Friday 9 January 2009

On The Henson Case

The high farce of last year's stand-off between millionaire aesthetes and provincial philistines, as internationally acclaimed photographer Bill Henson had an exhibition raided by police at the start of a media storm about child pornography and art, ought to have made a delicious and thought provoking read. However, David Marr's book, 'The Henson Case' proves to be simply another round in this intractable bout of snobbery and incomprehension rather than the analysis of the issues raised that we need.

The carefully contrived apoplexy of talkback, tabloids and Today is indeed vile, but we would be wrong to assume that when an issue is taken up by populist demagogues it is immediately invalidated.  The essential problem here is the simple denial in the art world that anyone could actually care about nude photographs of underage children sold in galleries.  At no point in the book does Marr acknowledge that the whole affair is fuelled by anything more than the philistinism and prejudice of the masses indeed dismissing their concerns as "a mishmash of anxieties".

There are issues to be answered.  One can legitimately debate, without being a prude (although this as a tough one since Marr states saying "I'm not a prude" is the surest sign you are),  whether photographing nude children, and presenting that as art, normalises their bodies as objects of desire and whether that is healthy in a society that does have concerns over their sexual exploitation.  The 'porn versus art' polarisation precludes this debate, neither side is willing to have it and it is entirely false for either to suggest they do.

Modern art, and its economies, feeds on the oxygen of transgression.  Ever since the Salon Des Refus├ęs artists, critics and gallery owners alike have taken the breaking of norms, first of aesthetics and then social or moral, to be a mark of both progress and quality.  To be 'dangerous' or 'challenging' is wholly desirable.  This the art world claiming no offence could or should be taken is disingenuous in the extreme.  We ought to ask ourslves if Henson's work would be so valuable or lauded if it did only feature clothed children.

This is where Marr's, and the anti-censorship lobby's, arguments become disingenuous and implicitly deny opposing parties the possibility of any nuanced or subtle objections.  At this point the defence, such as I understand it, descends into farce.  Let us call it the 'Wank Fallacy'.  In short this runs something like:  

  • Does something banal, let's say a shoe, become pornographic if someone masturbates over it?  Clearly not.  Thus ANYTHING that anyone masturbates over is by definition not pornography.
I struggled with that one as well.  Other claims remain wilfully unexamined, the idea that what was good enough for the art of earlier centuries should be good enough for us conveniently ignores that these took place in societies where child labour and pre-pubescent marriage were common, and we probably don't want to resurrect those particular artifacts.  Similarly the argument of the kids willing participation certainly does demonstrate the complexity of the issues, but it also runs uncomfortably close to the 'but she wanted it' defence.

Comedy enters the narrative with Cate Blanchett, make that "Politically committed and beautiful Blanchett".  Seemingly unaware that  most of the nation were guffawing at the preposterous 2020 summit we learn that the group of creative people involved were an organised force.  Cate Blanchett tells us that "2020 had asserted that artists were citizens' said Blanchett' that they had a place at the centre of national life'".  This betrays the sense of entitlement that is so irksome, the arts have become marginalised because of their choice or inability to be relevant.  Marr's chief contempt is reserved for Kevin Rudd, and it's informative to see why, "This was the new scholar Prime minister, the Mandarin man, the leader who had lately consorted with Cate Blanchett at the 202o summit.  But with these remarks on 'Today' Rudd killed Camelot" in short Kevin Rudd has proven himself to be a class traitor.

Class is THE great unspoken theme of the book, the effrontery of  the uneducated, of those who had never registered Henson's existence in the past, the prudery of the religious, how dare any of them pass judgement on what the consensus of a group of rich sophisticates deems to be serious.  Bob Debus offers a rare glimpse of sanity here, pointing out that as a politician he does actually have to respond to the views of vast majority of his constituents.  This is heresy to Marr, elites should stick together and just as they demand the approbation of the masses they deny them the dignity of a voice.

Not even when we hear of QCs, heiresses, publishers and national broadcasters at the Henson opening do we get a hint that this is a very exclusive club, dealing in very expensive commodities.  The operational realities of the art world are only ever dealt with to demonstrate how the moving, storage and appreciation of art are Byzantine rites conferring a priestlike status on their participants.  Never are the commercial realities spoken of, price tags, commissions, super-funds or auction prices don't belong in this world.  With Hensons trading for upward of $20,000 dollars a piece it's hard to imagine a more bizarre omission but people are 'supporters', never customers or investors.  Given the importance of notoriety you would imagine that the whole affair would be money in the bank for his brave supporters. 

And me?  Well I like censorship as little as I like the snobbery and hypocrisy of elites, I find Henson's images beautiful and cliched, a kind of portentous kitsch that is anything but challenging or insightful.  Henson and cohorts are presented as Candides, blithely unaware that they may ever cause offence, which given their experience, exposure to the trajectory of art debate in the last forty years and their very worldly success is difficult to believe.  But this lies at the crux of the issue.  When novelty and transgression are your measure of artistic worth one ought to be willing to expect a heightened and aggressive response from those who hold the norms you seek to break.  To expect otherwise is essentially juvenile, and has its echo in derivative driven financial institutions who want all of the rewards of risk but for the rest of society to pay for its downside.

The Henson affair, or something very like it will happen again.  If the art world desires both a privileged place in the government and shaping of society whist it continues to proclaim 'art pour l'art' and feed on the economics of shock that much is inevitable.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that moral panic cannot be dismissed as mere philistinism. The controversy over the Life Of Brian seems ludicrous now, but at the time it was reasonable to start a debate about whether the satirisation of religion or objects of veneration is acceptable. I guess in Western societies we have decided that it is acceptable, and that's why it comes as some surprise when other cultures (eg the Danish cartoons) say its not. Similarly, you cannot belittle people for not reading Lolita if they find the prospect of a story about "grooming", in the modern idiom, unappealing; not all will grasp the metaphor.

    Although I am not an advocate of censorship of any kind, and although I don't know the details of the affair, I find myself sympathising with the Philistines on this one. There is nothing in the work that you linked to that I find offensive - or indeed erotic, or challenging or even particularly interesting - but the cause of stemming the advancing tide of normalisation of the sexualisation of children is one worth fighting. These images are not offensive - but placed in the context of advertising for a fashion brand, not such a big step I think we'd all admit, and they would be. So I can understand people fearing that if its OK to sexualise these children (and I think that interpretation can be placed on the work) then its OK to sexualise their children. Maybe this isn't the right place to draw the line, but its not wrong to want a line to be drawn

    On a wider point, I wonder why it is always nudity or sex that stirs up public indignation, rather than violence. Personally I find depictions of any number of people / beings engaged in any imaginable acts of intimacy far less offensive than the constant depiction in mainstream cinema of violence as the best, most effective, and perhaps only sensible, response to problems. Even in "artistic" cinema its hard to see how much further this can go. I recently saw a French film, MR73, made with an eye to the arthouse rather than the multiplex, but none the less containing the most relentless, graphic, wearying and dulling violence I have ever seen. Gratuitous? Probably not. Shocking? Sadly not. Oh, and I should mention I saw this on a plane, for anyone to view.

    With violence, everything is normalised and there is little further capacity to shock; I find it hard to see this as a good thing. With the sexualisation of children, we still have the capacity to be shocked and thank goodness for it