Dishing Out Criticism Where It’s Needed: The Bill Henson Revival

One of the bigger stories today – judging by what was on the front page of papers and websites across the country – involved an artistic image of a naked six year old being put on the cover of Australian Art Monthly.

I should say right off of the cuff that I have no problem with the said image. It is art; plain and simple. The works of Ms. P (whom I have always called "Ms. P" because I have no idea how to say Papapetrou) have always been about young girls and innocence. If I remember correctly, she photographs her daughter as the subject of her art. Please correct me if I'm wrong, of course.

I'm not going to debate the issue of naturistic art versus porn because we've all been down this pointless road before. Naked children are naked children. Those of you who automatically think that a naked child constitutes child pornography need to absolutely, well & truly wake up to the fact that you may in fact be idiots.


No, this time I take aim at Art Monthly Australia who have done something sick. It's not "sick" in the way Morris Iemma thinks it is; he thinks the image is "sick" in its nature. That's fine. Everyone has their own opinion. I happen to think that Iemma is an idiot: that's MY opinion.

Instead, Art Monthly Australia have done something "sick" by reintroducing the dead horse and well and truly flogging it to within an inch of becoming that mystery meat that sits in a meat pie.

Last month, Bill Henson got a media & political shafting when a reporter decided to act on what might appear to be "good conscience" and inform child protection society Bravehearts that these new Bill Henson works were little more than child porn. What ensued was a media circus. Day after day of Henson this, child porn that. Regional galleries decided they wanted a share of the publicity — I mean fun — and tell police about their Henson artworks.

Once again as art seems to be able to do as effectively as religion, the community was divided. Conservatives, concerned parents, and politicians were claiming outrage and calling for prosecution, while the art world couldn't see what everyone was so pissed off about.

And everyone in the art community knew there was no chance that Henson could have been prosecuted.

Guess what? He wasn't. The Office of Film & Literature Classification rated his works as being "mild and justified" and rated PG. The works were returned and the exhibition moved on. The topic stopped being so vital for news desks around the country and we all moved on to vital things.

Like news. Real news.

But now we're back here again because the editor of Art Monthly feels that the topic still needs some talking (which he's right) and that it needs to be introduced by way of a 2003 image that's being used to prove publicity– err, I mean topic stimulation.

Seriously, the Bill Henson debate got spurred by way of an accident. Henson didn't engineer those images to be controversial or to spark talks about the right or wrong of naked children in art. The media came along and pulled what they wanted from the images never caring for what got distorted along the way.

Did it spark controversy? Yes. Was it intentional? Absolutely not.

That is, however, entirely different from sticking an image a few years old on the cover of an art magazine. While Art Monthly's editor Maurice O'Riordan can claim the good journalist act all he wants with reasons like the "hope of restoring some dignity to the debate" and "validate nudity and childhood as subjects for art", his actions don't add up.

If Art Monthly really wanted to have this discussion, they wouldn't need to find another Australian image to stick on the front cover to intentionally cause controversy.

Further, unless that image is being run in a new exhibition, how is Art Monthly really upholding their own editorial values?

Now granted, I have yet to read this issue, but my comments aren't about the photo so I'm not one of those idiots who condemned Henson without actually viewing the work.

What I don't like seeing though is intentional controversy that is, for all intents & purposes, entirely unnecessary.

And has anyone at Art Monthly asked Ms. P if she would like to be the flame-tipped sword or this publication's catalyst that gets it some much needed publicity while potentially damaging her reputation?

The artworks are still fine and the conversations absolutely need to be had, but surely the editor of Australian Art Monthly could have come up with a way to look like less of an ass looking for free advertising.

Or maybe not. The article on their site about the child porn debate is listed as being entry "666."


Edit: Apologies if this seems poorly written near the end. I was falling asleep as I was posting this

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  • Dan008

    I support the Art Monthly protest, but the arts community has to stop being smug about this because you could potentially lose out big time. The message about nudity not being equivalent to sexualisation, while understood by many Australians from very different socio-economic situations, is not getting though in the mainstream press. This is because they do not want to engage with it. These are very conservative times and increasingly so which genuine discussion and debated stymied in many areas. You cannot just sit back and say “We have one these debates in the past we will again”.

    What sickens me is that Hetty Johnston, and now Kevin Rudd have not a clue what sexual exploitation actually is. I was molested by someone who photographed and filmed the abuse. It looks nothing like the cover of Art Monthly. I would think there is greater offence in the pages of any european child fashion magazine.

    4:40 pm July 6, 2008 Reply
  • Jason

    Good piece of writing. Art Monthly have overplayed their hand. A Bill Henson image would have been the obvious choice for the cover, and a great way for the arts community to celebrate its win. Instead they have hijacked the issue and flamed the debate, which doesn’t belong to them anyway. Talk about playing into the conservatives hands!

    1:50 am July 7, 2008 Reply
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