The police raid on the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney on May 23 just hours before the opening of the Bill Henson exhibition was a clumsy attempt at censorship and an indirect attack on freedom of expression.
The police had received a complaint that the show contained photographs so obscene that they bordered on child pornography. Talk radio had already been discussing the show’s invitation, which featured a photograph of a naked 13-year-old girl, neither child nor adult. Subsequently, 20 photographs by the internationally acclaimed Henson were removed from the gallery walls.
The media scrambled for the story and the guardians of public morality delivered predictable accusations that the art world was dabbling in child porn. Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd was quick to call the images “absolutely revolting.”
The following day, May 24, newspapers sizzled. Rupert Murdoch’s metropolitan tabloid, The Daily Telegraph called the gallery closure a victory for decency. “Child Porn ‘Art’ Raid” its front page screamed; “Who would call this art?” it asked rhetorically. The Telegraph knows its audience; they are the blue-collar workers for whom the world of art is mysterious and elitist. But Murdoch’s newspapers are read by two out of three Australians, as all politicians know.
The broadsheets The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald were more reflective. For them the story was not about the allegations surrounding Henson’s work but about the specter of censorship and the frenzy of moral panic so easily whipped up by the media.
Henson’s work is clearly not pornographic. Three years earlier, 65,000 people visited an extensive show of Henson’s work at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney. No one complained. Why was Henson suddenly at the eye of a censorship storm?
An artist’s work must always remain relevant to the social and cultural context within which the artist functions. Social and cultural contexts shift over time and in recent years the shift has been seismic, driven by the ubiquity of the Internet and by the media in all its guises. This has created unlimited freedoms but also social vulnerability. Pornographers and pedophiles are rife and the Internet is their turf, photography their medium.
In this climate, a frisson of fear and disgust washed through the nation. Only days earlier on May 21, former New South Wales politician Milton Orkopoulos received a 13-year jail sentence for child sex offences. A week later, 105 Australians-—including teachers, police and social workers—were caught in the “Operation Centurion,” an international anti-pedophile investigation. Simultaneously, a government committee published a damning report on sexualization of children in the media and advertising.
Art must always push boundaries and explore social mores. Police must always respond to public complaints. Within days of the Henson raid, police were knocking on the doors of the 2008 Biennale of Sydney. The warning sign outside Mike Parr’s video depicting a live chicken being beheaded, Rules & Displacement Activities Part II xx: Identification No. 5 (Totem Murder #1) (1975), didn’t warn enough they said. It was upgraded.
The director of public prosecutions soon laid the Henson story to rest, announcing in the first week of June that no charges would be brought. Clearly Henson’s photographs of the naked “tween” were not designed for sexual gratification. The photographs were returned and media attention moved on.
If self-censorship is the result of this sorry affair then it would return Australia to 1999 when the National Gallery in Canberra cancelled what was to be its year 2000 blockbuster show, “Sensation,” work by Young British Artists that caused a furor when shown in New York. It never reached Australian shores.
Vigilance towards child abuse and pedophilia is essential, but to turn the blowtorch of suspicion on an artist with an international reputation such as Henson’s is misguided. Henson was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and perhaps naïve about public sensitivities. Art, by its very nature, must be ambiguous and the context within which it is viewed is critical. While protecting our children from pedophiles, we also need to protect the right of artists to flourish in a creative environment free from self-censorship. If we fail in these tasks, society will be the poorer.