Harassing artists: it’s Australian as the Pavlova or the Hills Hoist.

In 1948, police led Robert Close (author of Love Me Sailor) from the dock in handcuffs because of his book’s s-x scenes; in the seventies, shops selling posters of Aubrey Beardsley’s ink sketches and Michelangelo’s “David” were raided by the Vice Squad; as late as 1972, the official list of banned books included William Burroughs, Jean Genet, Henry Miller and Gore Vidal.

Yet the current revival of this traditional Aussie pastime takes place in a specific political conjunction.

Since 1996, the Right has understood the mobilising power of a radical populism that pits the angry ordinary people against an effete and disdainful elite. It’s a strategy that, for many years, entirely wrong-footed the Left. Remember that famous TV interview where Maxine McKew made Pauline Hanson look stupid? Remember how, to the surprise of most liberals, Hanson grew in popularity as a result, because her supporters saw an ordinary woman monstered by a sneering know-it-all?

Something similar is happening today.

The most common liberal defense of Bill Henson involves an assertion that he’s not a sleazy snapper but an artist – and a famous one at that. Why, Elton John owns some of his photos, don’t you know! The unspoken implication is that artists operate in a higher realm than ordinary people, who thus have no right to comment on their work.

In the current context, one couldn’t adopt a more disastrous rhetorical strategy.

By insisting on the autonomy of art – and by more or less explicitly telling the public to stop talking about things they don’t understand – Henson’s supporters end up themselves sounding like censors. Like Pauline Hanson, Hetty Johnson and her crew portray themselves as plain folk standing up to these patronising chardonnay-sippers. They are, they imply, just bringing their sound common sense to bear on hoity-toity artists and their perversions.

It’s a powerful, populist position – and that’s why both Nelson and Rudd lined up with Johnson rather than Henson.

So to defend Henson one needs to avoid the vacuous contrasts between art versus porn (a distinction always laden with class interests) and tackle the populists on their own grounds. Hetty Johnson might see herself as a crusader for child victims, yet her attack on Henson perpetuates the crassest stereotypes about paedophilia.

Most child molesters are not hairy-handed aficionados of dirty photos: they’re ordinary people living in ordinary communities. The majority of sexual abuse takes place in everyday settings, usually perpetuated by authority figures: parents, relatives, family friends, priests. Such people will be quite happy to join in an attack on a bohemian artist – while they continue their own abuse behind respectable suburban doors.

But Johnson doesn’t simply reinforce the old myths, the kind that for so long have let real abusers get away with their crimes. Her campaign generates an atmosphere in which sensible discussions of young people and s-xuality become almost impossible.

Here’s Kevin Rudd, following her lead: “”Kids deserve to have the innocence of their childhood protected,” he said. “[J]ust allow kids to be kids.”

Actually, kids are s-xual creatures, not storybook angels. As Freud famously said – and every parent knows – infants are polymorphously perverse. In all cultures, in all ages, young people have engaged in various kinds of s-xual play. The point of consent laws should be to ensure they can do this safely, rather than insisting on a Victorian notion of childhood innocence.

Naturally, children should be protected from abusers. But, in doing that, context is everything.

Take, for instance, a current case in the United States. It involves one Alex Phillips, a 17-year-old in Wisconsin, whose sixteen year old girlfriend sent him naked pictures of herself.

Phillips posted these on his Myspace page. He’s now been charged with possession of child pornography, s-xual exploitation of a child, and defamation. Sure, the guy’s a jerk. But does he really deserve 16 years in prison?

Once again, context matters. No-one has suggested that the young people who posed for Henson were in any way coerced. Nor have any of their parents complained. If anything, the fuss created by Johnson seems more likely to make the girls feel bad about themselves than Henson’s images.

The “save the children” crusaders pose as defenders of everyday folk. Yet, as the Alex Phillips case shows, the campaign against Henson will have effects far beyond the art world. That’s why ordinary people – who, presumably, do not want the police combing through their holiday snaps or analysing the contents of their sons and daughters’ cell-phones – have as much to fear from Hetty Johnson as any artist.

Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland.

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