Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Bill Henson Controversy: Art or Child Porn?

Untitled #8 by Bill Henson

Photographer Bill Henson has been criticized for his practice as of late. In May of this year his exhibition at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney was closed after several individuals filed complaints with law enforcement due to the questionable nature of Henson's photographs depicting naked children. The complaints were filed due to an email the gallery had sent concerning an invite to a private viewing of Bill Henson's photographs at the gallery. The email contained a photographic image of a nude 12 year old girl which sparked the controversy. The gallery, with Henson’s approval, decided to cancel the opening of the exhibit due to being the focus of negative media attention and law enforcement involvement. During the process of the investigation a number of images from the exhibit were seized by police as potential examples of child pornography. The police also forced the gallery to remove specific graphic images of Henson’s work from their website.

Local authorities and child protection advocates had strived to charge the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery and Bill Henson with ‘publishing an indecent article’ under the New South Wales Crimes Act and child protection legislation. However, in June of 2008 New South Wales and the Department of Public Prosecutions declined to file charges against the gallery or the artist. In fact, it was declared that the photographs of naked teenagers were “mild and justified” and were given a PG rating. It seemed the controversy was settled-- until now.

After months of shying away from publicity Bill Henson has decided to be vocal in defending his work and to speak out against accusations that his photographs are nothing more than child pornography since his work involves photographing naked children. Henson claims that the girl depicted in the Roslyn Oxley9 email invite supports the image along with her family. The mother of the 12-year-old girl at the center of the controversy has stated that the photographs had captured a "beautiful" moment. Henson went on to say that people can discover that he is a legitimate photographer by doing a Google search of his name and that he only regrets the public controversy that the image has caused. In a statement to Fairfax he stated that he has been doing similar work for over 30 years and made it clear that he was often in a position of asking parents whether they would allow their children to be photographed nude or not.

It has been suggested that Henson’s vocal defense of his work was spurred by recent information involving the investigation of his practice. Late last month it was revealed that Henson had visited a primary school in order to scout for models in 2007. Apparently the principle of the school had escorted Henson around the playground of the Melbourne school so that Henson could observe potential models in order to photograph them naked with parent consent. It has been suggested that it would be wise for Henson to allow parents to contact him directly about photographing their children nude instead of 'prowling' for talent at primary school playgrounds. Needless to say, this new information has angered parents who have since demanded action from their government.

The outraged parents have stated that Henson’s visit to the school was a betrayal of trust. The fury of anger has provoked a response from authorities against Henson and the principal. The principal of the school in question has since been reprimanded by officials for allowing Henson into the school and is now working at another location. Education Minister Julia Gillard stated that nobody should be allowed into schools without a legitimate purpose upon learning of Henson’s visit. Victorian Premier John Brumby announced an investigation into the fresh controversy and told Melbourne reporters that an individual walking through the school grounds in order to view children as potential nude models is “inappropriate”. Needless to say, the situation does not look good for Bill Henson and the validity of his work.

In recent years the charges against world renowned photographers who photograph nude children has reached a boiling point. In the eyes of child advocates the fact that an artist has exhibited in prestigious galleries and museums does not make photographs involving nude children anymore legitimate than child pornography. You may recall that in 2007 an exhibit of Nan Goldin’s photographs were seized from the collection of Sir Elton John due to similar charges that Bill Henson is now facing. Do these works walk a fine line between artistic freedom and exploitation?

What are your thoughts concerning photographs of nude children for the purpose of art? Are these works legitimate or should artists like Bill Henson be charged with crimes? Do parents, by giving consent for these images, violate the rights of their own children? Should the ability for parents to give consent in this manner be terminated? Should laws and penalties be in place in order to halt works of this nature from being exhibited in galleries and museums? Should museums lose government funding for supporting artists like Bill Henson? Should Henson have to provide information that proves parental consent for all of his known works involving nude children? Or is this controversy nothing more than censorship? What say you?

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor
www.myartspace.com

7 comments:

Jodi said...

In this world you have to be careful. There are so many child predators out there that parents are scared to even let children out of their site for even 1 second. Much less let some artist take pictures of their kids naked. This does sound weird when reading it. It maybe art to him but in todays world of internet and so many predators the innocent is not innocent any more. Predators might even use his art for disgusting reasons. I for one would not even want to take that chance. Not in today's world.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree with you Jodi, I have a son and his 12 years old as a mother we always worry and concern for the safety of our childrens. Mine is a boy and my only son and i am quite protective all the time, sometimes i get told off because i don't let him travel by himself to and from his school. As you said in today's society every danger lurks all the time. Predators target children because of their vulnerability and innocent face and these excites predators.

I am an artist myself and I know my limit. On Bill Henson's eyes his works are art but for predators eyes all the images are alluring and seductive.

Phil said...

Well, I look at it like this. No matter what image you think of, there can be someone out there who will have lewd thoughts about it. So if you use THAT criteria, then just ban art and photography altogether unless there are no people in it. I don't think I want to live in that world though.

Anonymous said...

its not what the artists intention was when taking the image wheather its art or pron but rather how the image is veiwed and used by the public

lewisevans777 said...

When ever an artist produces something that many in society find contraversial, the immediate gut reaction of those offended is to target the artist. My feeling is, 'don't shoot the messenger'. Bill Henson is undoubtedly sincere and is a sensitive, skilled artist. If art is not there to push boundaries, and make society think about itself, it is simply reduced to 'wall accessories' and has little value. Art has always been a powerful force in questioning aspects of ourselves and our society, and as such has been a valuable agent for social change.

This fiasco merely demonstrates that we have deeply contentious issues to deal with in our society, and those are what the complainers should be addressing. The photos are simply beautiful photos of children, and if we can simply observe them and appreciate them for what they are, we can enjoy them. If they raise uncomfortable feelings as well, then the real causes of those uncomfortable feelings should be addressed, and Bill should be thanked for bringing them to our attention rather than leaving them unexpressed and therefore not dealt with.

lewisevans777 said...

When ever an artist produces something that many in society find controversial, the immediate gut reaction of those offended is to target the artist. My feeling is, 'don't shoot the messenger'. Bill Henson is undoubtedly sincere and is a sensitive, skilled artist. If art is not there to push boundaries, and make society think about itself, it is simply reduced to 'wall accessories' and has little value. Art has always been a powerful force in questioning aspects of ourselves and our society, and as such has been a valuable agent for social change.

This fiasco merely demonstrates that we have deeply contentious issues to deal with in our society, and those are what the complainers should be addressing. The photos are simply beautiful photos of children, and if we can simply observe them and appreciate them for what they are, we can enjoy them. If they raise uncomfortable feelings as well, then the real causes of those uncomfortable feelings should be addressed, and Bill should be thanked for bringing them to our attention rather than leaving them unexpressed and therefore not dealt with.

Anonymous said...

If the photo here is one of those that's caused the problem this is entirely ridiculous. Nudity is not necessarily sexual, and the idea that some people can be photographed and others not is frankly absurd. There have even been cases of parents being reported by photo lab employees for taking nude photos of their own children. This mass hysteria about images of children has to stop.