For decades in post-war Israel performances of works by Richard Wagner were banned. The associations between Nazi Germany and Wagner’s music were too strong in the minds of most Israelis.

The argument was not about the quality of Wagner’s music but the political meaning of it. I make this observation in the context of the furore over Bill Henson’s photographic exhibition, which includes pictures of a n-ked 13-year-old girl, to remind us that art, like sport, cannot be separated from politics.

All art engages with culture, at least good art does. Henson has been praised by critics and supporters for challenging our sensibilities and pushing the boundaries of social acceptability. So why is Henson, by all accounts a garrulous man, refusing to defend his work?

Artists and the artistic community cannot push the boundaries of social acceptance and then, when they get a reaction, step back declaring “I’m just an artist” or “Art is sacrosanct and should be above the fray”, especially when the reaction is the one they wanted, if in smaller doses.

There are at three ways of looking at Henson’s latest images. The first is to see them as artistic representations designed to elicit certain feelings and ideas concerned with themes like the vulnerability of youth, the transformation of children into adults, and the contrast between teenage angst and the pointlessness of life.

Something along these lines is Henson’s primary purpose and, it’s fair to assume, is the type of experience anticipated by most of those who would have visited the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery to see Henson’s work.

The second way of looking at the pictures is through the eyes of pederasts and perhaps the much larger number of men who have normal s-xual lives but cannot help finding these sorts of images disturbingly er-tic.

In most of the public comment on the controversy these are the only two ways of understanding Henson’s photographs ─ they are either art or p-rnography. Within this conventional frame, they are art in my opinion. Despite her nakedness, the girl is not posed or presented in a s-xualised way; if they are consumed in a p-rnographic way it is not the artist’s intention.

Although not expert in the law, I would be very surprised if a court convicted anyone for taking or displaying these pictures. However, deciding that the photographs are not p-rnographic does not end the ethical argument. Despite the predictable positions taken by moral campaigners and civil libertarians, the situation is more complicated, which brings me to the third way of seeing Henson’s pictures.

Over the last decade or so advertisers and the wider culture have increasingly er-ticised children. They have been over-loaded with adult s-xual material and have had attributed to them forms of adult s-xual behaviour, including being dressed, posed and made up as if they were s-xually active, taught that having crushes and s-xual feelings is normal and even that engaging in various s-xual practices at their age is fine. Children as young as eight and nine are now routinely treated in this way.

This has been a recent phenomenon ─ previously it was only teenagers of around 16 or more who were presented this way ─ yet it has occurred slowly enough for most Australians to be inured to it or to accept that that is just how the world is. After all, when even respectable retailers like David Jones er-ticise 10 and 12-year-old girls in their advertisements, it is easy to dismiss any objections we may have as peculiar to ourselves.

The er-ticisation of childhood means that we have been conditioned to see children differently, as having adult s-xual characteristics, urges and desires. How else can we explain why we seem to accept mothers going shopping with 12-year-old daughters dressed like pr-stitutes? Why are we blasé about pre-teens watching video clips showing simulated intercourse? And why do we allow girls magazines widely read by pre-teens to advise that an-l s-x is a “personal choice”?”

Why have we done nothing about these and a hundred other manifestations of child s-xualisation?

In such a cultural environment, the n-ked body of a child, particularly a girl of 12 showing the first signs of s-xual development, can no longer be viewed “innocently”, and cannot but be seen by everyone, other than hermits, in a s-xual context.

If Henson did not know this then he should have, and so should the gallery owner and the girl’s parents. Putting the images on the internet was unforgivable, for in doing so they relinquished all control over how the images are seen and consumed.

It is fair to ask whether Henson was entirely innocent of the s-xual context in which his pictures would be viewed. Even among his fans, there seems to be a widespread feeling that his earlier images of intoxicated youths engaged in s-x in dingy settings are ‘creepy’ and exploitative.
Yet it is now clear that over the last two years, the Australian public has woken from its apathy and has become restive over the exploitation of children by the marketers and purveyors of popular culture. We should not be surprised that this disquiet has boiled over in response to the Henson exhibition.

I suspect that the extraordinary levels of anxiety over paedophilia in recent years have represented, at least in part, an over-compensation by society for its complicity in permitting children to be s-xualised. Now that anger is being directed at the real targets, Henson’s latest work might be collateral damage or it might be more deeply implicated.

CRIKEY: See Leo Schofield in conversation with Bill Henson here.

Crikey hyphenates words like s-x and v-gina not out of prudery, but in an attempt to lull over-zealous email spam filters into a false sense of security.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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