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.


Anonymous said...

Now why would you write something intelligent like that when you could have just posted pictures of your broad beans?

(Must write essay, must write essay, must write essay)

Rob said...

And Laura scores with another thoughtful essay.

I've been watching this whole thing from afar, without ever having heard of Henson or seen any of his work, and it all reminds me of the Rylah hysteria...

Spike said...

Great post. But why is it emo or embarrassing to try to analyse how Henson gets his aesthetic effects? (The photos themselves are very emo, but that's a whole other issue.)

It's interesting how many of Henson's defenders around the blogs are highly resistant to the idea that he or anyone else should try explain his work.

Given the extent to which his work depends on shadowy ambiguity and controversial subject matter for its effects, this resistance seems a bit odd, even somewhat disingenuous.

Anonymous said...

Hi Laura. You know, I have been fulminating lately that in all the newsprint (and blogspace) devoted to this so far, nobody has come out and explained in an intelligible way (to those who haven't seen it, or to those who don't take "I used to be an art critic" as a satisfactory invocation of authority) why these pictures are so good, how they're different from porn, and why people around the country should overcome their intuition that nekkid pictures of kids shouldn't be on display.

"Isn't this the function of criticism?" I've been yelling at whoever will listen. "Don't we have any critical voices who can just account for the value of these pictures instead of hair-splitting, browbeating people, or conflating this with other issues?"

And then I read your excellent post - you did it! Great criticism! Thanks! I even stopped yelling.

Penni Russon said...

This is a beautifully written post, and you've articulated perfectly much of what has been percolating in my brain, as well as illuminating some sides of the issue I hadn't considered. Thank you for writing it.

lucy tartan said...

Rob, what's the Rhylah hysteria?

Michael: thanks; I guess when I wrote that I felt I was becoming emo, I had stopped talking about the openwork ambiguous structure of the pictures, and started talking about what I privately fill those gaps with.

Jason, Penni - thanks. I've been percolating a lot too. Sometimes it's possible to formulate percolation reasonably clearly and sometimes it isn't. The whole thing is happening so fast that I think it's just a matter of time before someone appropriate steps up to the public debate and explains how pictures like these actually work and why they are valuable.

Miss Schlegel said...

I was going to blog about this, but then you busted into my brain and stoled my thortz. No fair!

I remember my initial response when I first say Henson's work about a decade ago (I guess it was the Art Gallery of NSW retrospective they all keep talking about) was wonder at how he knew what that cutup adolescent neverneverland actually looked like. And wonder at how he could make those kids revealed not only themselves but the locked-in adult they were going to become.

omigod, I caught your emo. So that explains why I've been cutting these little nicks into my arms for the last hour.

tigtog said...

Thanks for deciding to write this post after all, Laura. You raise important questions and insights.

My continuing big red flag with this whole incident is the people who are determined that nudity can never be about other than sex. That is so limiting, so dehumanising, and ultimately so dangerous in how it configures the expected reactions to nudity.

Anonymous said...

I have posted this in a couple forums because I feel this must be said.

I was sexually abused as a child in the 1980s. Thousands of photographs were taken and two or three super 8 movie reels. I can tell you it looked nothing like the Henson photographs.

I think we have to accept that paedophiles potentially will find any image of a child potentially erotic. I think this is inescapable but, I also believe that for most of them the Henson images would really be way down the scale of interest. If everyone is serious about stopping these people finding something titillating in the images of children, then the only logical answer is the most extreme which is to stop people photographing children altogether, which is absurd.

I do not believe closing down the exhibit because someone might find the images titillating–like I say I do not think they would–really has any traction here. This controversy has brought out the worst in society, now with the gallery owner being threatened.

Also, we as a society are in real trouble if we start equating nudity inescapably with sex. Why, because this makes every parent or family member who has ever taken a naked photograph of their child a pornographer.

For me to come to this conclusion is difficult because of my history of being abused and suspicion about the motives of photographers. But like I said before, any image of a child is potentially stimulating to a paedophile, so drawing a line based on potential provocation is the beginning of a very slippery slope indeed. This is something I think neither Hetty Johnston or Miranda Devine, who is appears started this widespread community outrage of two, thought of. The Law Society summed it up when they said that the next thing is police examining the baby photos at 21st birthday parties.

