November 2008

Arts & Letters

Unsettled

By Sebastian Smee
David Marr’s ‘The Henson Case’

David Marr's book on the Bill Henson controversy (Text Publishing, 149pp; $24.95) begins with a reasonable man reasonably wondering if an image of a naked young girl used on an invitation to an exhibition opening is not "a bit off". The man is the Sydney Morning Herald's arts editor, Richard Jinman, and his query is the catalyst for an extraordinary chain of events: a police raid on the country's pre-eminent commercial gallery, the shutting down of an exhibition, expressions of revulsion and outrage by state and federal politicians from the prime minister down, the pulping of an art magazine, and sombre police visits to state and national galleries.

The Henson Case, which appeared only a few months later, was obviously written at top speed. And yet nothing about it indicates undue haste: on the contrary, it is a feat of fluent narration, thorough research and intelligent commentary. As a piece of sustained reportage, it's also fiendishly gripping. All this is worth emphasising, since the book's reception has been clouded - and the whole controversy reignited - by Marr's revelation that last year Henson scouted for models in a state primary school, in the company (and with the approval) of that school's principal. The revelation feels incidental in the context of the book, but it became an explosive issue after it was included in excerpts published in Fairfax's Good Weekend magazine.

Marr has subsequently been accused of obliviousness and insensitivity to people's concern over the school visit. But his inclusion of the story is in keeping with the rest of the book, which - in Marr's words - is interested primarily in "what actually happened". His tone throughout is cool, observant and factual, as well as respectful of people's fears and confusions. But what is his position on the matter? He told ABC Radio that he is interested in panics. In the book, he writes:

... after long and shameful neglect of the issue, concern for the fate of children at the hands of paedophiles is being exploited to achieve old, familiar ambitions that never go away. Paedophiles - dangerous and hard to pick - have been recruited to achieve censorship's same old ends: a more controlled and modest society.

Marr does not sneer at those who are made uneasy by Henson's imagery (nor, for that matter, does Henson). But his disdain for demagoguery in the media, particularly talkback radio, is clear. "Among the many causes of the tabloid media's deep resentment of the art world," he states, "is the success artists have had carving out a territory where nakedness can be celebrated in public."

Perhaps most importantly, Marr emphasises that a decision not to ban something is not the same as endorsing it. Artistic and other freedoms depend on this distinction. "When we [in Australia] disapprove of something we want governments to leap into action," he writes. "Many who deeply disliked the Henson pictures weren't content to express their disapproval and leave it at that. They wanted something done about them."

But opinions like these are few and far between. Before we even get to them we have read about the unfolding controversy in eye-popping detail, from every angle. The few days around the planned opening of Henson's show are especially dramatic. We are taken into the news conference at Marr's paper, the Sydney Morning Herald, where someone suggests that the columnist Miranda Devine should have the exhibition invitation brought to her attention. She is working, as it happens, on a column about the sexualisation of young children (her seventh in a year). All this is happening on the same day that the state Labor government's former minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Milton Orkopoulos, is being sentenced to a minimum of nine years' jail on drug and child-sex charges.

The speed with which everything takes place is astounding. We see how Devine's column, along with easy access to Henson's images on the web, mobilises talkback-radio hosts and then the police. We read about Premier Morris Iemma, in China at the time, receiving Henson's images on his BlackBerry, and formulating his condemnatory response, which in turn encourages the police to take action.

Ironies, some splendid, some bitter, lurk everywhere. We hear about police arriving at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and telling a guard, "We're investigating whether you have any nude underage artworks." The guard's helpful reply: "I've only just started here, but it is an art gallery so there have to be some nudes."

We find ourselves at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, as increasing numbers of callers leave ugly messages, including threats to burn down the building. At one point, Henson, concerned about the media scrum gathering outside, suggests calling the police. Only five or ten minutes later, they arrive with a mission very different to the one he had in mind. The exhibition is shut down and a number of works taken away. It's not long before the television reporter Robert Ovadia is telling his audience, straight to camera: "Late today the gallery was able to guarantee no paedophiles will attend the exhibition. That's because Roslyn Oxley cancelled it."

