Saturday, November 15, 2008

Ruddy Bastards

Over the last couple of months, people I barely know have felt compelled to tell me what they think of Bill Henson. My bank manager, mechanic, barista, and others, have all ranted at me about him . They mimic Australian Prime Minister, Kevin 'The General' Rudd's view that the work is "revolting". Like Rudd, they haven't actually seen it. They're just caught up by the media witch hunt. The fact that Henson has never been charged with anything, anywhere, becomes irrelevant.
Bill Henson is an established, internationally recognised and critically acclaimed artist. He has represented Australia at the Venice Biennale and has works in major institutions in the USA, Paris, and throughout Australia. The themes he explores – and the pre- and early adolescent nudity in his work – are far from new.
Yes, at times I find his imagery discomforting – but not because of prurience. It reminds me of my own adolescence, when I wanted to wear make-up and fake nails and shave my legs. The idea of a child exploring a changing body and the roles – sexual and otherwise – of the woman or man they are about to grow into, is normal. Hell, like most kids, I discovered masturbation in primary school and all my peers were curious about 'private parts'.
Still, Henson's work, exhibited in a private gallery, was censored. Because of this, people were unable to form opinions about it for themselves, let alone discuss differing opinions rationally. As always, censorship denies an informed response and imposes the notion that adults need to be nannied and protected – usually from themselves.
Censorship of Henson's work is only the tip of the iceberg. Australia is now joining China, Russia and other parts of S.E. Asia in implementing mandatory censoring of the internet. In a quote that could be Newspeak, straight from Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty-Four, the Australian Federal Government has said that the censoring filter will block "unwanted content". It has nothing to do with legality – no-one voted for this and it has not even been debated in parliament.
A trial run with selected ISPs will begin before Christmas.
Of course, my own web presence could be effected, even though my site and blog are digitally archived by the National Library of Australia. Given the response to Henson's work, it's not far-fetched to envision that my work could be construed as "unwanted" or even illegal. Depending on how some anonymous public servant or low-ranking ISP network manager construes the subject matter of one of my drawings, my sites could be barred or worse, I could – like Henson – be branded a pedophile in the public imagination.
I have added a link on this blog to No Clean Feed, a website calling for action against internet censorship in Australia. I urge you to sign the petition to Stop Australian Internet Censorship, and take further action to help fight this serious erosion of our rights.
Even if you're not Australian, remember, this could happen to you!


Mona said...

Such an insult to our intelligence and as my tech assistant (son no. 2) pointed out it will be very easy to bypass by using a proxy.
So the kids will know how to bypass it defeating surely the whole purpose ot it.
I saw your clean feed banner yesterday and have one on my blog now too and I also put John Perry Barlow's 'A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace' still as relevant as when it was written in 1996.
regards t

Rick said...

Good on you Hazel! The whole Henson debate/shemozzle has intrigued me, mainly because of the disparity of views, though the weight of opinion has been the tabloid media (though it was a broadsheet op-ed hack who started the ball rolling with the Oxley exhib) and its self-righteous condemnation and calls for Henson to be jailed. One thing that was strange about that was the fact that Henson’s huge retro at the AGNSW a few years before had hardly raised any controversy, despite crowds of attendees. The debate degenerated into the standard “elitist artists out of touch with ordinary Australians” etc., plus the more frenzied calls for Henson to be labeled a pervert and pedophile. I must admit that this whole ruckus does maybe raise the idea that Henson’s work and especially the controversial themes attendant with his images of naked or semi-naked young people should be open to a reasoned debate. When the AGNSW retro was on a director of a prominent gallery out my way (far western Sydney) dismissed his work as “kiddie porn” so it’s not just the great unwashed, don’t-know-much-about-art-but-I-know-what-I-like crowd that has concerns about Henson’s themes – as you say in the blog: “Yes, at times I find his imagery discomforting”. In some ways, I think H is perhaps slightly na├»ve, especially if it never occurred to him that these photos would sooner or later cause some sort of flim-flam – in fact, he should be prepared to robustly defend his work when it’s attacked, rather than hiding behind some opaque artist-sensibility.
Maybe the only people who should be creating work on this theme are the adolescents themselves, because any co-opting of childhood or adolescent sexuality by an adult is inherently suspect.
In spite of all these concerns, it is disturbing that our new PM, who we may have heralded as a beacon of sophistication in cultural matters after the long reign of King John of white picketed suburbia, was so quick to trumpet the brain-dead tabloid line and immediately label the exhibition invite image as “revolting” (slightly disturbing that anyone would find an image of a naked adolescent girl “revolting” – it just shows how uneasy we still are as a species re sexuality).
But why, oh why, is there no kafuffle about young people (and this includes very young people) being exposed to the ghastly, graphic violence and vicious values of vid games like Grand Theft Auto? We’re still a warped society if we find a naked adolescent more shocking than encouraging youngsters to imagine themselves as the protagonist of a violent criminal rampage.

Kate said...

Hazel, this as you say, is what I also find incredibly unsatisfactory.
"Some anonymous public servant or low-ranking ISP network manager construes the subject matter..."
The lack of control that we have over who is competent to determine "how what when where and why etc" we can or cannot do something.

Re the PM's view on Henson's work (as with probably many others), Christian's must proscribe this work therefore.....they have no room, even for reasoned debate.

artcanyell said...

The internet censorship is just a populist idea to appease certain fearful panicked factions in the electorate. It probably won't get far and will be bypassed easily(I hope). The media are still using/abusing Henson as their poster boy over the issue. It must be so painful for him and its just not going away too fast. I find that in discussions with people on art and related issues the Henson photographs and the public firestorm somehow are always hovering and get a mention. In particular with people who don't follow art or know anything much about it, the media on Henson seems to be about all they seem to know about contemporary art and photography. Its quite astounding that the media's opportunity to bring more people some real knowledge about art has been abused in this way. I wonder how this is going to be reflected in Henson's future work as no doubt it will be. We need an art revolution and a resistance movement to oppose the oppression.

cc said...

To have a revolution, we need a generation that cares enough to fight for it. Freedom these days is too often defined in terms of economic and political pragmatism – artistic freedom and the freedom of expression are easy (and more popular) targets for knee-jerk politicians like Rudd.