Tag Archives: Bill Henson

Chilling Effect Continues

Hospital charity rejects exhibition over boy photo” Nick O’Malley reports in The Age (January 5, 2011) that “officials of the Sydney Children’s Hospital Foundation took exception to the image by Archibald prize-winner Del Kathryn Barton of her six-year-old son, Kell.” Over a year and a half later the chill of the Bill Henson censorship fiasco continues to effect Australian art and culture. This might appear like a storm in a teacup but it is a clear example of the chilling effect. It is hard to observe the chilling effect because it is, generally, not doing something out of fear. In this rare example, not being the recipients of a charity exhibition due to fear of controversy, the chilling effect is evident.

The officials at the Sydney Children’s Hospital Foundation are not prudes they are just protective of the reputation of their foundation. They have no way of knowing if this image would have been controversial because what was apparent in the Henson fiasco was that it was an arbitrary action and an arbitrary judgment. Another charity, Midnight Basketball, which runs workshops and tournaments for at-risk youth, will benefit from this charity exhibition.

This stupid and pathetic affair is only an example of the chilling effect, most will not be observed or documented. Although the rejection will not chill Del Kathryn Barton who will continue to use images of her own children in her art, as she has regularly in the past, the continuing fear of controversy will effect the decisions of other artists, curators, and exhibition sponsors.

In his story Nick O’Malley provides a history of this controversy; that Christian groups have been attacking artworks and prompting failed police actions for decades. In order to remedy this chilling effect the government needs to clarify laws and make an apology for its participation in slandering Bill Henson. In the absence of any move to ameliorate the situation a presumption that the government tacitly supports the chilling effects of trial by media and police raids.

Witch-hunts & Pogroms

Witch-hunts and pogroms are not confined to medieval times but occur with monotonous regularity today. The form of the witch-hunt is similar with a number of clear elements. I will compare two local contemporary witch-hunts the attacks against Bill Henson and the claims of ritual satanic abuse (mostly from the 1990s). 

One organization, Bravehearts, will appear in both witch-hunts.

At the start of the witch-hunt the agitators, who are devout Christians, repeat an old slanderous and salacious story in a current context. There is popular enthusiasm for the story due to long-term and short-term economic and political pressures. The story is then repeated and amplified by the media and politicians.

The story of ritual satanic abuse has a long history dating back to the blood libel of medieval tradition, the new twist was using ‘repressed memories’. Sensational media stories from the USA were copied and repackaged for an Australian audience. Senator Bill Heffernan, better known for his unfounded attacks against High Court Judge Justice Kirby, and New South Wales MP Franca Arena repeated these stories and drew more media attention. The ritual satanic abuse hysteria has been likened to witch hysteria by Edward Ogden in his thesis for Advanced Studies in Criminology “Satanic Cults: Ritual Crime Allegations and the False Memory Syndrome’ (University of Melbourne, 1993).

The story of an artist having sexual relations with their models is also a very old story. Sensationalised stories about artists and underage nude models have previously appeared in the USA with attacks on photographers Jock Sturges, amongst others. And so the attack on Bill Henson followed a model copied from US media and Christian organizations.

The Australian organization Bravehearts has been involved in both Bill Henson controversy and allegations of ritual satanic abuse. Bravehearts don’t have a reputation for dishonesty, but they should have as their members have consistently tried to fuel witch-hunts. In 2005 the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) sued Dr Michaelson, who runs Bravehearts Victoria, for claiming that it conducts ritual satanic abuse. The terms of settlement from the Victorian Civil And Administrative Tribunal state that: “Dr Michaelson has not produced any proof that OTO members are or have been involved in such practices.”

The subjects of allegations are generally successful, upper middle class men. These men appear to be ordinary respectable members of society. But, it is alleged; behind closed doors they abuse children. It is further alleged that these men are protected in by a vast evil conspiracy (Satanists or the arts elite) further enhancing their power. Targeting upper-middle class men who have some power, or at least success, in society is evidence that the intention of the allegation is a grab for power.

Other examples of subjects of such allegations drearily come to mind: Jews in Nazi Germany or Tsarist Odessa; communists in the Cold War, and the unsubstantiated allegations of sodomy against Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia, although in this case the accusers are devout Moslems whom I’m sure have a similar morality to their Christian brothers and sisters.

Encouraged by politicians and the media police, mob or military violence is taken against the subjects of allegations. Subsequent investigation finds no physical evidence to support any of the allegations. However by then irreparable damage may have already been done.

What is frightening is that very little is learnt in the aftermath of these witch-hunts. The same people, especially the politicians, who expressed enthusiasm for taking action against Bill Henson would have, in other times, expressed enthusiasm for witch-hunts and pogroms. Their irrational beliefs make them a stupid and brutal force that can easily be manipulated.


