Monday, 26 May 2008
Art is not illegal
(update: Pavlov's Cat has a post today which is excellent reading.
Also the ABC is showing a documentary about Henson's work tonight [Tuesday] at 10 o'clock.)
In order to get on with what I ought to be getting on with I'm going to exploit my blog to unburden myself of some thoughts. To get it off the chest I could just write it on a piece of paper and bury it but another reason I'm saying it here is because I have not seen or heard too much sense being talked in this debate.
I've thought long and hard about this question. In fact for me it goes back about twenty years to my own teenagerhood. My first year at VCA I was given an assignment, in the theory course, on art and pornography, which necessitated me looking at & thinking hard about a range of images from both sides of this divide and examining the qualities of the feelings they prompted in me. Believe me, there IS a divide. In the same year I read Ways of Seeing, The Nude, Mythologies, Art and Illusion and Ways of Worldmaking. Oh, and The Female Eunuch. I also spent several hours a week in a life class, drawing naked people. What a learning curve.....
Consent I do agree that the first issue is the wellbeing of the models. But I also think it's an obvious non-issue in this case. Very clearly, the models of these pictures posed for them voluntarily. To suggest otherwise is unreasonable and hysterical, to be honest. I've seen it said that children can't legally consent to having their pictures taken, but this argument presupposes that the pictures are pornographic. Because unless it does, parents, friends, relatives, school class photographers would all be in prison.
Pornography This is a nonsense. Pornography is a specified and demarcated class of representation in our culture. According to the legal definition of pornography, Henson's pictures of children are not it. So the newspapers can ditch those beat-up headlines, thanks. The pictures don't show the models engaged in sexual acts and they don't show them being beaten, tortured, restrained, dehumanised or otherwise abused (violence is of course a key category of the pornulatory imagination.) This only leaves the third and most broad category of classifable representation, depiction of a minor in a sexual context. Some have attempted to insist that Henson's pictures are this because they show children of a certain age without clothes on. Clothes off isn't sufficient for the construction of a sexual context, for practical and dare I say it moral reasons which I should not need to spell out.
Art and ambiguity Here is the difference between art and pornography.
Porn has only one thing on its mind and unless you bring that single correct response you are not viewing it correctly. Unless you get excited by porn you are getting it wrong. It is the most literal of aesthetic experiences: in the ideal pornographic situation there is no gap, break, interruption or transition between your viewing of the image and your embodied response. It's zipless, smooth, unidimensional, unambiguous.
Henson's art does not have this brightly lit simplicity. Where porn spells its meaning and purpose out with clarity and directness, Henson's offers you possibilities and suggestions. You stand in front of one of those dark, obscure frames and you literally cannot see the whole picture. Instead you see something shadowy and incomplete. What you do see works on exactly the same principle as those simple optical games where a few white dots and lines are joined by the mind into an image of a face or a vase or a flower or a grid, or perceiving motion on what we know is a static grid. The mind supplies what the eye cannot reach.
We like those optical games precisely because they encapsulate what we know from just being alive, namely that we can have a private psychological experience of reality which is not 'true' but nevertheless feels real.
Henson's pictures work in the same way but in a realm where the stakes are much higher - as is always the case where photographers (and filmmakers) are using real live bodies for the material they make their illusions out of. They present us with images that are not as visually complete as normal reality, but the fragments we do see are also more intense than usual. We look at the picture of the beautiful girl and we perceive the intensity of the picture. We also see that it's a picture with much that is usual or normal or mitigating left out. Why isn't she dressed? Is this an isolated pose or one moment in an unfolding event? Who is she? Why is it dark? What is in the dark? Who took this picture? What is she doing? Is she aware that we're looking at her? What is she showing me? Do I see what I am looking for? What is it I am looking for? Why am I looking at her? What am I seeing?
These pictures don't answer those questions. (Porn, and other instrumental images, do answer these types of questions.) They just hang there silently, beautifully, wonderingly, on the wall. The questions are implied by the pictures but the answers are not.
In these circumstances it is a distortion to say that the pictures are 'clearly' pornographic, and equally it's a distortion to say they're 'clearly' about something laudable and respectable like sympathetic nonsexual ideas about the trauma of adolescent metamorphoses. They just don't have literal, incontrovertible, specifiable meanings. You might not like their implications or feel happy looking at them, but, thank feck, that in itself does not make them illegal.
A lot of rubbish is talked about the 'context' of the gallery, by both sides, but it is true that the massive epistemological quotation marks of the gallery create a space where reflection and thought is foregrounded. It is the opposite of a space where free passes are awarded in exchange for cultureal cred or whatever - it's a place where you go specifically to look, and so your looking is anything but casual and uninvolved. (In this if nothing else a gallery is like a strip club.) Spectatorship becomes a pressing, explicit duty in front of a Bill Henson photograph, whereas in front of a Portmans shop window display with a poster of Miranda Kerr in it I can mindlessly look and look but never think about what I'm doing, unless I deliberately make the effort to do so. For me what Henson's pictures connote is a vulnerability of the flesh that is bigger and more basic than sexuality (yes, some things are more basic than sex.) But I don't claim this is what they 'mean'. I recognise the distinction between what the images are in themselves and how I respond to them, how I fill them out and collaborate in their production of meaning.
And in a civilised, mature culture, I would be able to keep this where it belongs which is between me and the picture, without having to spell/spill it all out in such an embarrassingly emo fashion.
If you still want more Henson commentary, I suggest you read this piece of genius.
Erotism There is another aesthetic category, between pornography and desexed abstraction, which should be brought into this debate if we're to get anywhere with it. The erotic.....
Over and out.
at 8:04 pm