel sorry for you if you weren’t dragging the rest of us along with you.Incidently, London isn’t the centre of the universe, thank the gods.I fancy that a visit to an Aussie beach would have you swallowing your own tongue in moral rage,what’s on your hit list next, classical statuary with all those bare pudenda?

  20. Gregory Carlin has only insisted that a distinction be made between adults and children with respect to the pornography issue. It is not ‘nude’ per se that is porn, it is ‘nude child’ that is obscene, which is ‘porn’. Even the 20/20 creatives collective bleat to the PM was incapable of telling the difference between adults and children, referring to ‘human’ only. The pornography issue added fuel to anti-censorship hysteria and a flagrantly disingenuous derailment by the arts community from what was from the beginning a child protection issue. The image of the naked girl at the centre of the storm was titled ‘Untitled 2007/08’ – thus indicating that it was a recent photograph – and at lest one formal complaint from the wider community to the Police was made on the basis of concerns that a very under-age child was at risk.

    The serial offending by all parties involved in photographing a naked thirteen year-old girl(notwithstanding parental consent, no mitigation under the UN Charter for the Rights of the Child), exhibiting that photograph for sale ($25K for a single image from an edition), then selecting that photo (i.e. from several other non-figurative or ‘landscape’ images comprising the balance of the show) to spruik the exhibition via both hard copy and email/the internet was unequivocally abusive and in violation of the rights of children to be protected from exploitation by adults, no matter who they are, or where they are, and no matter what parlous condition state and commonwealth law in Australia happened to be in at the time.

    I was able to copy and print the image at the top of this page. That makes this website morally if not now legally complicit in the internet dissemination of an image of a vulnerable child – irrespective of what the Classification Board has been politically pressured into free-passing.

    Consenting adults can do what they like, but it is an obscenity for a powerful adult to exploit a child, to place a child at risk. Henson has groomed these children for his own purposes. His aesthetic intentions might surely have been achieved with children over 18, given the capacities of genuine artists to represent and to symbolize. To scorn those who wish to protect vulnerable children from exploitation by the powerful as zealots, wowsers and philistines is to miss the point and to be at least attitudinally complicit in institutional child abuse.

    Children do not know their own minds and are vulnerable to persuasion, coercion and the self-interested neglect of adults, which includes the imprimatur of national galleries. I saw the show in question (twice) and I am familiar with Henson’s oeuvre. He is a derivative mediocrity with pots of money, power, and an art world/market who have eagerly provided his aesthetic rationales for him for years. His not inconsiderable talents and skills are in these instances in service to his sexual interests.’Mnemosyne’ contains child pornography. Henson plays with the paedophilic gaze as if it were mere peccadillo and cinematic romantic transgression. It is not. Notwithstanding his proclivities,he does not derive these images from memory and imagination as a painter or sculptor or even filmaker might. His artistic and moral failure is encapsulated by his invocation of “necessity” for his photographing actual naked under-age children to explicate psychological cliches about adolescent experience.

    At the very least Henson exploits an apparent lack of appropriate boundaries in an ‘incestuous’ art world. Anna Schwartz and Roslyn Oxley stated publically that they were happy to have their daughters photographed by Henson, admitting to a kind of cosy business arrangement that would not pass muster anywhere else in the corporate world irrespective of its now obviously dubious nature. This storm broke solely because of increasing community awareness and intolerance of child abuse, and it may well be the case that his May ’08 exhibition was his last act of ‘boundary riding’ in this country at least.

  21. Put Henson on a lie detector and ask him if he has ever jacked off using any of his subjects as visual reference. That would be an interesting result.

    The fact is there are people in our community who would use these images for sexual reference. That some of us would prefer to protect children from being put on show for these people is a good motive.

    To suggest the motivation to protect these kids is because we who do so are really perverts is juvenile but more so it is a cheap retort, a substitute for content.

    That some are more concerned to have their right to see a child going through stages of development than they are for protecting the child is a demonstration that serving ego is more important than the children.

    Yet interestingly it is the tamer of the shots posted here. Why not post something more controversial? Of course we all know the real answer.

