If you wanted an example of just how gravely cultured Australia misconstrues the broad sentiment of the ordinary public, look no further than the latest outbreak of the Bill Henson affair.

Presumably the thought behind publishing David Marr’s The Henson Case was to make a case for artistic freedom and the intrinsic quality of Henson’s work. Text publisher Michael Heyward is a friend of the artist. Author David Marr is sympathetic. Which is where in theory the thing might have ended — artist’s reputation restored — had the public nerve so readily irritated by Henson’s serial observations of early adolescent sexuality not been so raw.

The depth of the miscalculation is indicated by inclusion of the schoolyard recruiting anecdote in extracts from the book published with some ‘sets the record straight’ fanfare by the weekend Fairfax papers. It seems extraordinary that neither Marr, Heyward — nor even Henson — might not have seen how inflammatory of broad sensibilities that revelation might have been. The emerging controversy was initially left to the news limited papers. Presumably Fairfax was hampered by the commercial relationship with the text and the group’s innate liberalist sympathies. But the whole mess moved out into the open pretty quick smart with the official investigation into the conduct of the principal.

It now turns out that the publisher had a relationship with the school, which is to say his children went there. Might he even have played a role in introducing the artist? Who knows. What a kerfuffle.

Clearly Marr and Heyward live in a pretty well-insulated bubble if they thought an extract revealing the occasional schoolyard peregrinations of a photographer many perceive as something closer to a pornographer, could possibly work in the artists’ favor.

Then there’s the perennial and nagging issue of how much media outlets compromise themselves when they pay to participate in the elaborate process of book publicity. We saw it with Fairfax and Costello, how Fairfax writers held back their knowledge of the former treasure true political intentions to suit the publicity schedule of Melbourne University Publishing. Now we see Fairfax going soft on a legitimate public debate on Henson, perhaps because they bought the rights to his defence.

Then there’s one last clinching point. A sad one really. That many people of well-developed aesthetic sensibility would admit, if pressed, that they have long been a little uncomfortable about the shadowland encompassed by Henson’s lingering and sometimes eerily prurient focus on the cusp of adulthood. The deep truth in all this is that while the argument over freedom of expression might be well worth the trouble, Henson is an unlikely and compromised posterboy for the cause.

Peter Fray

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