The controversy surrounding the Bill Henson photographs coincided almost precisely with when this blog was offline. There has been extensive and often very interesting debate on a range of blogs, which I found more stimulating than most of what occurred in the mainstream media, which seemed to mostly reflect the extremes of the debate without much acknowledgement or engagement with the complexities of the issues raised. I had a piece published in Crikey on the matter at the end of May, which I had to shorten more than I would have liked. The debate has moved on now, and I’d change some of the emphasis of what I wrote then, but for the sake of posterity (and so I can find it easily if I want to look at it in the future), I’m posting here the full version of the shorter piece I submitted to Crikey.
May 29th, 2008:
The furore surrounding Bill Henson’s photographs provides a valuable opportunity for public debate on some complex but very important issues. That opportunity will be wasted if the debate just becomes another rendition of the age-old and moribund ‘art versus pornography’ discussion.
Apart from anything else, this isn’t a black and white issue. Turning it into one will ensure people focus all their energy and attention on putting the case for their ‘side’, preventing us from identifying the many areas where there is common ground and the ways we as a society can more effectively achieve the things we all support.
This issue involves competing principles. Principles rarely apply absolutely without eventually coming into conflict with other principles. In such circumstances, we often have to decide how to adequately accommodate both. Sometimes one principle or the other has to take priority.
In this case, the principle of freedom of expression (artistic or otherwise) is coming into conflict with the principle of the protection of children. I believe freedom of expression is enormously important, but if there is a clear risk of harming children as a consequence, then the protection of children should take priority.
I think most of society would agree with this. The widely supported prohibition on child pornography shows that we already recognise that freedom of speech is not absolute. While I don’t think that Bill Henson’s photos qualify at all as child pornography in their original context, art doesn’t exist in isolation from wider social contexts.
But there is plenty of middle ground that exists beneath the current sound and fury, and that is where we should focus.
Art does not exist outside our laws or fundamental community standards, especially once it moves into the public and commercial realm. Indeed, much art specifically seeks to connect with people, not sit above them in some sort of ethereal space beyond the ken of the average person.
Art can be about pushing boundaries, as can politics, commerce and many other things. When boundaries are pushed, it often creates a backlash from those who believe the boundaries are being not just pushed, but crossed – or even destroyed. There is nothing surprising, or even wrong, with controversy erupting. If we can somehow make the ensuing debate constructive and intellectually honest, it can be immensely valuable.
But when dealing with sensitive topics, some sensitivity is needed. Context is very important. A photo hanging in an art gallery context is very different from a photo taken out of that context and spread around the internet, just as a photo of a child swimming is very different in a family album compared to one on an internet page targeted at paedophiles. It can be the same photo, but in one context can be a treasured family memory, and in another at best a gross invasion of privacy.
I believe the gallery made a mistake in putting all of these images online, and even in putting one of the more explicit shots on its publicity material. Of course, far more people have now seen the more explicit of these images courtesy of a multitude of other websites, including many mainstream media outlets who simultaneously decry the exploitation of a child while continuing to publish her picture.
I will leave the lawyers to argue whether or not a breach of the law has occurred, but I do believe the public interest would not be served by any charges being laid. Surely if Henson or the gallery are to be charged, every media outlet which has published the images must also be charged.
In my view, court cases would divert our attention away from where it needs to be focused, and allow us to continue to kid ourselves that somehow the sexual exploitation and abuse of children is the fault of a few bad people, rather than a problem which is deeply entrenched in our society. The majority of people who sexually or physically assault children are not grubby perverts pawing sweatily through children’s underwear catalogues. They are the family, relatives or other adults known to the child who have some power or authority over them.
The heart of concerns about early and excessive sexualisation of children has not focused on pornography per se – whether of children or adults – but rather on the growing frequency to portray young children as sexualised or to expose young children to sexual imagery and concepts. There are also legitimate concerns about sending messages to adults that children can be considered as sexually available, although the aspect of the debate that is being given most consideration is the psychological and developmental impacts on the children, whether as participants in modelling or as media consumers.
The issue of child pornography, while related, is not at the heart of this, in part because no one in the community supports child pornography. An obsession with issues like nudity or over-idealising the innocence of youth leads to distorted attitudes. Young teenagers do explore their developing sexuality and we do not serve them or society well by trying to pretend otherwise. But they should be able to do so privately and ideally alongside family or friends, not have distorted versions of it force fed to them through mass media or left exposed in situations where they are vulnerable to adult exploitation.
Changes to regulation and laws may or may not be part of the answer, but in my view unless there is stronger community acceptance of the basic right of children to grow into adulthood in a safe and nurturing environment, no laws will work. We must focus our efforts on making that environment safer both at the local family level, and at societal level, which is why mass media portrayal of children and the targeting of overly sexual imagery and concepts at children are the fundamental issues. If we all accept that basic right for our children, then the debate can be about how best to ensure that happens and what sorts of behaviour and activities are unacceptable on the grounds that they compromise that right.