Can Australia distinguish between art and pornography?

Kim Wilkinson examines the case of celebrated Australian artist Bill Henson, who caused controversy in 2008 with his photography that featured images of naked teenagers.

Where is the line between art and pornography? Between free expression and exploitation? The Bill Henson case is one of a number that have created a furore in Australia over naked photos of children as art.

The Henson case created a media storm. Henson is an internationally recognised artist, his work has been shown at the Venice Biennale. In May 2008 he was due to launch an exhibition of his photographs in Sydney, Australia at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. The artworks included a photograph of a naked teenage girl – which featured on the exhibition invitation. It was after complaints were received, suggesting that this image was pornographic, that police raided the gallery and the artworks were removed.

Henson’s opponents labelled the images explicit and obscene, his defenders screamed censorship. The Australia Prime Minister at the time, Kevin Rudd, weighed in on the debate, declaring “I don’t understand why we can’t allow kids just to have their childhood and just enjoy their childhood. I really have a problem with this.” He went on to describe the work as “revolting” and “devoid of artistic merit.”

Art inherently invites different readings and interpretations. I argue that the fact that many Australians chose to view these photos as morally abhorrent and sexualised says more about Australian society – and about the moral panic over the sexualisation of children – than the photos in question. Examining the Henson case requires us to consider issues of consent, interpretation, ideas of innocence, censorship, and freedom of speech.

Henson’s work sits within an artistic tradition which begs us to explore why we see his work as sexualised, but the work of artists like Edvard Munch and Angelo Bronzino whose art depicts naked youths, as masterpieces. How is this situation different?

What is pornography?

In the art world, nudes of adults are well accepted. Life drawing classes are almost like a rite of passage for an artist, allowing them to perfect their technical drawing skills. Why then, do nudes of children cause such furore? The main reason is the necessity of protecting children from exploitation. Inherent in this is the issue of consent. Artwork featuring naked children seems to put us in a bind, between protecting our children and permitting free artistic expression.

Given these considerations, are Henson’s images pornographic? They do not depict children committing sexual acts. Consent was obtained from the parents of the girl whose photo appeared in the exhibition and on the invitation. Furthermore, her parents had an in depth discussion with her about it. In Good Weekend magazine (quote reproduced here), the girl’s mother explained: “We talked about how she might feel if her friends, teachers or uncles and aunts saw the pictures…We pointed out some of the potential implications of working with Bill (we did talk about the possibility of causing some controversy over the pictures, although not to anything like this extreme). She also tried to imagine how she might feel when she was older, realising that she may feel differently. She had already talked about all of this with her sister and none of it bothered her.”

Why then, was there so much outcry about these particular images? Why did they invite such moral outcry, disgust, even? The answer perhaps lies in the nature of art itself. Art invites multiple readings, it can be seen as an ‘open text’ with many different translations possible.

Henson says that he gives his audience free reign to interpret his work. In a Sydney Morning Herald article he said “It’s like when you’re standing in front of a picture of a road, it really does take you off into another region. It’s your road, not my road.” So what makes viewers take the road that leads them to read Henson’s photos as sexualised?

Some context is necessary. The Henson incident occurred during a Senate inquiry into the sexualisation of children. Also important to bear in mind is that Australia seems to reserve a special loathing for paedophiles. For instance, you can read about the venom reserved for convicted paedophile Dennis Ferguson, who was forced to move house by locals unhappy about his presence. This itself is another debate. But the point remains, there is a moral panic about paedophiles, the existence of sexual abuse and pornography, especially child pornography.

Two Cases

It’s useful to examine two other cases of photography featuring naked children, to give wider scope to the Henson debate. The first case is that of American child star Brooke Shields. When she was 10 years of age a naked photo of her in the bathtub was taken by photographer Richard Prince. In the image she is wearing make up and looks directly at the viewer. As an adult, Shields sued for copyright, trying to get the image removed from circulation, she however lost the court case.

This example is useful in that it illustrates the potential fallout from the publishing of such images later in an individual’s life. Even though a child’s parents may consent at the time, they may later come to regret the decision, or the child may want the image removed. Especially in our heavily mediatised world, it’s important to consider that images may have a longer lifespan than the period of a gallery showing, as they enter the online sphere.

The second example is an Australian one that came in the wake of the Henson controversy. Australian photographer Polixeni Papapetrou used a naked photo of her daughter Olympia Nelson, aged six in the photo, on the cover of Art Monthly, which was published in July 2008. At the time, Olympia said she supported her parents.

In 2013, Olympia is now in her final years of secondary school, and recently published an op-ed in The Sydney Morning Herald on the sexualisation of teenage girls’ Facebook profile pictures, titled ‘Dark undercurrents of teenage girls’ selfies.’ She wrote: “… the popularity of girls is hotly contested over one big deal: how sexy can I appear and bring it off with everyone’s admiration? That’s the reason we see mirror shots, pouting self-portraits of teenagers (typically female) and sexually suggestively posed girls in a mini-dress ”before a party last night”. They’re showing how much they like themselves and hoping that you’ll hit ”like” to reinforce the claim.”

