I left my position on the Henson pics dangling in my last post, concluding with a serve at the nanny state for confiscating the offending items and locking them away in a high cupboard where the kiddies couldn’t get at them.
Subsequently, a commenter provided a link to some of the pics of Bill Henson’s that are at the centre of all the fuss (thanks, Lyn). So, nanny state subverted by the lawless Web (bleearrgh!), here’s what all the fuss is about:
(click to enlarge)
No doubt these pics are all over the Net by now, but if I have contravened any copyright laws in posting them here, on being credibly and meaningfully appraised of that fact I will, of course, take them down immediately.
Acknowledgement is due to the site from which I copied the pictures – http://www.sauer-thompson.com/junkforcode/ – which is well worth perusing in its own right. Excellent stuff.
OK. So, now that I’ve sighted the pictures, one issue is categorically resolved as far as I’m concerned – they are not pornographic.
Pornography is blatantly (and mostly crudely) erotic in intent, its form characterised by anatomical close-ups focusing on genitalia and nipples, graphic depiction of sexual engagement, its agenda clearly to titillate the viewing audience. None of that applies to Henson’s work. Thankfully, authorities in high places agree: the cops have received legal advice to drop the public indecency charges that were pending against Henson. So, sense has prevailed.
But while the pics are clearly not pornographic, that is not to say there are no sexual aspects to them.
Examine the arguments of the pro-Henson camp and you’ll encounter multiple declarations by arts spokespersons, media commentators and bloggers that the confiscated pictures and similar stuff from Henson could not possibly be seen as ‘sexualised’ and that only a depraved pervert could conceive of them being arousing.
To which I say, bullshit. Those who argue thus are either in denial, resorting to untruths in the cause of advancing their cases, or in dire need of a reality check. Henson’s subject is a pretty nymphette in a state of undress, ferchissake – whatever the artist’s intention, sexual buttons are going to be pushed in many viewers!
I have no personal access to the female viewpoint, but here’s the honest (albeit perhaps unpalatable) hetero male truth: virtually any photographic image of a naked female from pubescence onwards is liable to register a sexual response – though not necessarily progressing to physical arousal. And I reiterate, I’m talking plain vanilla hetero male – not pedophile or mutant sicko perve monster from the black lagoon.
If it helps, blame biology, which does not share our legal or moral definition of “illicit” and cares not at all if breasts or bums or loins or expanses of bared flesh belong to an “underage” model….or even a bona fide human one, for that matter (Second Life shenanigans and hentai anime spring to mind).
Accept that Henson’s pictures of this girl in early pubescence, however “artistic”, are likely to register in many viewers at least a recognition that the subject is a sexual being, albeit in an early stage of maturation, and the question arises – is this a matter for State censorship?
Why should it be? A natural response has been elicited in some viewers, privately and harmlessly. Thoughts and fantasies are not punishable under law. No crime has been committed. The girl in the photo has not been violated.
Sure, many of us will experience discomfort and confusion as we sort through our responses to Henson’s pics. But is it the business of the State to protect us from these sorts of opportunities for reflection on ourselves and our culture?
Isn’t one of the time-honoured traditions of art to challenge social and cultural mores, to confront us with ourselves and our taboos, to jolt us out of our complacencies, to spotlight the discrepancies and paradoxes that lurk in society’s shadows and give lie to our fond and oh-so-carefully-constructed self-image? Art is necessarily subversive. Take that power away, and we risk self-delusion as a society. And we all know where that can lead!
That said, there will always be – and should be! – an uncomfortable relationship between art and authority, and a line must be drawn somewhere. Are we feeding the lust of the pedophile in allowing pictures of naked adolescents like these to be displayed in public?
It’s a non-issue as far as I’m concerned whether pedophiles would or could find the pictures arousing, since their response buttons are wired differently from the rest of humanity. If we banned images that might set off foul fantasies in tot fondlers we’d remove every painting of a cherub from the galleries of the world, which would virtually wipe out most of the works of the great masters. Shit, we’d have to cover up the Sistine Chapel!
So, viewing the pictures has clarified most of the Henson issues for me, but I’m still bothered by a couple of core questions:
1. Are adolescents capable of making a fully responsible decision to pose naked for photographic artists, given that their images will be displayed publicly, both in hard copy form at exhibitions and on the Net.
2. If not, who is responsible?
I have concluded that the answer to the first question is no. Legally, the age of consent is 16, and the responsibilities that come with other adult rights such as holding a driving license, consuming alcohol and voting are not conferred upon teenagers legally until 17 and 18 years of age. There is no consistency, then, in the argument that young adolescents are capable of exercising informed choice on matters with possible personal consequences that may endure for many years (as is the case with naked images of themselves unleashed on the Web).
As for 2, surely the buck stops with the parents?
I’m clear on this: if I had a pubescent daughter, I can’t imagine consenting to her posing nude for a photographic shoot, however esteemed the artist conducting it. And that’s as simple as that.
Which, I suppose, leaves me in much the same position as a carnivore who reels back aghast when confronted with the horrific realities of the slaughterhouse, yet happily continues to purchase cuts of meat from the supermarket, neatly and hygienically packaged to distance the product from the process that delivered it to the shelves.