Sunday, 1 June 2008

moral panic

From half a world away the current Australian panic over the work of artist/photographer Bill Henson seems a sadly familiar one. An artist who has exhibited widely over two decades has work taken off the walls after a children’s rights advocate (Hetty Johnson) complains about an exhibition at the Roslyn Oxley Gallery in Sydney. Several others weigh in, including the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd (a committed Catholic), and men’s movement spokesman Steve Biddulph. The police act in Melbourne and Canberra after further tip-offs that Henson’s work appears in various State and National collections. This disjunction between the art world and the world of law enforcement is reminiscent of the obscenity furore that followed the appearance of the Ern Malley poems in the forties, when, after the imposture was made public, people who would otherwise never have known about Angry Penguins magazine perused the matter and declared it obscene. It’s easy enough to imagine a modern Detective Vogelsang telling the court that the image of a couple going into a park at night could only suggest that an immoral act of some sort was intended, though it’s also easy for the educated to parody his lack of comprehension. The art world rushed in to defend Henson. Petitions were signed and forwarded to the media. Libertarians went into convulsions as usual, strangely duplicating the intensity of the moral guardians. The sanest comment on the matter that I’ve seen to date is on Martin Edmond’s blog.

My own attitude to Henson’s work has changed over the years. When I was an art critic for the National Times on Sunday I wrote pieces on two exhibitions in Melbourne and Canberra. Henson was already showing images of young people in ambiguously threatening states. The work was morally ambiguous, though it has never been any more so than that of Caravaggio. Of the first exhibition, held at the Pinacotheca Gallery in mid-1986, I noted:

The figures, crowds and anatomic details are at once human and inhuman, characters and ciphers . . . Space overall is tight; apparently scattered elements are drawn together. Faces looking sideways are flattened like bas-reliefs. Darkness invades the spaces of a body. Light dapples and breaks up a building. A large central figure is displaced by the image of a hand, a briefcase, a strut of light. In any given image the human figure may suddenly dissolve into a strip or blob of highlight or darkness . . . His accumulated images in full light and part shadow, singular or sequenced, begin to pose questions where a lesser artist would present reductive and self-contained answers . . . The ultimate effect is to heighten the strangeness of the flesh that is so intimately surveyed. Henson’s images which at first seem so transparent end up resisting interpretation be it psychological or formal. In them the matter-of-fact becomes mysterious; the casual, oppressive.

Of the second show, at the Drill Hall Gallery, ANU in early 1987, I added:

These are mysterious, paradoxical images: icons, as their installation and the triptych groupings would suggest, but icons without religion; colour photographs which are apparently drained of colour, though as individual images are examined the colour seems to seep back into them . . . It would be facile and false to draw out a simplistic moral conclusion from these groupings of junkie-children, baroque interiors of galleries and great libraries . . . But it would be equally false to assume that this work is amoral or that it aestheticizes squalor . . . A strange calm pervades the show . . . The interiors are all but empty. The most we glimpse of human figures within them are silhouettes – eaten into by backlighting – of people observing an unrevealed event or object. Against this, the figures of the adolescents are strongly present though the rooms around them may be darkened. Many of these children appear to have been violently abused, with dark blotches of dirt, bruising or blood. Some appear unconscious, on the edge of death; some existing precariously, in the act of shooting up, or droopy-lidded and immobilized afterwards. Some, like the young dark-haired woman looking out at the viewer, are very much alive . . . On stepping out once again into the sunlight of the Capital one is aware of having witnessed something more than the propaganda of ‘good causes’.

In later shows Henson seems to have reacted against the perfections of the work, tearing up and reassembling portions of photographs with black tape though the images of adolescents have persisted. I’ll admit to becoming mildly alarmed at this since it seems to run against the formalist aesthetic that Henson has adduced from time to time. The sheer gloss of the work has also occasioned comment like that of my friend Ken Bolton who suggested that it resembled nothing as much as those commercial images used by Calvin Klein. Despite all this I would defend Henson’s right to exhibit his work and to be taken seriously as an artist. The current critics of his work – and I mean here not the art critics but those who see the work as depraved and immoral – have no desire to admit to grey areas around sexuality and youth, nor do they have any sense of context (an upshot of the possibility of Henson being prosecuted is that in turn, those who show some of his images in the media, including on web pages, might be liable for prosecution themselves). It is possible to admire an artwork while being fully aware of the undesirable undercurrents that it perhaps brings to light (I think here of the seemingly outrageous suggestion the rock critic Lester Bangs once made: that Van Morrison’s album Astral Weeks was really about a paedophilic episode). It ought to be clear that pornography is defined by both the intentions of the producer (to sexually arouse the viewer) and to the conditions of its production (whether or not exploitation has occurred). Whatever we make of his images, Bill Henson is clearly innocent on both charges.


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Laurie - thanks for this. But I have to say that I'm not aware of anyone attempting to say that Henson is avoiding dealing with adolescent sexuality (though I wholly disagree that all his images do so, and dispute the assertion that nudity equals sexuality). And to my knowledge, the main response from the arts community is about defending a space where complexity and ambiguity and nuance can exist.

Laurie Duggan said...

Hmm. I don't know that I actually said this Alison. I do know that in the 1980s Henson himself spoke mainly in formalist terms and was keen to deflect discussions around the subject matter of his works.

Cadiz said...

Alison's prob is she doesn't do reality. In the UK, they revamped their child pornography laws to prohibit, to criminalize, what Henson does, and that's a fact.

Nudity in conditions of powerlessness is a form of sexual slavery, Henson's work has definitely been banned in parts of Europe because of their child pornography laws,

So 'sex' has to be a part of it. Alison is being terribly silly about this thing.

He has also been accused in the past of offering child 'models' for prurient viewing by some of the very Soviet who are now defending him.

In Britain, it is child pornography, and that is about sex, and that is the de jure fact of the matter.

Henson is also being deservedly iunvestigated by the police in Australia, so he has a bit of a track record.

Laurie Duggan said...

So what do you say about Caravaggio?