As the debate over artist Bill Henson’s images of naked children continues, NSW police are still considering whether to lay child pornography charges against the artist and the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney. Although the experts agree it is unlikely the case against Henson will result in a criminal conviction, the controversy does bring to light the age old debate about art and pornography. But does community reaction to these particular images of the prepubescent body say more about us than the artist at the centre of this latest controversy?
Professor Elizabeth Grierson is Professor of Art and Philosophy at RMIT and has published widely in the history, theory and philosophy of art. She is also an Executive with the RMIT Design Research Institute, where she is leading the “Intervention Through Art” program.
Professor Grierson says the controversy is the latest in a long line of fiery debates over the fuzzy boundaries between art and pornography.
In the 1880’s the painting known as Chloe (pictured) by Frenchman Jules Lefebvre, was refused entry into the National Gallery of Victoria because the image was considered to be too sexually explicit. After being refused entry into the art galleries of Australia, Chloe found a permanent home in the public bar of Young & Jackson’s on Flinder’s Street, Melbourne. One hundred years later, Chloe was listed by the National Trust and Heritage of the State of Victoria.
“Art challenges and tests boundaries,” Professor Grierson said. “And one of the most contentious boundaries in the history of art and public opinion is that of art and pornography. This is an old debate, with a new flashpoint.”
So how do we decide what is art and what is pornography? Professor Grierson told Australian Women Online we have to look at the intention behind the work.
“Pornography is designed to stimulate sexual excitement. It exploits people for a particular purpose and that is why there are laws to protect us from it. So what is the intention of Bill Henson’s art work? Is it designed to stimulate sexual excitement? And the only answer is no, it is not.”
“Henson’s work looks at the transition from adolescence to adulthood through the body and he doesn’t explicitly make reference to sex and certainly not to sexual excitement. But he does confront the viewer with a concern, a thought and an interest about the body and that’s the role of art, to make us think. It’s not to exploit. It’s to make us think and to test our boundaries and to test our own reflections upon these things,” Professor Grierson said.
“Of course as soon as you enter the world of sexuality, people’s boundaries do get tested in all sorts of ways. For me, this is the most interesting thing that has come out of this, the range of ways that people’s boundaries are tested by this art work and therefore, by this issue.”
Bill Henson has certainly tested the boundaries with his latest work and therefore, we can say the images at the centre of this controversy are by definition works of art. But will this matter to a community who has been educated to view all images of naked children as evil, or in the words of our Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, ‘revolting’?
The war against child pornography on the Internet has become a much publicised event in Australia. In an effort to create the illusion that the bad guys are losing the war, the Australian Federal Police publicise every arrest and perhaps for a little while at least, we all feel safer knowing there is one less predator walking among us.
But does an artist like Bill Henson really deserve to be lumped in with those who create and peddle child pornography on the Internet for sexual gratification? Clearly the art community says no, he does not.
“There’s a long history of censoring art. But I find it absolutely astonishing that this would be happening here in Australia. I thought Australia was free and believed in creative freedom and freedom of speech,” Professor Grierson said.
“There’s nothing in Henson’s work that’s not sensitively done and the way he presents things to make the viewer really think about yourself and your own ideas of morality. I think the reaction to this work says more about us than it says about art.”
According to Robyn Ayres, Executive Director of the Arts Law Centre of Australia, “It is very unlikely that either Bill Henson or Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery would be charged under section 91G or 91H of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) as neither the artist nor the gallery have demonstrated any intention to use a child for a pornographic purpose, or produce, disseminate or possess child pornography.”
Ms Ayres also stated that it would be difficult to successfully convict either the gallery or the artist under s578C of the Crimes Act, which creates the offence of publishing an indecent article.
The reason Arts Law believes it is unlikely that the artist or the gallery will be successfully convicted under s578C is that the section requires the court to take into account both artistic merit and contemporary community standards in determining whether the photographs are indecent. Previous cases state that contemporary community standards are “those currently accepted by the Australian community.”
The courts look at what the community accepts and has accepted for years. They must also look at the context of the publication as well as the intended audience. What is indecent in one context may be acceptable in another.
Ms Ayres said “I would question whether contemporary community standards have changed to such a degree that the naked body is in itself indecent or pornographic. Any consideration of Bill Henson’s work should be made objectively, taking into account both the artistic merit and community standards.
The fact that some viewers will sexualise images of children, however innocuous, raises the question whether all images of naked children should be criminalised? Such a conclusion would be a significant departure from the current standards which apply to both photography and the visual arts in Australia.”
Whatever the end result, with police raiding art galleries in three states, the investigation of artist Bill Henson is beginning to take on the appearance of a ‘witch hunt’. Of course the irony is that up until recently, Henson himself was relatively unknown outside the art world and had the police not seized these photographs, only a fraction of the community would ever know they exist.
Perhaps like Lefebvre’s Chloe some future generation of Australians will gaze upon Bill Henson’s latest work and wonder what all the fuss was about.
Sections of this article have been taken from media releases sourced from Australian Associated Press.