Just being nude doesn’t make it porn, you sickos!

A portion of a Bill Henson nude photograph of young womanMaybe I’m jumping the gun here, because the actual recommendations aren’t online yet. But news today that the Bill Henson “scandal” has prompted an overhaul of NSW art laws really gets up my nose.

Australian photographer Bill Henson is no stranger to controversy. His images, like the one here, are of nude or semi-nude adolescents, and “protecting the innocent children from the evil pedophiles” is a powerful rallying-call. Newspaper columnists and talkback radio hosts alike revel in its ability to stir the emotions — attention-seeking pricks that they are.

In an incident earlier this year, some of Henson’s photographs were seized by the police — but returned once the Office of Film and Literature Classification found that none of them were “child pornography”. Indeed, it called their nudity “mild and justified” and gave them a PG rating.

Got that? PG. Suitable for viewing by children under the age of 16, with parental guidance.

But apparently the considered judgement of the official body charged with this kind of analysis — the people who deal with and (sometimes) ban material which is pornographic — isn’t good enough.

When it was later found that Henson toured a school seeking models — in company with its principal who was following all the right procedures — Crikey correspondent Peter Faris QC called for an investigation.

Bill Henson makes a lot of money photographing naked or semi-naked pre-pubescent children. This is called Art by the Left glitterati. Most decent Australians would call it Pornography. It is a matter of debate as to which side of the line we place Henson.

We now discover that Sue Knight, the (then) principal of St Kilda Park Primary School, invited Henson to look around the school and select young models about 15 months ago. It is reported that a new book (by David Marr and excerpted in The Age over the weekend) states that Henson walked around the playground at lunchtime, accompanied by the principal.

This is not good enough. Nowhere near it.

I ask this: By whose authority did Henson trawl for subjects/victims?

And he goes on.

Faris, being a lawyer, didn’t quite call Henson a child pornographer. But he larded his rant with lawyerly rhetoric and went as close as he could go without getting slapped with a libel suit.

My response for Crikey was published in the email version and was on the website — but I can’t find it just now so here it is again with added linkage:

Peter Faris’ rant about Bill Henson is the usual grab-bag of logical fallacies (like the appeal to an assumed majority of “Most decent Australians”) and cheap rhetorical tricks (like the name-calling of “Left glitterati”). But unlike Crikey‘s Canberra correspondent, who clearly points out the key difference between the two rounds of Henson-bashing, Faris makes an obvious error which demonstrates that he simply hasn’t thought this through.

He starts by pointing out that Henson makes pictures of “naked or semi-naked pre-pubescent children”, but then says the Victorian Crimes Act defines child pornography as including a photograph of a minor “depicted in an indecent sexual manner or context”. Bzzzt! Since when does “semi-naked” equal “sexual”?

I don’t know who all these sickos are who can’t see a little uncovered skin, adult or pre-pubescent, without feeling their lust rise, but why is Faris agreeing with their perverted worldview?

And if he continues to overlook the obvious difference between “semi-naked” and “sexual”, can I assume his next spray will be to call for the arrest of all surf club members for the mass child pornography of a Nippers Carnival, everyone involved in building a church with cherubs, kitschmaker Anne Geddes, and the producers of that toilet paper advert showing a baby’s bottom?

And yes, Anne Geddes’ work is evil. Little children who are far, far too young to give consent are drained of their individual humanity and, dressed as fruits and flowers, used as props in sentimental clichés. These are human beings, people, not dolls and mantle ornaments!

Meanwhile, I hope that when the NSW Sentencing Council report is finally published, so we can all see it unfiltered by tabloid journalism, it will show a rational series of amendments to law based on evidence — not pitchfork-wielding talkback outrage.

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1 comment

  1. Andrew Newman’s avatar

    The original photograph Untitled 2007/08 is not pornographic but what of his earlier work Untitled 1985/86 and Nan Goldwin’s work Klara and Eddy Belly-Dancing that was seized by police in London last year. Is that art or pornography? Elton John owns the work. I am sure he considers himself an art collector not a porn peddler. Just being nude might not make it porn but what does. David Marr said at his Sydney Ideas talk that it is really a matter of taste and we shouldn’t feel the need to legislate taste. Marr said that Australians have an uncanny inability to distinguish the difference between “things we don’t like” and “things that are illegal”. It is like the uproar regarding the Barry McKenzie movie and the efforts in attempting to prevent it from being screened overseas for fear it might present a distasteful image of Australia abroad. However the argument that it is a matter of taste falls sway to the idea that sticks and bones may break my bones but will words will never hurt me. Or images will never hurt me.

    Do we really need to protect ourselves from images? The distinction that says porn is the depiction of “sexual acts” is quite clear, we do not want to see or encourage photographs of children in sexual acts. But sexual contexts? There was no greater moment in my life where I was so absolutely stuck in a sexual context than when I was an adolescent. Sex was on my mind most of the time. By cordoning off adolescents from sexual contexts in art and the media are we not in some way causing a bit of trouble, by putting blinkers on them, they won’t know where they are or what to do and get themselves into all sorts of trouble that no chastity ring could rescue.

    But then images can be used to corrupt and control people. Images shown and language used could influence/seduce vulnerable members of our society. One way of preventing this is through education, and focus on ‘visualcy’ because we do live in a world of images and we need to learn to not let ourselves be controlled by that world of images. Here is an interesting study on female and male adolescents’ interpretations of body imagery in schools

    What is also interesting about the new laws hinted at in the Sunday Telegraph is the offence “meeting a child after “grooming” them with indecent material for sexual purposes”. What if a father gives his son a Playboy? Is that grooming.

    Strange that art inspired the establishment of these laws and not the MP grooming and having sex with school kids doing work experience. ‘I think Milton was grooming me for sex’

    Sorry about the ramble and rant just been thinking about the Bill Henson thing a bit since yesterday when I stumbled upon this excellent (but a couple of weeks old) article on the art life blog.

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