( A still from Paris Opera Project 1991 by Bill Henson
from the website of the Art Gallery of New South Wales)
The recent attack on the work of Australian photographer Bill Henson – including police seizure of many of the photographs from his new show at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney – needs to be condemned.
Henson’s work has been on display in Australian and international galleries for decades. He is one of the most respected photographers in the world. His 2005 retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales was an enormous critical triumph attended by thousands including many groups of high school children. The gallery did not receive a single complaint. See the Art Gallery’s Bill Henson website here while it is still online.
Henson is best known for his highly formal studies of adolescents in urban and industrial environments. Yes, his subjects are sometimes nude. There is no indication that his new exhibition is markedly different in tone or subject matter than numerous others, yet these photographs have been targeted as “child pornography” by a media obsessed with sex and the issue of child abuse. There has never been a accusation of abuse by Henson’s models or the parents of these models. In fact several former models, now adults, have spoken out this week in Henson’s defense. The photographs are not intended to titillate. This is a simple witchhunt stirred in part by Sydney Morning Herald columnist Miranda Devine, that reliable enemy of nuanced thought. And it does nothing to confront the deplorable widespread sexualisation of adolescents in, for example, advertising.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, after a brief romance with the arts community at the 2020 summit, has settled into the reliable philistinism that helped sustain John Howard in office for so many years. He immediately deemed Henson’s art “revolting” and devoid of artistic merit. This is an omen of dark times ahead for freedom of expression in Australia, a country with a depressing history of censorship. Free thinking people need to speak up in defense of the photographer.
[Links. Many of the representative of the 'Creative Australia' delegation of the 2020 Summit have signed an Open Letter in Support of Bill Henson. Shane Danielsen at the Guardian.co.uk writes These photographs aren't sexual: they're just human.]