Bill Henson and Controversial Art

31 07 2009
This is NOT a Bill Henson photograph

This is NOT a Bill Henson photograph

Following my post on

Lolita from the other week, my blog-buddy, Karen, brought up the topic of perception vs. representation, and how cultural values affect the nature of controversy. The question of differentiation between art and pornography is a Pandora’s Box of associated issues that I don’t care to open at this time. However, I am interested in the nature of controversy, and I think it’s worth a little idle musing.

We have to ask, first, the question of why such controversies occur. I think that cultural values are essential for a controversy like the Bill Henson case (For a description of the case, go to the Wikipedia article: here), as the notion of inappropriateness in art is entirely a response to such values. The photographs that Henson took, then, are controversial specifically because they were perceived as having violated some sort of culturally agreed value or norm.

The question is over whether the production of these photographs, which included nude or semi nude young girls, was itself a violation of these values (were underage teenagers manipulated by the artist into compromised situations, and are the artworks a documentary of actual abuse) or were they merely a representation of a violation of these values?

The fact that young actresses were used to represent young people in moments of vulnerability or discomfiting intimacy might lend credence to the notion that actual violation has taken place. The question of whether the use of a young/underage actress in photographs portraying this style of sexualised content, then, becomes a legal issue. If a crime had been committed then there is no controversy, merely a crime to be dealt with by the legal system.

If no laws are broken in the creation of the content, however, the question becomes not whether any violation of a person’s rights has taken place, but, rather, whether such representations constitute a breach of a moral/social code.

This is much more of a grey area. The social norms on what is considered appropriate modes of representation can be breached without any violation of the Law. It is a matter of personal judgement, and as such can be argued back and forth almost endlessly. The question becomes about what level of nudity is appropriate for photographs of children? What effects will participating in such photographs have on the children? And what are the social implications of the photographs themselves?

Were the photographs actually promoting the sexualisation/fetish-isation** of children? I don’t believe they were, but I’m not sure that the questions I listed above are resolvable without further data. You could argue that it is not appropriate for a child to be photographed in a nude, or semi-nude, fashion. But if no breach of codes of conduct takes place in the production then you would have a tough time arguing that any harm was done. And in the absence of harm, who gets to decide what the standard of appropriateness becomes?   The question of appropriateness, then, becomes entirely mutable. What might be considered appropriate for one young person might be inappropriate for another, and so there can be no a priori assumption about what is generally allowable.

Assuming that no crimes were committed in the production of the photographs,  as was determined in the Police’s decision not to prosecute:

On 6 June 2008 it was reported in The Age that police will not prosecute Bill Henson over his photographs of naked teenagers, after they were declared “mild and justified” and given a PG rating[16] by the Office of Film and Literature Classification, suggesting viewing by children under the age of 16 is suitable with parental guidance.[17]

And assuming as well that the question of right and wrong in creating such images is a judgement based on personal values, the question is about whether a representation of violation constitutes a breach of a moral or social code. The argument that is usually made in this discussion is that representations of- (lets call it ‘undesirable behaviour’, seeing as people who object to it usually see it that way)- encourage actual acts of such behaviour. These claims tend to be unconvincing, however, as it’s nearly impossible to prove the causes of any specific behavioural act. It’s even less applicable in Henson’s case, where it would be difficult to imagine a mass influence of his photographs on a young teen audience.

As an aside, when the misogynist serial killer Ted Bundy was finally arrested and convicted he made the statement that his acts were motivated by pornography, and these statements are much used by opponents of pornography/pornographic art. However the counter argument has been made that those who make these claims after committing sexual or violent crimes are seeking only to transfer guilt from themselves onto something else. Indeed Ted Bundy’s claim to this effect was made as a last minute attempt to stay his own execution. The argument that the material has deleterious effects can still be made, however, and the book is far from closed on what the long and short term implications are.

In the absence of actual evidence of harm, in either the making or consumption of such depictions, these controversies seem to boil down to one central issue. The artwork was depicting a contentious area of behaviour, and some people just don’t like that. The same issue arises from novels such as Lolita and American Psycho, where the concept of harm is even further removed from real-life actions.* Some people just don’t like reading it, and while I applaud the desire to keep young people out of harms way, which is what motivated the original response to the Henson exhibition, I have an issue with people who make the claim that such art should not be made. I want to tell them that you, as a human, are not a monkey, and that if you’re not really enjoying it, like, not enjoying it at all, like, reading/viewing it is not just uncomfortable but also offensive, then put the book down, leave the art gallery, hell, ask for your money back if you have to, and go do something else.


**I may have just invented this word, I don’t know.

*You can’t claim that a fictional character’s exploitation is the same as a real actress’, for example.



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