Hetty Johnston is certainly a problematic in all this. Because she is an anti-paedophile campaigner, everyone is too scared to question some of her other underlying motivations and philosophies lest they be paedophile sympathisers! This is problematic because she does not represent the voice of all abuse survivors and it is sheer hubris on her part that she might think she does. We are certainly dealing with a serious issue in the community, but her scatter gun, bordering on witch hunting approach is wrong.

Coming to these conclusions is difficult, but I am decisive. I am still getting over my abuse. I found out 8 years ago a friend of mine had abused children before he suicided. So there are complex issues to deal with at the outset that I ruminate over them for sure. But in the end, picking on Henson’s art is madness and if the charges stick, woe betide anyone who photographs children again.

lucy tartan said...

Yes, 'Dan' I've seen you post that exact same comment in quite a number of places, and since I don't know you (I do know everyone else who's commented here, via their established online identities), please don't take it personally but I must ask you not to comment again here on this topic.

lucy tartan said...

Tigtog, I share your dismay that so many people are saying that undressed equals sex. Some of them are people who should really know better. Others I think are speaking in good faith, and the fact that they feel so strongly that there can never be a non pornographic motive for photographing an adolescent is testament to how pervasive the optics of pornography have become. People are right to be anxious about it but Henson is the wrong target altogether.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderfully insightful post. I have been very disheartened by the reflexive and automatic responses of many on both sides of this debate, with a few notable exceptions - one of which is this considered and critical examination of the photography.

Rob said...

Laura, see here for a better exposition of Arthur Rylah than I could write :-)

lucy tartan said...

Thanks, Rob. I hadn't heard of him before. What an interesting guy. It's particularly interesting that on one he did the censor thing we all laugh at now (and while a lot of our superiority over past attempts to do the right thing is too easy, IMO, I have a genuinely hard time understanding attempts to suppress Mary McCarthy novels) and on the other hand he advocated similar 'nanny statist' innovations that most of us are pretty grateful for now - compulsory seatbelts and random breath testing etc.

Anonymous said...

Rylah [i'm old enough to remember] was famous for mentioning his teenage daughter's propensity to be embarrassed when he didn't have one. Teenage daughter that is. However in other matters he was progressive, abolished 6 o'clock closing and if my memory serves me well he was the first in the world to have an inquiry and ban Scientology. Not all bad.

Regarding Henson; you might like to check out the photo at my blog.

phyllis.stein said...

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.
Are you saying that if porn doesn't excite it isn't porn? Surely not. Porn can apall and disgust rather than excite, or even bore, if the viewer is sufficiently desensitised. If I have mis-read you I'm sorry. I'm reading so much on this in an effort to understand. Jason's question resonated with me, but I'm not sure it's been answered yet.

lucy tartan said...

Dear Phyllis, thank you for the comment, it is a good one, and good on you for reading and working through the issue.

Are you saying that if porn doesn't excite it isn't porn?

No, I'm not. You're right about how porn can disgust, appal, bore etc. I'm saying that only the viewer who is excited by porn is having the "correct", mandate response to it. Every other response is not a response that the material is looking for and inviting.

I referred in the post to pornography as an 'instrumental' image: you could compare it to a road sign with a picture of a car skidding on loose gravel. If you see that sign and you think "I'll speed up now, looks like fun!" you're reading it wrongly. Advertising imagery is similar: it's meant to make you want to buy the hamburger, not stop eating meat altogether.

let me know if that is of any use. It's an interesting issue.

I've been thinking about Jason's question too, and where I got was this: In a little while, when all this ruckus dies down, I might start occasionally putting up on this blog, paintings of young people, naked or not, that I've come across and liked or found interesting. The purpose would be not to shock or annoy or titilate but to start us all on the long process of getting our collective vision attuned to the different beauties and feelings around such images.

redambition said...

thank you for your 'essay'. it was a fantastic read and your balance and good old common sense has been lacking in the media's version of events.

redambition said...

thank you for your 'essay'. it was a fantastic read and your balance and good old common sense has been lacking in the media's version of events.

Anonymous said...

Finally someone who can write the words in my head.
I could not agree more with everything you said.