  22. It’s true Andrew. There are (sick) people who would use these images for sexual reference.

    BUT… who is in fault of that?
    the author of the image or whoever has a mental sickness?

    let me put a similar scenario.
    Mr X. makes kitchen knifes at his company.
    is he responsably of the bad use a murderer did of the tool he made? I hope no.

    true. some people would prefer to “protect” their children from being put on show. and I’m sure Henson didn’t use those people children to pose on his pictures. he asked both the children and their parents if it was ok.

    the child may not be able to consent since she is not mature enough. the parents may not be able to consent against the child’s will.

    I’m not a lawyer (thanks god) but from my humble view point I fail to see any problem in taking pictures of a child either dressed or nude if both the child and the parents agree.

    you may argue that the pics are ilegal under I don’t care what country laws. I won’t say they are legal. I say they should be. if not then maybe the law is wrong and needs to be revised. this kind of thing happens you know. the people that makes laws are mere humans and can be wrong.

    BTW in my humble yet probably correct opinion a girl like the one henson used while young seems to me she already needs to know a few things about sex before she gets too curious and begins asking questions to the wrong people and getting the worse answers.

    but over everything else it can be said about those pics… I fail completely to see what a normal person sees in them that could be considered PORN. in fact I fail to see anything sexual on them.

  23. A very interesting and well considered response William, thanks for writing it. one part stuck out for me in particular

    BTW in my humble yet probably correct opinion a girl like the one henson used while young seems to me she already needs to know a few things about sex before she gets too curious and begins asking questions to the wrong people and getting the worse answers.

    I was about the age she was when I started asking the wrong people. and getting the wrong answers. my mother says that I couldn’t support Bill Henson and his work if I knew anything about sexual abuse. Sadly, I know more than I should. one of the reasons I appreciate his work is because it conjures up memories of that time – but unlike so very many things not in a Bad Way. his work reminds me of a future unwritten. where bad choices are as yet unmade, that cusp of precious innocence where we think we know everything.

    hmmm.. maybe there is a longer post in this…

  24. If there is a problem with this then I want to never see another “Pamper’s” commercial or any of the other half dozen mainstream commercials or advertisements that show children nude.

    I see nothing “sexual” about alot of these photo’s, if “child pornography” is defined as depictions of minors of a vulnerable nature then there goes: Baby Food ads, diaper ads, any clothing ad where a child shows any amount of skin, the preset photo’s in the frames such as Michael’s Arts and Crafts that show upskirt shots of young girls underwear… let us not forget the pictures in sales papers of young girls in bathing suits for places such as Wal-Mart… some of this photographs do show nudity, but far less than you would see in an anatomy book… so I guess pediatrician’s are out of luck while they are in medical school, no wait… their all perverts too, I mean, by these standards they must be, right? Or Gynocologists that touch and stare at the genitals of young woman everyday they “must” all be pedophiles…

    The only thing provacative that I see about any of these pieces of art is the instinctual response I have to be disgusted in regards to societies hypocricies.

    Are any of these photographs showing minors engaging in sexual activity? No

    Are any of these photographs showing minors in lewd sexual like positions baring their genitalia? No

    I believe that anyone… ANYONE who views these photo’s as “child pornography” should maybe step back and think on whether or not THEY are the pedophiles? Twisting artwork with their warped minds and indescent thoughts in perverse ways… I mean really… whats next? Burning books? Or how about we go around the world and snuff out every spark of creativity and individuallity, where prey tell do you think that will lead us? Society has already walked down that dark path.

    Don’t crucify a brilliant artist because you aren’t right in the head, the artist didn’t intend for others to view these photo’s in a sexual manner, for crying out loud… Molly Cyrus has shown more skin than the picture up top and it sickened me to have to see that plastered all over my homepage in the news… anything happened to the photographer who took those pics? Her father who was onset and witnessed it? Yahoo for spreading it all over the world? So why the double standard?

  25. I know this is 2 years old, but when I read some of the ridiculous comments, it kills me. I think kids who embrace their nude bodies are mentally healthier than kids who grow up worrying about the latest fashion, how fat or skinny they are. Early on someone commented that we don’t need art, I say we don’t need clothes either. Art to me can bring out the best in humanity, instead of this all consuming focus on everything being sexual, there are people who get excited by rubber, should all rubber be banned? Or should we maybe try to figure out what is haywire in the minds of people who are incapable of viewing nudity as anything other than sexual.

  26. Pingback: Rudd thinks Children should be neither seen nor heard | Jennie's Palette

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