Op ed, Canberra Times, 2008
You can call Bill Henson’s photographs many things: melodramatic, perhaps; overwrought, perhaps; repetitive, perhaps (he’s been shooting the same kind of brooding, heavy-lidded adolescents for decades). But one thing you can’t call them is pornographic. Contrary to the claims of the activist, Hetty Johnston, whose single complaint led to the police raid on the Roslyn Oxley 9 Gallery and the subsequent charges, a photograph of a naked teenager is not automatically pornography. And I’ve got news for Kevin Rudd, who finally fully revealed his own narrow-minded prudery by joining in with the baying of the pack, photographs of naked teenagers are not automatically disgusting. If they are not sexually titillating for viewers, as is the case with Henson’s images, and if, as in this work, they are covered in a heavy cloak of metaphorical significance produced by the model’s faraway expressions and the scene’s stygian lighting, they are not pornography they are art. Good enough art to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale, the cultural equivalent of the Olympic Games. Good enough art to pull 65,000 people to the Art Gallery of New South Wales without a single complaint, and good enough art to have been on the high school syllabus for years. Judging by their blog entries the high school students who visited Henson’s many previous exhibitions responded to his work with far more intelligence and thoughtfulness than our politicians.
Commentators such as Clive Hamilton, formerly of the Australia Institute, have recognised this, but have nonetheless accused Henson and his gallery of naivety. In the current cultural climate where corporations are sexualising children of younger and younger ages to sell them clothes or pop music, and where paedophiles are finding more and more images to feed their lusts by trawling the internet, how could Henson not expect there to be a backlash, Hamilton asks. Henson should have known better, he says. But why should artists pre-emptively buckle to pressure groups and media-manufactured witch-hunts? Maybe they have something important to say, which needs to be said. Maybe we should even respect artists and the international reputations they have built up over decades of hard work and hard thinking.
Girls don’t become women, and boys don’t become men, overnight. It is a time of magic, beauty, confusion, and yes, vulnerability. This simple cultural and biological fact has been the subject of art and poetry for millennia. But by now prohibiting the picturing of this period in life, when innocence mixes with knowing, who in fact is being protected? As has been proved time and time again, when things aren’t talked about, celebrated and discussed, that is the time when they become most vulnerable to exploitation. “This photographic exhibition violates the things for which we stand as Australians and indeed as parents”, Brendan Nelson brayed . Speaking as a parent, I refuse to be conscripted into a supposed army of the outraged. “I’d like to see the parents [of the models] well looked into”, demands the self-appointed guardian of our children, Hetty Johnston, “what parent in their right mind would allow their 12- or 13-year-old to strip off and display themselves all over the internet?” Well, if a photographer of Henson’s calibre and integrity approached me as a father, I just might.
Dr Martyn Jolly
Dr Martyn Jolly is Head of Photography and Media Arts at the Australian National University School of Art