The political art of framing a photographer

February 28, 2009

The Henson Case

By David Marr

Text Publishing, 2008

149 pages, $24.95 (pb)

The tabloid media were in a frenzy — photographs of a naked young girl by Melbourne artist, Bill Henson, due to be included in an exhibition in May last year in Sydney, were pornography masquerading as art, exclaimed the newspaper columnists and the 2GB shock-jocks.

They were at one with the then NSW Labor premier, Morris Iemma ("offensive and disgusting") and the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd ("absolutely revolting") in what David Marr's refreshingly sober book The Henson Case calls the latest in a long history of moral panics and censorship witch-hunts in Australia.

The get-Henson push came from the usual bunch of conservatives — Miranda Devine in the Sydney Morning Herald and Alan Jones and his stable of radio-shouters.

Adding to the momentum was the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, who did not let his ignorance of the photos hold him back from absolute condemnation.

Hetty Johnston, the child abuse campaigner in Queensland (and a former state leader of the Australian Democrats), and even Clive Hamilton, from the liberal left, who thought the photos too dangerous to show, attacked Henson.

NSW Police Commissioner, Andrew Scipione — a born-again Christian, found the photos "entirely offensive" and zealously organised theatrical raids on the gallery. The posse was joined by "rank prudes who fear nakedness in any form", according to Marr.

Establishment politicians were "gutless, hostile or both", says Marr of the parade of accusative Labor, Liberal and Democrat leaders headed by Rudd — "those who believed Rudd's rise to power signalled some sort of shift in favour of liberty and free expression had to recognise that politics in Australia had changed once again, only to remain the same".

Peter Garrett, federal arts minister, faded political radical and conservative Christian, was "sheepishly ineffective", carefully "standing to one side of the most compelling controversy about the arts in over a decade".

That it was left to Liberal opposition leader, Malcolm Turnbull, to put in a guarded word on behalf of freedom and artistic merit, reflects shamefully on Labor's performance.

At the centre of the storm, says Marr, lurked "The Paedophile", inducing fear and rage. The resulting tenor of the crusade against Henson was one of "public safety", allowing the conservatives to cynically exploit "the fate of children at the hands of paedophiles" to "achieve old ends of censorship" whilst "grandstand[ing] about protecting children".

The cops and moral vigilantes were, briefly, successful. The planned exhibition was shut down by the gallery owners and the hunt for Hensons took the tabloids and the cops to regional and national galleries in Albury, Newcastle, Victoria and Canberra, and even to the halls of the national parliament.

Slowly, however, dissenting and professional voices were heard above the concocted roar.

While few of Henson's attackers had ever seen the photographs in question, those who were familiar with the artist's work said the photography was not pornographic or likely to incite sexual assault on children.

Some of Henson's young ex-models came to his public defence and none emerged with scandalous stories of paedophilic lust when such revelations would have fetched tabloid gold.

A retired police superintendent and gallery owner, Alan Leek, wrote of his bitter disappointment that the Henson-hunting police had been "ambushed by the purse-lipped paragons of public morality; those zealots who can't separate nudity from sexuality", and who, instead of wasting resources seizing crates of artworks, could have better applied their time to things like "child protection, perhaps".

When the civil libertarians were joined by the official censors, the criminal case against Henson started to unravel.

The Classification Board declared that the nudity was "very mild in viewing impact and justified by context, [and] ... not sexualised to any degree". They gave the photos a G classification, fit to be viewed by all ages.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority found nothing illegal or pornographic about the photos.

The NSW Director of Public Prosecutions reviewed the police briefing and the photos, and concluded there was no crime of child pornography to prosecute.

Thwarted of their kill, the witch-hunters whinged and showed they still didn't get the point about the difference between art and porn when they frothed up over a subsequent issue of Art Monthly which covered the Henson affair and included a reproduction of an art work on its front cover featuring a nude six-year-old girl.

Oft-exhibited in the past to critical acclaim in Australia, New York and Montreal, published on a greeting card by Citigroup Private Bank, sold at Christie's, and reproduced in Murdoch's Australian, the picture this time sparked a reprise of whipped-up outrage by the frustrated tabloids and renewed political posturing by the same parliamentary blowhards.

Police were called in by Iemma but they wisely took no action this time, given the Classification Board had cleared the magazine cover for unrestricted sale.

Marr rightly concludes that the clearing of Henson against a "tabloid-driven witch-hunt" was a victory for art and free expression. The issue of nudity in art, he says, is a question of, at most, taste and not one of "public safety" as the "child protection" crusaders mistakenly or cynically posed it.

Naked youths have a long tradition in art as they unfortunately also do in porn. As Marr demonstrates, only a prude or a right-wing "morals" crusader could see Henson's photos (the most contentious of which are included in Marr's book) as paedophilic porn rather than art.

Marr has often exposed the baleful effects on Australia's social fabric of the political and social right and his investigation of the Henson affair finds the same cast of conservatives at the heart of the Henson frenzy.

Henson's photographs were eventually framed for display but the real frame-up during this sorry episode of vigilante censorship was that of the artist's freedom to explore the human condition.

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