Wednesday, October 8, 2008

It's not about the children

As we all knew it would, the new Bill Henson 'outrage' is being used as a stick to beat the Luvvies and a flag to wave in the culture wars. And voices of reason like those of Dr Leslie Cannold (hat tip to Mark Lawrence for this link) seem to have been largely lost amid the shouting.

When there is danger to children in the form of sexual damage, almost all of it comes -- as indeed with adult rape -- from people those children already know. Their uncles, their big brothers, their soccer coaches, their daddy's friends. But there are all sorts of reasons, most of them I'm sure subliminal, why everybody wants to leave those stinking waters unstirred. Much easier, as it has always been much easier, to blame the outsider, the stranger: to use him or her as a focus and target onto which to project your own half-conscious, half-understood fear and rage.

The fact that all sorts of commercial enterprises have been routinely using schools for years as a source for models and 'stars' is one that the outraged choose to ignore, as they ignored it when it was first pointed out in Australia a year or two ago that corporate paedophilia had been going on or years. No no, they cried, when photos of pouting, posing prepubescent girls half-dressed in brand-name clothing were pointed out to them, that's not suggestive, you've just got a dirty mind.

*Waits for other shoe to drop*

*Crickets*

This mushroom cloud of self-righteous indignation speaks to parents everywhere in their concern for their children's welfare and safety, but the commentary itself isn't really about threats to children at all.

It's about getting stuck into the cultural left, and particularly about getting stuck into one of the cultural left's best spokespersons and scribes, David Marr (which for them is the equivalent of blowing up the post office or bombing the munitions factory), by banging on about how he's only trying to sell books. Presumably they think that if one has written a book then one should try to keep this fact as quiet as possible. Or perhaps they don't know that it is standard newspaper practice to publish extracts of forthcoming books of interest.

'I reject outright,' Text publisher Michael Heyward is quoted today as having said,
any suggestion that the controversy over Bill Henson's fully supervised and entirely proper school visit was cooked up to boost sales of David Marr's book ...

I approached David Marr to write this book so that readers could have a clear understanding of the issues around the closure of Bill Henson's show in May.

The renewed ill-informed and inflammatory commentary shows how important it is that people have access to clear debate about the real issues so they can work out what they think.

For what it's worth, my guess is that, knowing the right-wing commentators would immediately glomp onto the story of Henson in schools the minute the book did come out and blow it up into a storm of sensationalist, oversimplified misrepresentation and outrage, Marr may be trying to exercise a bit of pre-emptive damage control by getting in as quickly as possible and providing some non-sensationalist analysis and response to predictable fuss, like this article on Monday.

(I know David a bit, not well, but well enough to have an idea of what kind of bloke he is, and I'd just like to point out that one of the most highly respected senior journalists in the country, the man who co-authored Dark Victory and who wrote the best literary biography this country has ever produced, doesn't actually need to tout for book sales, and wouldn't even if he did. Besides, the people who are going to buy the book would have bought it anyway, and the people who weren't still won't.)

There's nothing new about philistines gleefully getting stuck into artists on the grounds that they are really just pornographers and degenerates, as any student of the history of any art in any country knows. But then, it's not the people who understand this conflict who are making the fuss.

Bill Henson makes art about the emotional and sexual turbulence of adolescence. So did Shakespeare, he whom the self-proclaimed enemies of the cultural left insist should be taught more in schools. Do they know what Romeo and Juliet is actually about? (You've got to wonder whether Kevin Rudd's ever read or seen a performance of this play, or, if he has, whether his response was 'This is revolting, you should just let kids be kids.')

Henson's highly regulated and monitored search in a school for suitable models, a practice we now know to be common, bears no resemblance to the big companies' use in advertising for profit of inappropriately sexualised prepubescent children. It bears no resemblance to the behaviour of, say, former SA magistrate Peter Liddy, who used his work as a surf lifesaving coach (oh the irony) to groom, molest, torment and rape little boys and wreck their lives. It bears no resemblance to what nice Uncles Darren and Hugo do to little Tay-lah and Charlotte whenever they get the chance.

But hey, that's business, sport and the family, innit. Sacred, every one. Not like those arty-farty wankers, who are, as everybody knows, fair game. And besides, look how they vote.

6 comments:

TJ said...

This post perfectly sums up exactly what's going on with this nonsense, Ms Cat. (I feel particularly qualified to comment. I was molested as a child; the man (our Catholic priest) is still in prison.) Depicting and reflecting the anguish of adolescence are exactly the jobs that artists are supposed to be doing. Parents are supposed to be protecting and teaching their children against actual harm, which is usually hiding in plain sight. This furore is only distracting both artists and parents from their proper jobs.

Helen said...

Great post, Pav.

Tangentially related: re your previous post about being a bit burnt out by writing replies to idiots: I think it does have educative value, because unfortunately many of the idiots' ideas are memes which have great traction out in the Talkback and tabloid conversations, and your replies are very lucid and logically constructed.

Anonymous said...

More so the second time around that the first, the mainstream media seems to be assuming that 'everyone' is outraged about Bill Henson, when they are not. There does not appear to be the same indignation closer to the controversy i.e. St Kilda School. Culture in Australia is a tenuous business. The art community needs to be really careful because the consequences of losing this debate are far reaching indeed.

I have spoken to a few photographers who have given up photographing children because of the immediate innuendo. The ones I have spoken to say that it has been like this now for about 5 years. Some fear that all images of children will be considered dangerous in the next 5.

I fear this can only result in fetishizing the image of a child even more. I am almost certain of it. Changing the culture because of a perverted few seems muddle headed to me. Time for more discussion, time for the Australian arts community to not get complacent, time to not drop the ball.

Anonymous said...

bill hensons art is not just about showing a young persons naked body in certain sexual poses. it is about showing the uncertainty and the discomfort that almost every teenager goes through. he depicts characters that every person who remembers their childhood can understand. and lets face it. as much as the general public would like to ignore it, children are sexual beings. the pictures are not meant to be fluffy bunny rabbits hopping about in the sunshine. they are about focusing the observer on one thing. the pure emotion that is occurring in the person. and as Australian kids are maturing more and more early is can not be expected for Henson to be achieving what he is with people over the age of 18. it would be untruthful. Sally Mann, an American photographer, was 'slammed' for the same sort of thing in the early 90s. except she was photographing her own children. this was uncalled for as she would go through all her photographs of her children WITH her children and they would decide together if they would go on exhibition. when one of Sally Mann's photos of her youngest daughter virginia was put in an american magazine with black strips over her 5 or 6 year old "private parts" she asked, 'what is wrong with my body?' she would not even take a bath naked according to Mann. a persons culture does not necessarily protect a person. experiences make us who we are. Bill Henson's models are fully informed about the whole process. As such the government and media cannot expect to judge and take away. the prime minister should be more fully informed about the images before he expresses his opinion.

kris said...

Thank you so much for that! A really great post.

Megan said...

Thankyou for your sensible article, as the issue has once again been commandeered by those who've missed the point entirely.

Marr is also "fair game" because he's rather adept at highlighting hypocrisy (from 'His Masters Voice'):

"After a decade, Australia is desensitised to John Howard. So why doesn't Labor rally the nation to fight Canberra's bullying in the name of free speech? Because the party's heart isn't in it and Australians have only the patchiest record of becoming passionate about great abstractions - even the greatest of them, liberty."