The suspended exhibition of Bill Henson’s photographs of pubescent nudes provoked an excellent discussion over at LP. I haven’t written about the matter here until now because I’ve had to sort out my feelings on this one: as someone who grew up in the social nudist movement I hate the way that nudity in any context has come to be automatically associated with pornography, and yet I see the necessity of ensuring that minors are not exploited for sexual imagery as well.
At this point it should be emphasised that none of the photos display genitalia, so no charges of pornography can possibly be laid (although charges of “indecency” may be, despite the opinions of the NSW Law Society), and indeed only a few of the images show nipples on an undeveloped breast. I have to wonder whether being interviewed by the police, and the inevitable revelations at school about having modelled for Henson’s photos and the consequent marginalisation, are not going to be far more traumatic than the experience of posing for photos exploring the sense of bodily transition during puberty could ever have been. In the normal run of events the exhibition’s short run at small Paddington gallery would not have led to such broad publicity: Henson has had exhibitions for years which have only received art press, and indeed a major retrospective at the Art Gallery of NSW a few years ago, of work with very similar themes, brought no howls of protest whatsoever. The artistic community, including now-adults who modelled for Henson as minors, is very strongly defensive of the artistic merits of his work, especially in light of PM Rudd’s denunciation, while at least one psychologist claims that any image of naked teens will encourage paedophilia.
Ms Lamble says that although she believes Mr Henson is not a pedophile, his photographs still send the wrong message about the sexualisation of children.
“We’ve got mixed messages going around. We are trying to tell society that it is wrong to sexualise our young people, we are up in arms about push-up bras and make-up and all this clothing for young people, but then we say it’s OK to hang photos in a gallery and call it art.
“Even if they are beautiful, even if the mood and lighting and the composition is beautiful and it’s a very talented artist, it’s still giving the wrong messages because you don’t know who’s viewing them,” she says.
The latest outcry demonstrates that society has become more sensitive to any hint of the sexual exploitation of minors: the question is, have we become too sensitive? The gallery owner is receiving threats to both herself and the gallery in the wake of the publicity, and Hetty Johnson of Bravehearts is contending that any nude images of children are obviously pornography even if the law says that only photos that include genitalia can possibly meet that definition. Ms Lamble’s last line in the quote above is a classic slippery slope argument and it troubles me: it’s well known that paedophiles get aroused by looking at underwear catalogues for the children’s section of major department stores, should we ban those as well because “we don’t know who’s viewing them”? Let’s extend that slippery slope all the way to reductio ab absurdum, shall we – all sorts of fetishists become aroused looking at all sorts of images: if someone gets sexually aroused watching horse races because they get off on torturing horses, should we then ban all broadcasts of horse racing?
Since I wrote very strongly against the sexualisation of young girls in advertising in 2006 (and on particular images here), my position on Henson’s photos may seem confused, but it’s actually very clear: sexualisation is not just about how much skin is showing, it’s about the way that the skin is presented and posed, what is emphasised and what is not. The girls in that advertising were photographed in “come-hither” poses, by all reports these photos of Henson’s continue the themes of his earlier work, which is anything but “come-hither” in its presentation, as he is examining the awkwardness and awareness of change rather than posing the minors in sexy adult positions. I certainly understand the argument of Michael Reid:
“I think the sexualization of children is an extremely important (issue),” said art market analyst Michael Reid. “The question is: ‘Was there consent?’ which I can’t answer, and ‘Has the image been sexualized?’ In my opinion, it wasn’t.”
Reid is quoted in more depth by the SMH:
“I have noticed people are prepared to give their opinion without actually seeing the photographs,” he said. “I find this quite disturbing because this debate is very important.”
Mr Reid said he judged the artistic merit of the work to be valid and not pornographic.
“The main photograph in question is in the style of the Old Masters,” he said. “The model is enveloped in a black velvety shroud and she is backlit. She is very still. There is not any sexual charge about the image. It is quite restful and contemplative. She is demure.
“I was aware of the child sexualisation issue but that does not exist here in my opinion. Bill Henson had done a huge body of work that goes across a whole range of areas . . . this is a debate that has to happen – but rationally.”
Rationally, then. Surely the way to combat our society’s fetishisation of nudity as always sexual is not to hide nudity away more than we do already, but to allow social nudity to become more normalised. This would involve a deeper understanding, hopefully building to a natural awareness, that people enjoying the sensation of the breeze on all of their skin are not necessarily indulging in a sexual display. Certainly when one is part of a social nudist community, sexual thoughts are simply not automatically provoked by the sight of “private” skin: people are chatting, cooking, playing sports and supervising toddlers while naked and it’s just not a big sexual deal.
For instance, in my experience growing up as a nudist, clothing was far more provocative than the naked body. Indeed, when teens hung around together at night at the nudist clubs I frequented, the sign of flirtatious interest was to put on some clothes. Those who stayed naked at night, as they had during the day, were sending a “keep off” signal, as all these social nudist clubs have strict “no sensual/sexual touching while publicly nude” rules.
The nude in art can be vulnerable, certainly, and our society’s prurience and broad fetishising of dominance can make vulnerability be perceived as erotic , but the nude can also be haunting, confronting, disturbing and even powerful, which appears to be more the themes that Henson explores in his work. But is that enough? Bluemilk has an excellent post analysing the various issues of images of child nudity, and presents a different and valid emphasis than my own response, (flavoured as it is by my personal history of social nudism), and quoting Clive Hamilton’s take that it is different now than it was 10, 15 or 20 years ago:
I’ve argued that previously when perhaps it was a more innocent age, then artistic representations of children, as is the case with the Bill Henson exhibition, wouldn’t have provided difficulty.
But in an age where children have been so heavily sexualised by commercial organisations and by the wider culture and where there’s so much more alarm about paedophilia then I think the presentation of a 12-year-old girl, for instance, naked to the public, really has quite a different impact and raises new concerns.
Sadly, Clive Hamilton does have a point. Again, I argue that the ideal solution is more casual and comfortable social nudity, not more taboos against nudity, but I have no specially good ideas about how to bring that about.
Rosie Ryan at ABC blog Articulate has a round-up of other blog opinions.
Barista worries about the consequences for the gumnut babies, amongst other things.