Art Inquiry Ponders a Suggestive Nude of a Girl by Bill Henson

May 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

Bill Henson is an Australian photographer who nearly got charged with child pornography in the wake of a nude art exhibit in 2008 that got some journalists [note 1] and child advocates riled up. I personally didn’t understand what all the fuss was about because the photos in that exhibit showed a 12-year-old girl just standing topless or nude and nothing sexual was shown or implied. The matter got resolved when the Office of Film and Literature Classification classified the main (topless) photo at issue with the rating PG, making the photo officially legal. Five other photos got rated G. None were given the dreaded RC rating, which stands for “Refused Classification” and would be the kiss of death for any artist seeking to distribute or sell his work.

Later that year, on September 25th, another side of Henson came to the fore when a quite different style of photo starring a different girl of roughly the same age appeared as Lot 214 in the auction “Fitzroy – 0043″ held by Lawson-Menzies at Menzies Art Brands Gallery in Kensington, New South Wales. The photo, taken from Henson’s “Untitled 1985/86″ series, had been exhibited and published two decades earlier, before Henson became so controversial. Australian police didn’t take action against the photo at any time. At the Menzies auction it sold for 3,800 Australian dollars.

In July 2010, the auctioned photo was criticized for “sexualizing” the girl in a blog written by Melinda Tankard Reist [note 2]

Reist also quoted an article by Abigail Bray that she had included as a chapter in a book she edited:

“…the black and white ‘Untitled 1985/86’ …peers down on a naked child on the crumpled sheets of a bed, her knees bent, her legs wide open, her face turned away from the camera, her lips parted, her expression blank. She is wearing childish bangles on both arms and an ankle ‘slave’ bangle. Her hair is in a ponytail. Her vagina and budding breasts are highlighted by Henson’s trademark manipulation of shadow. The girl is anonymous. However, to see the ugly sexual political context of Henson’s photographs is to be dismissed a hysteric, prude or worse.” [note 3]

I saw the photo at the auction’s official website and can confirm that Bray’s description is accurate except we don’t really see the girl’s vagina (an internal organ), instead we see her pubic hair and only a hint of her vaginal opening.

Reist cited the photo at an Australian Senate inquiry on classifying art that was held on April 27, 2011. Reist partly quoted and paraphrased Bray’s words when she asked the Senate’s legal affairs committee:

“Why is a pornographic image of a young girl okay just because you slap the word ‘art’ on it? The camera peers down on a naked child on the crumpled sheets of a bed. Her face is turned away from the camera. Her hair is in a ponytail, her vagina and breasts are highlighted by trademark manipulation. If this image was shown in any other place it would be considered illegal and somebody could probably be charged.” [note 4]

Reist also made it clear that she doesn’t approve of this sort of photo and would like the classification board to act against it.

Tamara Winikoff, director of the National Association for the Visual Arts, disagreed, attacking what she described as “child protection zealots” and noting “Images of children, clothed or unclothed, are disappearing from the public domain. This form of censorship is a scapegoating of artists.” [note 4]

Like most photographers of models, Henson shoots multiple images during each photo session. So it comes as no surprise that the girl was photographed full-frontally nude and spread-eagle on the bed in at least two more images made that day. The National Gallery of Victoria, a government-run public art gallery and museum located in Melbourne, received two of them from Henson in 2007. I saw them on the official website of the gallery. There may be even more like them that haven’t been released yet.

In NGV News on May 28, 2008, the gallery explained why they accepted the acquisition of Henson’s works: “The human body at all ages and in all its forms has been explored widely by generations of artists – indeed it is the core of humanism in culture.” [note 5] This was certainly true of sculptures and paintings in the ancient Greek and Roman cultures, both of which, incidentally, especially glorified young bodies. This was much less the case during the Christian Middle Ages in Europe (prior to the Renaissance) when nudity rarely appeared in art and non-religious paintings were rare altogether. Reist is a Christian and most modern Christian leaders still oppose nude displays.

These erotic photos are reminiscent of the more graphic nudes in David Hamilton’s portfolio of adolescent girls.

So, what should we think about a 12-year-old pubescent girl appearing naked in poses like a model in an erotic magazine? Was she old enough to give informed consent? I say ask the model what she thinks, if she’s still alive. It’s her opinion that matters the most. Some of Henson’s other models who also posed before they were 18 have defended his work and I have to assume this model never objected to being portrayed in this graphic way over the past two and a half decades.

At the 2010 Melbourne Art Fair, Henson suggested that young girls and boys can give informed consent to model in the nude and “There’s no specific documentation to suggest anywhere, so far as my legal researchers have been able to discover, that shows that life modelling by children for artists results in physical or psychological damage.” [note 6] He contrasted this with the very serious risks that playing sports can bring, such as spinal injuries that can confine a person to a wheelchair for life. “The idea of banning the human body as a subject for art – it is ridiculous.” [note 7]

One could also defend these photos on the basis that the average adolescent girl has a level of awareness that’s higher than that of a prepubescent.

Notes
1. “Moral backlash over sexing up of our children” by Miranda Devine in The Sydney Morning Herald, May 22, 2008, http://www.smh.com.au/news/opinion/moral-backlash-over-sexing-up-of-our-children/2008/05/21/1211182891875.html
2. “Boys and Guns photo exhibition cannot be compared with Henson’s naked girl images” by Melinda Tankard Reist, July 5, 2010, http://melindatankardreist.com/2010/07/boys-and-guns-photo-exhibition-cannot-be-compared-with-henson%e2%80%99s-naked-girl-images/
3. “The Gaze that Dare Not Speak Its Name: Bill Henson and Child Sexual Abuse Moral Panics” by Abigail Bray starting on page 109 in Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls edited by Melinda Tankard Reist, published by Spinifex Press in 2010.
4. “Henson photos likened to child porn” by Stephen Johnson in The Sydney Morning Herald, April 27, 2011, http://news.smh.com.au/breaking-news-national/henson-photos-likened-to-child-porn-20110427-1dvrx.html
5. “Statement from the National Gallery of Victoria: Bill Henson” by National Gallery of Victoria, May 28, 2008, http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/media-app/mediaReleases/105/display
6. “Controversial photographer Henson speaks out” by Megan Levy in The Age, August 3, 2010, http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/controversial-photographer-henson-speaks-out-20100802-113bw.html
7. “Bill Henson defends child models” by Michaela Boland in The Australian, August 3, 2010, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/nation/bill-henson-defends-child-models/story-e6frg6nf-1225900285714

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