It's grim theatre, and it gets grimmer over the next days and weeks. But what got it going? Only three years earlier, Henson had been given the rare distinction of a full-blown retrospective at Australia's two leading state galleries. That show, and the accompanying catalogue, included images that many thought far more confronting than the image that appeared on the invitation to the Roslyn Oxley9 exhibition. That said, the "Henson invitation has few friends," Marr writes on page four. "Even those who admired Henson's naked junkies in the 1980s, and didn't flinch from his gawky adolescents in the 1990s partying by night in piles of wrecked cars, were unnerved by the beautiful image of that twelve-year-old child."

Why? Complaints may not have been made, Marr proposes, had the image of the naked girl not appeared on an invitation mailed out to thousands of people. "Its deliberately commercial purpose was unsettling." The girl's budding breasts also created unease. In our culture, Marr writes, budding breasts are "rarely seen and almost never celebrated". They are "extraordinarily private". The point is well taken, and no doubt true. But what seemed most striking about the whole affair is that neither Henson nor the model, nor many of us who have known and admired Henson's work for years, anticipated this furore.

Does the surprise we felt as it was happening, and the disappointment we feel in its wake, suggest naivety? I suppose it might. But Marr's comment about the "extraordinarily private" nature of budding breasts applies also, strange to say, to the nature of making art - and to the experience of succumbing to its spell. There are thousands of people around Australia, and elsewhere in the world, who have been moved by Henson's photographs, who have felt it stir something inside them, something usually hidden, something fragile and, to some extent, unexamined. An unusually large proportion of these people, as it happens, are teenagers or young adults.

Are they so moved by Henson's work because it appeals to their prurient, perverted side? I doubt it. Equally, however, Henson's work is not there solely to remind us that the teenage body is beautiful, innocent and good. His work is more ambitious and unsettling than that. It speaks to a part of the soul that is permanently on the threshold, vulnerable to collapse, hungry for ecstatic release, thwarted, confused, tender, longing. Inevitably, eroticism plays a role in this. So does an apprehension of death, and of the unearthly, haunted silence of each moment as it recedes into the roar of history.

How do emotions like these find a place within a moral framework laid down by "reasonable people" (in Miranda Devine's words) or, worse, unctuously paternalistic politicians? It is hard to see how they could. Henson's work has the potential to make us uncomfortable, the more so because our society - for reasons that stem from protective impulses and an awareness of very real abuses - has complicated feelings about the sexuality of teenagers. But art, at its best, often makes us feel uncomfortable. Many of us long for that discomfort, because we feel it opens onto truth.

It seems almost too obvious to point out, but second-guessing the responses of talkback-radio hosts, and even "reasonable people", is inimical to making art that is concerned with reflecting the truth of our lives. This is not to suggest that artists do not have social responsibilities. They do, and the evidence indicates that Henson knows it. He has had wholehearted support from those who have worked with him; he is known to be fastidious in observing protocols, and to be sensitive and supportive to those who model for him. But, by the same token, "reasonable people" - and especially politicians and commentators - have a responsibility to show sensitivity to the conditions in which art is made and received. Most of the time, I can't help feeling, the best way to express such sensitivity is to back off.

As I read Marr's superb and penetrating book, I looked back over an interview I conducted with Henson several years ago. I had asked him why he lives in Melbourne and why he works with teenagers. His answers, in light of what has happened, seem incredibly poignant:

The city, along with the climate and changing light patterns, fascinates me - even moves me - ever more powerfully as I get older. There is so much beauty in all of the B-grade anxiety about being ‘important' or ‘international' or whatever here (so much rubbish, of course) and this insecurity lends the physical landscape a tenuousness because things are constantly being torn down or destroyed in the desperate drive for ‘improvement' ... Because ‘Australian' culture is so thin - rather like the continent's top soil - lacking the depth and sophistication that can only accumulate over time, it is extremely prone to distortions and the perversions of fashion and expediency. This, I think, makes for a tremendously vulnerable society and this has great beauty and sadness for me ...

Perhaps it is just this adolescent society which - for some of the reasons outlined above - makes working with young people seem so logical to me. So much potential for things to go right or wrong - such exponential growth in body and mind, and such beauty in the uncertainty of their floating world. As for other people's reactions to the pictures; I have no interest in them whilst actually working - I don't consciously anticipate the audience. However, no one's an island and so once the pictures are in the public domain of course I think about the impact they have, because I hear about it so much.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is the art critic for The Washington Post and winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author of The Art of Rivalry, and a forthcoming book on Berthe Morisot and Édouard Manet.

@SebastianSmee

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