What started with a bang, and soon blew many gales of sound and fury, could only really end in a whimper. The drama of the Henson photos showed Australia was capable of considerable moral outrage, yet didn’t have the energy or inclination or ability to follow through on its convictions.
Bill Henson was never going to be found guilty of making kiddie porn. He’s been making these types of photos for the past 30 years. His photos have been collected by politicians, galleries and parliament buildings, for heaven's sake. Henson couldn’t be found guilty of such a charge, because if he was, the whole culture would have gone down with him.
That was my initial response. The whole thing was a storm in a teacup that could not possibly have gone anywhere. Then when I studied the legal case, that seemed impossible too. How would we make it illegal for people to take naked pictures of children? Could parents become child pornographers merely be taking a happy snap of their kid in the bath? And what would it mean for the culture at large if our attitude to child nudity was to immediately associate it with having sex with children. This is a perverse idea, and completely unworkable.
David Marr I find quite a shrill from time to time. (When Fran Kelly of ABC Breakfast interviewed Marr on the Henson case he was horribly condescending to her. She deserves more respect than this.) When Marr is giving opinion he can become histrionic and over the top. This is in curious contrast to his work as a journalist, which shows a sharp, forensic intelligence.
As you’d expect, this book is pretty – very – sympathetic to Henson. Marr doesn’t try to look at things from the angle of concerned community opinion. If he does skirt close to this, he seems to say the internet has warped perceptions and created a more heightened environment. Too much stuff is available on the net, a lot of it we don't need.
To me this seems the most obvious subject here: the social taboo on candidly portraying a naked girl entering puberty. Why doesn’t Marr explore this? And why doesn’t he take a more nuanced look at community outrage?
This is a story really of two worlds. One, what Marr calls the ‘citadel of art’, involves a cloistered community of artists and supporters. They seem oblivious to the rabble of commoners all around them, outraged at their behaviour.
Most bizarrely, in interviews with Henson in the book, the photographer says he never, ever took any notice of similar art controversies, involving the photographing of young people, that had happened overseas. How can you be involved in this type of work and pointedly never consider the impact your work could have on the community at large? This is wilful ignorance, coming from someone who is supposed to have deep aesthetic, moral, and intellectual sensibilities. It makes you wonder.
This is the real problem. Henson deals in a photographic language that the suburban hoi-polloi don’t at all understand, brought up as they are on an aesthetic of American cinema and Australian soapies.
For my money, Henson’s art is not that successful. The twilight time between youth and adulthood that he is trying to capture doesn’t work for me. His images are self-indulgent and obvious. He’s not a pornographer, but nor is he a particularly good artist. Why do people go into raptures over his work?
Despite all I’ve written above, Marr’s book The Henson Case is a valuable contribution to the controversy of the Henson photos. It goes into much detail of what actually happened, describing political and judicial responses, plus contains interview material with Henson himself.
Yet this book will not build a bridge to ‘the citadel of art’, and most of the country’s simple commoners, lacking that artistic world’s sophistication, will remain locked out.
Maybe they are crude minded peasants, or perhaps they are simply responding to a deep seated cultural taboo. That question I leave up in the air.