Defend artistic freedom: The case against censorship

Issue 

"Beautiful", "haunting", "dark", "evocative" or "revolting", "indecent", "exploitative" and "pornographic"? The May 22 seizure of 20 photographs by Australian artist Bill Henson from Sydney's Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, and the subsequent NSW police investigation, have provoked an extreme response.

Whatever your opinion on Henson's art, the censorship of controversial art and potential charges against the artist are serious. Given the seriousness of child pornography in our society, criminal charges must not be based on subjective and moralistic judgements.

PM Kevin Rudd and the NSW Premier were quick to condemn the images as "revolting". Somewhat off topic, Rudd told the media, "I am passionate about children having innocence in their childhood".

While Henson has remained silent on the censorship of his art, other artists have condemned the heavy-handed police response. Many are concerned about what this case will mean for freedom of expression and the future of the arts in this country.

Also disturbing is the hypocrisy of the conservatives in their back-handed "defence" of artistic expression. Paul Sheehan in the May 26 Sydney Morning Herald, while trying to appear liberal — he doesn't think Henson should be charged — nevertheless asks: "Is Bill Henson more interested in the sexual awakening of pubescent boys and girls than is strictly necessary?"

After declaring that "pederasts and child sexploiters have had a dream run in our society", Sheehan then takes aim at the gay community for having a "subculture of pedophilia" and the "epidemic of child abuse" in the Aboriginal community — two extremely serious and unsubstantiated claims.

Sheehan goes on to ask: "Where has the arts community been on the issue of adolescent sexploitation?". While he is aware that sexualised images of children abound in this society, he reserves his fire for "gutless" artists, writers and the film industry who, he alleges, have all been "consistently censorious on difficult moral issues for fear of offending prevailing orthodoxies about gay rights, artistic freedom or moral apartheid for Aborigines".

But surely there is a double standard here. Check out the next unwanted Country Road catalogue that appears in your letterbox. What about Bonds' use of children and young women to sell underwear? What about the emphasis that Vogue, and just about every magazine marketed at women, places on publishing photos of half-starved and sexualised models?

Why is it that these images, which objectify the bodies of children and young women to sell products, which result in the erosion of women's confidence and self-esteem, don't come in for the same critique? The fact that these mass media empires do it daily to make super profits doesn't make it socially acceptable.

NSW police are not investigating these repeat offenders.

Yet, when a renowned artist seeks to delve into sensitive and ambiguous subject matter — the transition from childhood to adulthood — he is branded a "child pornographer", censored and publicly denounced.

Art exists in a commercial context and no-one denies that Henson has a financial imperative to sell his art. He's an artist, and that's what he does for a living. But his art is no more, or less, exploitative than that of any other artist which is sold in a commercial gallery. His art is not exploitative merely because it depicts young people: his subject matter, albeit controversial, is legitimate.

An artist should not be threatened with criminal charges for depicting controversial subject matter. There must be empirical evidence that Henson has committed a crime for him to be charged.

Henson's only "crime" has been to touch on issues that some people feel uncomfortable with — the blurred line that everyone crosses as they depart from childhood. There is no definite line between childhood and adulthood, only a whole spectrum of experience to transgress. It is not a crime for an artist to honestly broach this subject.

Perhaps the most ambiguous part of this controversy is the flimsy nature of the current police investigation. It is completely unclear who will be charged, and with what.

The May 26 SMH quoted a police spokesperson as saying on May 23 that "as the investigation is in its infancy, it is too soon to comment on the possible breadth of the investigation". The Commonwealth Crimes Act 1914 forbids the publishing of indecent material depicting under-age adolescents.

But can Henson's photographs really be described as child pornography? Child pornography involves children who are, by definition, unable to consent to sexual acts. It entails the exploitation of these children via the sale of images to adults.

Henson's subject matter concerns young people. He uses photography as his medium. That is where the similarity between his art and child pornography ends.

Is there not a fundamental difference between the intentions of an established artist, who exhibits art publicly in a well-known gallery, and men who surreptitiously and illegally sell images of naked children for sexual gratification and consumption by adults online in exchange for credit card details?

Since the confiscation of the most "offensive" of Henson's photos, many of his subjects have publicly defended him.

One woman, now 35 and a mother, told the May 26 SMH of her experience as a youngster with Henson: "We went to this old building in Melbourne. It was quite dark but I never felt uncomfortable. Bill made you feel incredibly safe and calm. I was involved in the artistic process and I never felt that I wasn't in control … I absolutely support Bill Henson."

Another female subject, quoted in the same article, said Henson has "always had total consent from his subjects and their families and would never have made any of his models do anything they were uncomfortable …It never crossed my mind that what I was doing was pornographic", she said.

Perhaps we are so accustomed to seeing sexist imagery and sexualised images of children that we now cannot discern when children are depicted beautifully, and not sexually.

Beauty does not have to be sexual. Nudity does not have to be pornographic.

Child pornography is real. The objectification of women's bodies is real. Sexualised images of children are real. Shutting down Henson's exhibition does not address these issues — it trivialises them. It certainly doesn't do anything to stop real child pornographers. Indeed, it detracts attention from them.

Those who are concerned about these very real problems can not afford to join the chorus of right-wing commentators who call for censorship and the curtailment of artistic expression. Artists are not the enemy of children and women.

If we want to tackle the problems of exploitative and objectified images of children and women, we have to look at the role that sexism plays in this society. Rather than focus on individual artists and models, we have to demand that the establishment media and advertising industries stop promoting unreal imagery that contributes to the undermining of women's confidence and the germination of attitudes of violence in abusers.

To those who are undecided about Henson's works, don't take the word of right-wing commentators. See it in person (when the exhibition reopens with the 20 "offending" photos removed) and experience the sublime, intimate portraits of young people coming of age. Experience art, beauty and sensuality without exploitation.