No living Australian artist has a higher international profile than Bill Henson, but the esteem in which he is held overseas has not been matched at home. For a large part of the population his name conjures up the darkest, most terrifying associations. Ever since the furore of 2008, when Henson was accused of child pornography, prompting the police to confiscated his pictures from the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery and subsequently from public collections, the photographer has become an unhappy part of our local popular culture.
With a popular cultural icon everyone is an expert analyst. We all feel qualified to pronounce judgement on Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, Shane Warne and Cate Blanchette, and many other people we’ve probably never met. And now, Bill Henson too. Mention his name and people will tell you, with complete earnestness: “He goes too far.”
The problem with such pronouncements is that they are constantly being made by those who have never seen one of Henson’s shows, or indeed a single image. The speakers may have dim memories of pictures of semi-naked teens reproduced in newspapers or on TV, but this is not the same as standing in front of an actual work.
Hetty Johnson, the vocal advocate for the rights of the child, who was so quick to denounce Henson as a pornographer in 2008, told me on a radio program that she had never seen a show by Henson, and hoped she never would. It would be hard to conceive of a more perfect blend of ignorance and prejudice, but this sort of attitude passed as form of higher morality during the witch-hunt of 2008.
If Ms. Johnson’s calls had been heeded Henson would have been prosecuted for child pornography, and everyone who owned a work, a catalogue, or an invitation card would be at risk of criminalisation. This would have generated many thousands – perhaps tens of thousands – of culprits, including all of Australia’s leading art galleries and libraries.
It is a scenario too ludicrous and embarrassing to bear contemplation, but during the height of the controversy we seemed poised on the brink. The situation was finally defused when the classification board gave Henson’s images a very mild rating, effectively protecting them from prosecution. Since that time, the former state government has worked to close that ‘loophole’, opening the door for another round of legal madness.
Now, on the eve of a new Bill Henson exhibition at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, we can only wonder if we have finally moved on from the events of 2008.
The artist has held two solo exhibitions since that date – a 2010 show at Roslyn Oxley9 that mostly consisted of landscapes, and one at Melbourne’s Tolarno Galleries in September 2011, in which the familiar blend of figures and landscapes were shown. Although many of the figure studies were comparable to anything shown in 2008, and security was intense on opening night, the exhibition went off without a hitch.
According to Henson, the new show in Sydney will include a considerable number of figure studies. Although he is leaving the final selection till the last minute, he has decided “it will focus more on the body, and less on landscape.”
This should please his eager detractors, whose disappointment was palpable in 2010 when the artist failed to deliver the controversial images they had anticipated. It seemed at the time that Henson was not ‘playing the game’, by refusing to provoke and challenge his enemies. “He ignited controversy and now he’s ditching it,” was the title of a Sydney Morning Herald piece by Miranda Devine, who has excellent claims to be the one who actually “ignited” the earlier scandal with her inflammatory comments made in print and on radio.
Even some of Henson’s fans were disenchanted, being immured in the idea that it is the historical mission of the avant-garde artist to infuriate the bourgeoisie.
As far as Henson is concerned, the historical mission of the avant-garde artist is a lot of hot air. He has nothing but contempt for those who deliberately set out to stir up trouble. “Some people decide they want to be controversial,” he says. “I don’t know who in their right mind could be so stupid.”
Here one stumbles across another piece of popular wisdom about Henson: “He’s just doing it to stir up publicity.” This is a charge that drives the artist to distraction. His sole focus, he says, is on the work.
This is not mere rhetoric. Henson is well-known for having a high-brow, idealistic view of art, and setting himself the most rigorous standards. In any conversation he is quick to get off the subject of his own tribulations and start talking about Gustav Mahler, or C.P. Cavafy, or Thomas Mann, or Norman Douglas, or some other favourite writer or composer. Last week it was Lawrence Durrell, whom he had been reading for the evocative descriptions of landscape and atmosphere.
In Australia there is a tendency to sneer at those who prefer to talk of art, music and literature rather than more humdrum subjects. It’s easy to be seen as a wanker and a show-off, as soon as one leaves the realm of everyday life and starts to speculate on the grand themes. But Henson is not showing off, he is passionate about these things, which he pursues in cheerful solitude while most of his peers are at openings, parties, the footy and the pub.
Henson is monkish in his habits. “I’m enjoying being in the studio so much,” he says, “I’ve hardly been out of the building for months, and haven’t been overseas since last year. The drawbridge has been up since Christmas.”
He is determined not to lose focus or compromise his ambitions, but the events of the past few years have been stressful. He has a huge manila folder of libelous statements, passed on by his lawyers, that he doesn’t want to know about. He has a dedicated audience in this country, but is getting tired of holding shows in an atmosphere of sustained hostility.
