First, a disclaimer: I do not claim to be familiar with Bill Henson’s oeuvre or indeed the content of his exhibition in Roslyn Oxley9 gallery in Paddington for which he is now apparently facing criminal charges. Having said that, and speaking as someone who as seen some fairly dubious stuff presented in the name of “art”, I find it hard to believe that the content of Henson’s work on show realistically does constitute child pornography. The naked human form is not pornographic, and I don’t think it should be considered so unless it is presented in such a way as to be primarily concerned with sexual suggestion. There can be little doubt that Henson was not primarily engaged in an act of sexual suggestion in exhibiting the work; his primary aim was no doubt to express something through his art. This interpretation of the semantics of the situation is one that legal experts reportedly adhere to and at least one prominent Australian screen royal has staked her reputation on.
In a political sense, what I find interesting here is the yawning rift this particular issue opens up between those whom we might term the “elitist” supporters of the Rudd Government and the mainstream. Thus far many of the more vehement detractors of the Howard Government have more or less been quite satisfied with the performance of Federal Labor, despite the fact that the party has in recent months often taken a similar tack on certain issues to the previous government. Partially this may be because Rudd in particular has so far done quite a deft job of mixing symbolism with pragmatism in a concerted effort to keep people from all quarters generally on board. This issue is precisely the kind of issue, however, that divides the elites from the party’s mainstream supporters, and the reason it does so is because it is an issue that requires a multi-layered consideration of the situation.
The first layer worth considering here, and the layer that the government’s more elitist supporters are drawn to first is of course the moral/legal question. In a civilised, truly liberal society, there should of course be nothing to prevent artists from using the naked forms of people of any age in their work, so long as the goal of the work was the expression of something explicable other than potentially offensive sexual perversion. It is unlikely that anybody within the artistic community or anybody who has studied the arts at any significant length at university or elsewhere would disagree with this statement. On the other hand, one needs only to walk in the shoes of the average conservative suburbanite to sense why Henson’s work has produced the reaction that it has. The average person has not had an education in the arts. The average person does not really give two hoots about elitist babbling about freedom of expression. Should we then be surprised that when the average conservative suburbanite person walks into a gallery and sees some of the more provocative examples of Henson’s work, they might feel confused and/or appalled? The problem here is of course one of interpretation. It is possible for someone who has studied art and the human form to view photographs of young naked adults as nothing other than something quite beautiful in an asexual sense. On the other hand, it is possible for someone to view the same photographs and see nothing but seedy, dubious trash.
This is just the kind of wedge that the Rudd Government has to be clever enough to avoid if it is to retain the support of the progressives and conservatives who voted for change last November. Rudd was of course quick to condemn Henson’s work as “absolutely revolting” and wonder publicly why we “just can’t let kids be kids”. I have little doubt that the Prime Minister was sending a message to the conservatives who voted Labor in November and those who might vote Labor next time around when he came out and gave both Henson’s work and elitist opinion such a vicious backhand. This message is intended not so much as a dog whistle as a message sent between the lines to the electorate; I am on your side. When the common sense of the average suburbanite is pitted against the sophistry of elite opinion, Rudd has signaled his intentions here to lean towards the former.
So do I think that Rudd is genuinely, truly offended by Henson’s work? Personally, I think it is doubtful. I think on this particular score, the Prime Minister did what he thought was politically sensible, fearing that the somewhat resurgent Nelson Opposition would be handed a juicy wedge if he backed Henson. It is extremely unfortunate, particularly for the artist and the children at the centre of it all, but it shall nevertheless be interesting indeed to see how this drama develops and what the repercussions are for the government’s here-to-fore rosy relationship with Australia’s artistic community.