She posits that Facebook creates a sexual rat race: “How confident can you appear at being lascivious? How credible is your air of lewdness? A girl who is just a try-hard will lose credibility and become an outcast. So a lot depends on how much support you can get from other girls.”

Olympia is the antithesis of how the media discourse portrays children in the Henson debate. She is a teenager, yet highly articulate and able to navigate issues of sexuality. She is not an innocent who has no voice on the subject. She has clear agency.

The whole debate about the Henson photos positions children as innocents who need protecting. Children do need protection from exploitation. However the Henson debate is not clear-cut.

In my mind Henson’s images aren’t sexual. They are examples of classic photography, of art. The senior curator of photography at the Art Gallery of NSW, Judy Annear, who had curated a Henson retrospective, described the images as “… very beautiful, they’re very, very still, they’re very formal, they’re very classical. They’re a bit like looking [at] an ancient Greek Attic vase.” I can see her point. Henson is not an amateur artist trying to hold graphic content up as art, he is an internationally acclaimed photographer. Art historian Helen McDonald puts the photo of the teenage girl at the heart of the 2008 controversy in historical perspective, comparing it with Edvard Munch’s painting ‘Puberty 1895.’ There are obvious similarities.

We are making these images sexualised, by seeing them like that. As Brian Simpson in his 2011 article on the Henson case wrote “the irony is that those who claim to be protecting the innocence of childhood must eroticize the naked child in order to banish the images from the public domain.” Individuals step into the mindset of the paedophile, and declare these images inappropriate.

It seems likely that Henson created such a furore because Australians were directing their anger, their moral panic at his work. But is this productive? The problems with child pornography could better be addressed by breaking up the child pornography rackets, stopping the sharing of pornographic images of children on the web, and overhauling our failing care system.

Henson seems to hold the view that he was a scapegoat. “You understand firstly that it happens to be you this week and it will be someone else next week. The nature of the media as a business is that it needs to be fed.”

Lessons from the Henson case

What lessons can we take from this example to guide the debate on free speech and art? If art features children committing sexual acts then obviously this is perverse, exploitative and crosses the line. However the Henson case forces us to look at incidences where the line is not so clear.

We must consider a number of factors. First, consent is key – not only of the parents, but also the children. Childhood and adulthood are portrayed as binaries, opposite. But in reality teenage years are a transition period between childhood and adulthood. The media furore over Henson’s 2008 gallery showing overlooks the fact that teenagers are not devoid of agency. Olympia Nelson’s case shows us this – she is reflexive enough to identify the sexualisation of her own generation in Facebook ‘selfies.’ Henson argues that children are able to consent to lots of things in their teenage years. In an ABC interview he said, “Kids do consent to all kinds of significant things all the time in this state and in this country… In this state, a fifteen-year-old can consent to a sex change. Children’s consent plays a major part in divorce proceedings all the time. So when people say, ‘Oh, children can’t consent to something like that,’ it’s sheer nonsense”.

We eroticise images. We have made the children in Henson’s photos the doe-eyed victims of the paedophile’s gaze. This does them and us a disservice. In transforming Henson’s images into porn Australia unleashes its moral panic on him. The media machine is content until the next day when it needs to be fed, and the masses feel they have been suitably appalled. And on the margins the real threats to our children continue to exploit and abuse unabated.

The work of artist Georgia O’Keeffe comes to mind. People sexualised her paintings of flowers, transforming them from intimate close ups of flora into female sexual organs.

It is clear that pornography cannot be dressed up as art to justify the exploitation of children. But neither should art be decried as pornography without justification – without proof that consent has been violated, without being sexually explicit. Nudity alone, is not enough.

Art forces us to look not only at the canvas, but also to look inward, at ourselves and our societies. In this instance when we say “this is perverse” we are saying this makes us profoundly uncomfortable, we want to excise it from society. But art is not here to make us feel good about ourselves, to make us feel comfortable. Joyce Carol Oates’ comment is poignant: “My belief is that art should not be comforting; for comfort, we have mass entertainment and one another. Art should provoke, disturb, arouse our emotions, expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish.” We should look inward and ask why we feel unsettled by Henson’s work. It is more than naked flesh – it is a deep, profound fear, the realisation we are unable to protect our children in our heavily mediatised world.

Kim Wilkinson is the Online Editor at Free Speech Debate. She is currently completing the Masters of Modern Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford, and is particularly interested in visuality in politics. Her thesis focuses on internet memes in the Egyptian revolution. 

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Comments (3)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. It appears that your definition of Anglo-Saxon includes all the Low Countries, Switzerland, and Norway. In fact, you look like the bigoted one.

    That said, as a 47-year-old, I regret decisions I made as a 35-year-old, so does that mean I should have the right now to stop publication of photographs taken of me when I was 35?

  2. (a question mark is missing in the second to last sentence.)

  3. In most civilized European countries, teenagers can consent to have sexual relations when they are 16, 15 or even 14 (usually with some partner age restrictions below 16), exceptions being anglo-saxon countries with their puritan traditions. So, why the hell should they not be able to consent to a nude even when younger. This whole debate seems to derive mostly from the existence of a conservative, bigoted and uneducated mass of people.

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