Adults Only

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Over the past few years the media has reported various instances where individuals’ computers have been seized, and then these have been found to contain images of child pornography. These individuals have taken their computers in for repair or in some other way exposed the images to reasonable adults who have found the images obscene.

Bill Henson does not create his art work in a vacuum, and his photographs, including those seized, have been viewed by many reasonable adults, including – in the instance of the now seized photographs – the framer, the art removalist, the curator, and the proprietor of the gallery, none of whom contacted the police with concerns that the work is obscene.

Credible art critics have suggested that the photographs that have been seized are not as strong as those that were viewed by thousands of reasonable adults without any complaint in the New South Wales Art Gallery’s most successful ever photographic exhibition: a retrospective of Bill Henson’s work.

On first hearing of the seizure of works from the Paddington exhibition I considered that it was unlikely that any court would agree that Bill Henson’s photographs are obscene. In the light of the further reports of subsequent investigations in other galleries I am no longer so confident.

We face the prospect of one of Australia’s greatest artists being placed on trial with links drawn to one of Australia’s worst crimes: the creation of child pornography.

If Australia were to remove all censorship then as a country we would become known quickly as a place to make child pornography without legal impediment. As a result we would very soon be a centre for the same, along with other forms of pornography that at present have only an underground following in this country – pornography relating to torture and rape, for instance. Child pornography is not an industry any reasonable adult would countenance cultivating here.

Yet the seizure of Bill Henson’s photographs is not concerned directly with the creation of child pornography in Australia. Instead, the concerns raised seem to be about the less concrete sexualisation of children in the media, and now, by extension, the arts.

This public conversation and anxiety has also seen a department store catalogue decried as being child pornography, and the creation of a Senate Inquiry into this perceived sexualisation of children by the media.

The protection of children from harm is an adult imperative. How to do so is never going to be agreed upon by us all. Throw in the need to respect the right of adults to see, hear, or read what they wish and you have the parameters for a debate about censorship.

The contention is that children are being sexualised by the media in a way that is new and that this sexualisation is more widespread than ever before.

As with most such arguments about culture, examples can be found to support this argument but also to challenge such claims.

Thirty years ago Young Talent Time star Sally Boyden had a national hit with her recording of ‘The Littlest Australian’. Opening the double album cover children viewed the pubescent Ms Boyden in a shirt unbuttoned to the waist.

At the time, boob tubes were a popular clothing choice for pre-teens, and the movie Times Square drew a wide audience. This film, about two pubescent runaways, ends in a scene where the pair of girls performs in adult restricted premises.

All of these historical relics may garner ire today. At the time though it is possible that the appeal of these cultural works to so many young girls speaks more of the target audience’s desire to make sense of their own nascent sexuality and emerging identities, and their valid fascination with the same, rather than any sexualisation of the children involved for the benefit of adults.

This is not to suggest that the film Times Square is suitable for a general audience, or that children are not sexualised by Australia’s media and culture. Girls, boys, men, and women to varying degrees are at times sexualised and have been so for all of my conscious life at least.

So why these current cries of concern?

My instinct is to draw a connection with the terrible stories of child abuse we confront at present. The details of the abuse of children in remote communities tallies with what we have learned of Pitcairn Island: that William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a parable redolent with truth concerning marooned adults as well as children. Revelation after revelation makes clear that Australian adults are not only cast away in remote places. There are those in the heart of cities and suburbs so cut off from our communities that they behave savagely, and they behave savagely to children. In addition we are warned repeatedly that the greatest risk to children is from those whom they know. The message is that our neighbours, our relatives, and our friends are capable of hiding from us their capability of harming children.

This darkness is a burden to all of us who can not imagine how anyone could hurt a child, who love children, and who wish to protect all children from harm.

It is no wonder then that carrying such a burden results in anxiety about how children are portrayed on screen and in images and text, and the kind of images children view themselves.

Bill Henson is a casualty of this unease. Australia’s galleries and public spaces include representations of nude children, as sculptures in fountains and churches, with wings as angels, and in paintings as nymphs.

Yet Bill Henson exploring this centuries-old subject matter at this time has been caught up with our contemporary concerns in a way that he could not have foreseen.

Henson’s work explores the boundaries of innocence and experience. Condemning his photographs because of how the works may be viewed by some is hardly fair. Adults wishing to be titillated by children can use the most innocuous material to further their fantasies. It is to be hoped that we aren’t about to see a removal of depictions of nude children to rival the Vatican’s famous castration of sculptures. We would all be the poorer.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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