16 June 2008

Germain Greer on The Henson Flap

"Got to hurry on back to my hotel room,
Where I've got me a date with Botticelli's niece.
She promised that she'd be right there with me,
When I paint my masterpiece."

~ Bob Dylan

In The Guardian today is this typically smart essay by Germaine Greer on the recent (apparently ongoing) controversy surrounding the censorship of an exhibition by Australian photographer Bill Henson. (The Gallery page is here.) Apparently,Australian PM Kevin Rudd has pronounced the Henson photos "absolutely revolting." While I am underwhelmed by the photos by Henson that created this uproar (and said so here long ago), Rudd surely is simply playing to the outraged crowd. Greer nicely compares the Henson photos not simply to various well-circulated media and fashion images but to a painting by Botticelli that apparently has been festooned across the London Metro. Referring to Rudd, she concludes, "the man who rejects them [Henson's photos] with exaggerated horror is appalled not by the works themselves but by his own response to them. Innocence is not an option." That is why the Dylan lyric seems appropriate. And, of course, an exhibition of his paintings is making the rounds at the moment here in the U.K. too.

Untitled © Bill Henson

Of course, all this brings to mind the similar flap in London, just a few months ago regarding the advert for a Cranach exhibition that was censored too. Here are Greer's comments on that flap too.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well Henson's photo is good for a spell in prison in London.

It has been classified as child pornography by the authorities and well the painting hasn't.

If Londoners have to be puzzled by child pornography is family viewing (PG/G) in Oz,

then Australians will have to forgive them for not banning paintings, it is a local quirk, also they don't generally electronic media with Caravaggio,

Bill Henson is being referred to the UN by an expert group, ( child pornography) and I don't think that happens too often.

None of this should be a mystery, I note that the foreign galleries listed in Alison Croggon's letter have banned Henson's kiddie stuff, so there are (ironic) differences in the way Henson is seen.

In the USA, Eorope and the UK, he is not a new-media Caravaggio, the yanks and yurpers are many things, but completely insane isn't one of them.

Henson is a photog from Oz who is good at networking. He doesn't measure up the further you travel from his libertarian homies.

Even the Trot pedos were angling to help him out, not to mention the porn and prostitution people. That kind of thing is Henson's cachet.

20 June, 2008 11:51  
Blogger stuart said...

Fortunately the brouhaha, ended up being a storm in a tea cup. No charges were pressed. The thing though that saddens me is now, Henson, a master of light and materials will now be more known for his imagery of scantily clad people of indeterminate age, than his fascinating prints of all sizes and subject matter, the paris opera series anyone?

The prints themselves have always been a sight to behold visually they are too easy to misconstrue on mediums like TV the internet and small mailed invitations can not. I suspect anonymous above has never seen the Paris Opera series, pity as they are confronting & beautiful, and yet mere portraits.

28 June, 2008 18:37  
Blogger Dan Cass said...

I was disappointed how the art world portrayed the debate as an all or nothing thing, like the war on terror.

We had to either support Henson, as progressive minded folk, or be called philistines or worse.

My favorite comment in print wasn't Greer's piece but Guy Rundle's ::

And I have a misgiving that art 'needs' to use anyone bodily to do its work.

I'm no artist and maybe I'm naive, but I thought one of the things about art is that its makes new from old, it stretches the meaning of things....which I have tried to explain:: http://greenfunkdan.blogspot.com/

28 June, 2008 22:28  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

D & S ~ Thanks for the comments. I admit that I am ambivalent about the Henson nudes. I think it hypocritical to condemn them given the prevalence of exploitative, commercialized pics of teenagers in various states of undress and provocation. I also like some of his other work much more.

29 June, 2008 23:15  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let me put it to you this way, Jim: would you, as the loving and caring father you obviously seem to be, allow your boys to be photographed naked by Henson, and then displayed on galleries in massive prints, which are then sold to god knows who? I strongly doubt you would, so don't be a hypocrite. These images, as nicely lit as they are, are nothing but pedophile garbage.

01 July, 2008 16:03  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


There are LOTS of things I would not let happen to my children. But there are lots pf people who would disagree with where I draw the line. I think it is exploitative to push your kids to say, play hockey, at five in the morning (ice time is scarce, after all) in part because you are living your own athletic fantasies out through your kids. And, shifting to other sorts of performance, there are parents who push there kids to pose in all sorts of undress and perform in all sorts of idiotic roles in ways that are exploitative. (They are abetted by all sorts of other selfish adults.) I have said so on this blog. See this post:


Does that make me hypocritical? Hardly. Just because I think the adults in cases like those I've just mentioned are exploiting kids for economic gain or psychic gratification does not mean I can tell them what to do. I hardly think they should be locked up. And I also hardly think that the magazines should be removed from the shelves or the inane TV shows banned.

Nor does anything I say here - or the fact that I would not let my kid pose nude for any photographers/painters/sculptors - mean that every depiction of nudity is pedophilia or contributes to it. That, frankly, is an idiotic leap. It leads to prosecuting grandmothers who take snapshots of their kids in the bathtub.

Nor, before you complain some more, does anything I have said here imply that I cannot criticize Henson or other artists for producing art that I think is exploitative or simply 'bad'. I just don't think my criticism should provide grounds for locking them up. That is where you and I differ.

01 July, 2008 16:42  

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