When asked if the events of 2008 still play on his mind, Henson is unequivocal: “As far as I’m concerned it doesn’t make any difference. I’m not interested in engaging with this thing called ‘the public’. But putting up your show and having all this argy-bargy in the press becomes really boring.” It is Henson’s belief that if he were to let these problems get on top of him, it would play havoc with his work. He’d like to imagine he is not in denial but in a state of resistance, not allowing himself to be distracted by everyone else’s expectations.
When Henson does leave his studio it may be to speak in public. Many people have been moved and inspired to hear his talks at schools, colleges and public forums, but there will always be those who prefer to treat him as a kind of rarefied snob, intent on avoiding the ‘real’ issues. After a public address during the 2010 Melbourne Art Fair, in which Henson outlined his views on art, life and morality, an editorial piece in The Age the following morning, accused him of “Artistic Arrogance” (with two capital A’s), and being a moral “void”.
The problem for Henson is that if he admitted to any kind of ‘moral dilemma’ in his photographs of teenagers, he would be playing into the hands of his detractors. He has said many times that the only moral issue that concerns him is the propensity of his critics to inflict their own standards of morality on him, his models, and the general public.
Henson has always contended that he is not motivated by the sexuality of his subjects, but by the humanity of their presence and their gestures. Sexual identity is only part of the larger conundrum of human identity, as revealed in the fleeting expression on a face, or a certain physical bearing. Sometimes, he says he hardly notices whether the model is male or female.
The eagerness of our self-appointed moral guardians to see everything through a lens of sexual perversion has had many alarming side-effects. The moral panic of 2008 that ran through the media like a firestorm was only the beginning. There was a further attempt to stir up controversy when it was revealed that Henson visited a school and met with potential models (“A creepy visit to the playground” was the title of yet another Miranda Devine piece), but no-one at the school in question gave the story any oxygen.
Attempts to find past models whose lives had been ruined by Henson, were also failures. Most of those who chose to comment said the experience had been empowering.
After all the controversy Henson believes that his ability to find models has not been impaired. He says: “it’s just a matter of engaging directly with people. They work out for themselves very quickly whether they’re interested or not. People are still capable of following their own intuition and doing a bit of research.” To know all about his public career all anybody need do is tap into Google. If they’re not put off by what they find, there is a basis of mutual understanding.
For Henson the crucial problem is not one of ‘morality’ – or more accurately, ‘moralizing’ – it is a straightforward question of whether or not his work has inflicted harm on anyone involved with it. If nobody has come forth to complain, why should we listen to all the scare-mongering promulgated by attention-seeking commentators, and – worse – by politicians willing to court cheap popularity by stirring up fear and hatred?
A secondary issue concerns the paranoid attitude towards children that has become a hallmark of our community. For a long time teachers have not been able to inflict corporal punishment on students, or make any kind of physical contact without risking a lawsuit. This is generally seen as a mark of increasing civilisation, but it has not diminished the instances of students being violent with each other, or even with teachers. It has not discouraged teenagers from the binge drinking, reckless driving and random violence that goes on every weekend.
Our paranoia has now reached the point where parents cannot take photographs at the school sports day without written permission. Anyone crazy enough to take a snapshot of an infant in the bathtub is risking all kinds of mayhem. Over the past few years many photographers, both amateurs and professionals, have told me they have been questioned by the police for taking pictures of children in the most innocent circumstances – at the Royal Easter Show, for instance.
Paedophilia is not a recent invention. There will always be those who prey on children, and laws that deal with these offenders. It is another matter altogether to imagine that every image of a child is an act of sexual exploitation, or that children are somehow devoid of sexuality until they reach the age of consent.
When a photographer such as Bill Henson comes along and suggests that teenagers might be sexual beings, might have issues about body image or the way they relate to their elders or society, it is a direct infringement of the many new taboos that have grown up in relation to children.
Perhaps it is time we confronted those taboos, which are being quietly questioned by movies as diverse as Monsieur Lazhar and Moonrise Kingdom, which portray children in very different ways to the bizarre image of pristine innocence which now seems to determine popular attitudes and public policy.
If we look at the case of Bill Henson, there is a disturbing contradiction between the indignation and disgust that some profess for his work, and their disappointment when it does not prove disgusting enough. Did thousands of people log on to the Oxley gallery website in 2008 out of moral outrage, or in a vain search for titillation, fed by the lurid accounts of columnists and shock jocks?
We have to get back into the habit of treating Bill Henson as an artist rather than a media phenomenon – the very same artist that was given the largest and best attended retrospective ever devoted to an Australian photographer, in 2004. Like all artists, he should be judged by the quality of his work, not the size of the headlines he inspires. To do this, we have to view the works themselves, not their reproductions in the print or electronic media.
Those who approach Henson’s photos with an open mind will find there is nothing disgusting about these images, and nothing to be afraid of. If there is an edginess to these pictures it is not because of sexuality, but beauty.
Bill Henson at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, September 20 -October 13, 2012
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, September 15, 2012