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.


19 07 2009


Reading Lolita is like being possessed by a daemon, where the possessive act is in fact it’s own exorcism.  It is, in fact, exactly like having a pervert in your head for 309 pages. I read Lolita in preparation for a Literary Controversies subject I hope to be taking over the next few months, and it’s easy to tell why Lolita would be considered controversial.

‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta…’

I mean, the book is about paedophilia. There is no disgust (initially) in the narrator, no disguise. Only his desire, his “pederosis”, driving the narrative on as he covets, obtains and molests the young Lolita over the course of her pre and post pubescence.

The controversy is obvious, and a student doesn’t have to look too far to figure out why. Written in 1953, in a country that made it illegal to use the word ‘toilet’ on television, a novel, a graphically sexual novel, from the point of view of a manipulative paedophile wasn’t likely to find much comfort in the opinions of the censors. To find a publisher Nabokov was forced to go to Paris, the city in which the novel begins its narrative.

The statement made by critics, that the book was ‘pure pornography’, however, was a bit misleading.  While the sex scenes are there they are much less direct in the description of physical acts than even earlier works, such as the also controversial ‘Lady Chatterly’s Lover’. The descriptions of sex in Lolita, in fact, are often strangely coy, as in this scene from midway through the book, where the Self-aggrandising Humbert Humbert already has the girl Lolita well under his control:

… and all was very quiet and there was another girl with a very naked, porcelain-white neck and wonderful platinum hair, who sat in front reading too, absolutely lost to the world and interminably winding a soft curl around one finger, and I sat beside Dolly just behind that neck and that hair, and unbuttoned my overcoat and for sixty-five cents plus the permission to participate in the school play, had Dolly put her inky, chalky, red-knuckled hand under the desk.

Perhaps ‘coy’ isn’t the right word. But ‘indirect’ certainly applies, and this sequence can be said to represent a pattern of objectification and manipulation that characterises the novel. Humbert Humbert fails to recognise the real humanity of the child he abuses, instead only able to describe her in terms of how she conforms to his own obsessive desires and lusts. He describes her in intricate detail as she plays tennis, solely because her form at the sport arouses him so. He criticises her choices of magazine and music, because they do not conform to the idea of the ideal ‘Nymphet’ that he wants her to be.  In fact for all the intimacy he imagines between himself and Lolita, he cannot help revealing this intimacy to be a sham. He cannot hold a normal conversation with her, and at one point remarks to himself how truly ignorant he was/is of the workings inside her mind.

So while the sexual descriptions in the novel are less direct than they might be, their context lends them a terrible power that makes them quite hard to read. Indeed, the true discomfort from reading Lolita (and it is very uncomfortable, at many parts) comes directly from the writer’s point of view. The novel is meant to be the now arrested Humbert Humbert’s confession from prison and as such everything that occurs is couched within his own opinions. The novel is as much about self-deception and self-rationalisation as it is about the crimes themselves.

From the very beginning we are encouraged by the writer to sympathise with his story. He tells us of an early love never truly consummated, frustrated by circumstance and then ended by the death of the girl. When he first encounters Lolita and attempts to enjoy her from afar we are encouraged by the influence of his perspective to see his long-distance lechery as harmless self gratification, un-invasive and almost innocent. At this point the thin film of protection that is Lolita’s mother still separates her from the eager Humbert, and it is not until the mother’s death, and Humbert manages to manipulate himself into possession of the child, that the real efforts towards self justification begin. Young girls, we are told, and habitually married to older men in certain eastern nations. In the bible many of the characters were married at an age even younger than the 12 year old Lolita. Indeed, in the context of a new and sexually radical American youth, the assumption that Lolita is completely innocent may, and indeed did, turn out to be unfounded.

So skilfully, in fact, does Nabokov draw us in to the mind of his protagonist that it’s easy to forget what he is and be carried along on the voyage of his actions and wants. In this way Nabokov plays tricks on his readers. Long passages of self-justification and twisted moral philosophy are suddenly curtailed by a single phrase that snaps the reader out of the author’s mind just enough to encourage a radical re-think of the entire previous experience.  For example:

And so we rolled east,  more devastated than braced with the satisfaction of my passion, and she glowing with health, her bi-lilac garland still as brief as a lads, although she had added two inches to her stature and eight pounds to her weight. We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night –every night, every night –the moment I feigned sleep.

It gets to a point where the reader tries to hold two narratives in their head simultaneously. The first is the one of the protagonist, where you follow his moods, his desires and point of view as they are presented, and the second is the dual interpretation of everything that is going on from a more reasonable, human perspective. Humbert continually describes Lolita as a wilful, spoilt and vulgar child who is partner to his ‘passions’ and whom he takes pains to care for. It takes a lot of concentration to read this and simultaneously read the truth, which is that Lolita is a victim, practically imprisoned by the lecherous Humbert, and completely manipulated in thought and deed.

It is interesting to note that all the self-conscious regrets or self loathing that snap us back into sympathy with Lolita are a product of the writer’s hind-sight. He never felt these things at the time while he had her under his control, only later and in prison does her start to see the ‘trail of slime’ he left.

Lolita is a very complex book, quite difficult going at times, but ultimately rewarding. There is far too much to discuss properly here. There are plots, and sub-plots that I have not even touched on yet. There is the marriage to Lolita’s mother, and her death. There is Lolita’s escape from Humbert and his many years of searching the hotels of America for some trace of her. There is even, leading up to her escape, and after, a joust with a shadowy other figure across the states of America and at home in Ramsdale that exists entirely within the suggested sub-plots of the story but which eventually becomes its most crucial element. The work is intricate, and so finely structured, that I wouldn’t want to attempt to disassemble it here. I encourage you to read it however, but to be prepared for discomfort when you do.