‘Collateral Damage’ (with Denise Ferris), Art Monthly Australia, July, 2008, pp3—5
Now that the nightmare is finally over for Bill Henson, and the dust is settling, what will be the residual damage to Australian culture?
Photography plays a complex role in our culture, it produces direct evidence of reality, but at the same time it deals in social symbols and metaphors, and creates personal ideals and icons. The attack on Bill Henson cut through this complexity with a syllogism devastating in its fundamentalist simplicity: nakedness is always sexual, and photographers always exploit their subjects, therefore photographs of naked children are always exploitative child pornography. This equation efficiently short-circuited any other mechanisms of representation, or expression, or interpretation that until now were assumed to be intrinsic to photographing models posing for the camera. In her strident way Hetty Johnston from the lobby group Bravehearts put it best. When she heard that the DPP had finally dropped the charges she declared: ‘We are just handing our children on a bloody plate to paedophiles. This is a disgrace for this country, absolutely shameful.’
In this formulation, not only are all photographs of naked children always equivalent to paedophilia itself, but they also condemn the whole society. As the Sydney academic Ruth Barcan pointed out in Nudity a Cultural Anatomy, ‘Images of children and youth function as mirrors to an adult society eager to verify its own moral state. This might help explain why representations of children can be subject to idealization, but also why both the effect of images on youth and the representation of youth in images can become concentrated sites of social unease and regulation.’
Any attempt to resist an over-regulation of photography driven by such social unease is immediately met with the ultimate foreclosing reply: child protection. In supporting the initial raids of his police officers the NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said, ‘the most important thing here, the thing we cannot lose sight of, is we have to protect our children’. As more police started to raid art museums, rifling through their racks looking for thirty year old art works, Hetty Johnston agreed, ‘Nobody is above the law, not artists, they just can’t be, children are suffering as a result.’
But how might actual children suffer as a result of Bill Henson’s photographs? Perhaps a paedophile might see one and be so erotically inflamed they may abuse a child. But there is plenty of real child pornography available on the net, and no proof that the mere existence of further images of naked children in artistic scenarios and artistic poses will exacerbate a paedophile’s behaviour. Perhaps a child might see one and become ‘sexualised’ too early in her emotional development. But an image of a normal pubescent child simply standing there is unlikely to provoke body-image confusion in other children, who must also be regularly seeing their own friends’ bodies. Perhaps his models may be traumatised by the experience of posing for him, even if they don’t yet realize it. But no Henson model has yet reported that they found posing for him anything other than enjoyable and creative experience. Or perhaps the ‘innocence’ of a child is ‘exploited’ by Henson making money from it. But child actors have long delighted us with their precocious presence in popular films and TV shows, so why should art be any different.
Whilst the DPP was considering whether or not to charge Henson, other police were spending their time more usefully by using actual child pornography to track down real paedophiles. The images they traced, which were downloaded at least 1500 times to Australia, were quite unlike Henson’s, being images of actual sex-acts. Although police operations like Operation Centurion have established that the circulation of pornographic images is an important part of paedophilic behaviour, no research conducted anywhere has been able to establish any causal links between images of the type produced by Henson and aberrant behaviour.
Nonetheless, we have arrived at a time when the naturalist’s slogan ‘nude ain’t rude’ seems historical and quaint, and when talking about nakedness as being just the way we were born sounds like old-fashioned hippy speak. The British sociologist Frank Furedi has described this as a ‘culture of fear’ where ideas of social change (including how we see ourselves represented) are experienced as risks, not opportunities for new orientations. This exaggerated sense of risk is driven by a powerful ‘cognitive illusion’. As the Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker has argued, we estimate the probability of an event from how easy it is to recall examples. And examples of abuse are continually made forcefully present to us through the media. The incentive structure of activism and opinion markets adds to this — no one ever attracted followers and donations by announcing that things keep getting better.
Potential risks inevitably lead to potential victims. Every photographic act is now more readily viewable through the prism of victim and abuser, than artist and subject. And so Hetty Johnston is able to claim that, ‘the liberties the art world take … harm the whole cause of child protection.’ Even more authoritative commentators such as Clive Hamilton, the campaigner against ‘corporate paedophilia’, says that Bill Henson and Roslyn Oxley should have known better, and have only themselves to blame. They should have realized that they would suffer collateral damage from a society finally waking up to the fact that it has let its children become sexualised too early. But Henson isn’t the only artist to be sustaining collateral damage. For example in April 2007 Polixeni Papapetrou’s photograph Olympia Wearing Her Grandmother’s Jewels was withdrawn from the Gosford leg of the Australian Centre for Photography’s touring show Changeling: Childhood and the Uncanny after complaints from the public. And in 2005, just prior to the opening of Ella Dreyfus’s exhibition, two of her images of soccer players in her son’s team were withdrawn from display, four were withdrawn from sale, and two remain covered over in the catalogue.
Do these few examples really matter? Why bother with those who think they can definitively tell right from wrong, and who set themselves up as experts who know what’s good for all of us? Because these harmful helpers also wantonly mishandle exactly what adults are entrusted with — the social and cultural future of our young. Their self-indulgent disgust and uncorroborated fantasies of harmful art will have significant long-term effects on the world our children will inherit.
Their world would drop a visual veil over our children until the age of eighteen. The marvellous extended process of a child becoming an adult would take place in the dark. The transition period when children are most vulnerable to exploitation (from somebody they know and trust in 85% of cases) would take place largely unseen and unspoken about. The complexities, doubts, fears and dreams of puberty would be left to the tabloids, the television and the advertisers to articulate with their banal sexual dichotomies and overheated social scenarios. The psychologically supporting network of loving looks and mutual regard we want our children to grow up in would be ripped away. The complexity of children would become publicly invisible — except for the photographs that sell products to them.
Their world sees only two possible contracts between adult and child, either one of parental or pedagogical authority, or one of sexual exploitation. All other contracts based on mutuality, creativity, fun or play, are suspect. The chance these teenagers had, through symbolically representing ‘youth’ for Henson (with mum and dad’s permission and with their own free will) to briefly pretend to be someone different, and collaborate on producing something mysterious and beautiful and powerful, would exist no more. By all accounts Henson’s models down through the years still value the experience, some even hang the resulting photographs on their walls for their own children to admire.
The world of the over-anxious sees no social role for art, or creativity or expression. Hetty Johnston sees Henson’s art in only two lights, it is either to make him money by selling images of children, or for his ‘personal satisfaction’. For her, art seems to be a furtive personal activity closely allied to pornography in any case, and without wider social or cultural benefit. ‘If we keep allowing artists to do whatever their whim allows, whatever they want to do, what’s the next boundary that’s going to be challenged by the likes of Bill Henson’, she demands. In her view, and in the view of her cheer squad in our parliaments and in the media, art is a habit a small section of society has, a personal indulgence rather than part of a larger conversation.
Moral panics rise and fall. Eventually this one, too, will subside. But after it has there will have been a tectonic shift in the attitude of the public and the law to what we can and can’t see, what we can and can’t make. The deadening effect will hang like a pall over all of us.