Richard Guilliatt, Talk of the Devil, Repressed Memory & the Ritual Abuse Witch-Hunt (Melbourne, 1996)

Susanna and the Elders

I hate having to preach from the Bible but as there are so many evil people who call themselves Christian railing against Bill Henson, David Hamilton, Sally Mann and Jock Sturges that I am moved to such speech. The story is Susanna and the Elders, from the Book of Daniel is about a virtuous woman who is seen naked by two old men. The lustful old men try to blackmail Susanna by claiming that they saw her commit adultery with a young lover. Daniel, the judge finds inconsistencies in the old men’s false evidence and Susanna’s innocence is established. Scenes from this story were popular in art in the 16th to 18th century because it shows that nudity is not a sin and not to believe the slanders but the evidence.

Just as in the story of Susanna and the Elders, the evidence has never backed up the allegations of those people who have seen these nude photographs as pornographic. The so-called Christians who condemn these photographers are willing to bear false witness against their neighbours, slandering them without evidence.

This year’s attack in Australia on photographer on Bill Henson follows a familiar pattern. In 2005 work by photographer David Hamilton were classified as indecent by a British Court but this was left in confusion and Hamilton’s books are still legal in Britain.

In 1992 Sally Mann’s book Immediate Family, which included nude photographs of her own children, was condemned as pornographic by American Christian groups. And American photographer Jock Sturges was raided by the FBI for his photographs of nude children taken in naturist communities but the case was thrown out by a grand jury.

Australia is part of a trend in the U.S. and Britain to engaged in war crimes and to censor photographers for taking photographs of naked children because it is obscene. This moral confusion is a major difference between the Anglo-American culture and European (along with NZ and Canada). Perhaps there is something seriously wrong with Anglo-American culture. “The fascination of girls in childhood and adolescence has appealed to many English artists” Peter Webb, The Erotic Arts (London, 1982) Webb mentions photographers, Lewis Carroll, Peter Widdison and David Hamilton who all produce work focused on nude young girls.

The Henson Witch-Hunt

On 22 May of 2008 columnist Miranda Devine of The Sydney Morning Herald started the witch-hunt. NSW police joined in closing Bill Henson’s exhibition in Sydney and threatening to lay charges.

The Bill Henson story was picked up by Associated Press and reprinted in newspapers around the world. What politicians thought would have local breakfast television appeal makes Australia look internationally like a nation of philistines. Peter Garrett, the Minister for the Arts and former Midnight Oil front-man, ducked the issue and has kept largely out of sight since.

Censorship of the arts in Australia became a hot issue again, and to the frustration of the politicians, the issue would not go away. It continued with the cover of Art Monthly featuring a photo of Olympia Nelson taken by her mother. The controversy was raised in every gallery director’s opening speech at an exhibition of nudes; especially Gordon Morrison, the Director of the Art Gallery of Ballarat, introducing his exhibition “The Naked and the Nude”.

Many artists have commented on this controversy over the year. Mary Newsome referred to both the censorship of Fogelberg and Henson in her postcard installation at Mailbox 141. In Hosier Lane, a paste-up of a fat ugly naked man by Camel bares the slogan “No Rudd Gonna Censor Me!”

The lack of a clear outcome in this controversy has meant that artists working with nudes now fear censorship and demonising. The increased sensitivity to nudes in the community lead to more censorship issues; for example, in South Australia at the Tea Tree Gully’s annual art exhibition in August two nudes were banned.

There has also been an increase in search terms like: “pedophile melbourne art”. The popularist polemics of state and federal politicians have convinced some people that art, like the Catholic Church, is simply a cover for pedophiles. In October the next round of the witch-hunt started with a non-controversy: Bill Henson visited a Melbourne primary school. The Victorian government reprimanded the school principal, before finding any breach of protocols, presuming wrong doing and slandering Henson by in the process. I have called this witch-hunt as it is an intensive systematic campaign directed against Bill Henson and those who support him. The reason for the witch-hunt now is simply to vindicate the politician’s views by any means.

The last word on this subject should go to Olympia Nelson: “I’m really, really offended by what Kevin Rudd said about this picture. That was really, really rude. For him to be talking about my picture, the picture with me in it, it doesn’t feel very good.” Kevin Rudd is yet to apologize to Olympia Nelson.

Culture Battle

“Frankly, I can’t stand this stuff.” Kevin Rudd’s said commenting on Australian art magazine, Art Monthly. Rudd joins the long list of Australian Prime Ministers who hate the arts. It is a hatred that spans party politics and social background. Australian PM Menzies had the same opinion of modern art as his contemporaries, Churchill and Hitler. And Menzies did more legislatively to enforce his opinion than Churchill but less than Hitler.

There are several culture clashes in Australia, some, like the battle between the arts and philistines have a long history. There has never been any resolution to this conflict, only heightened times of tension. There is a great desire to bring this particular cultural conflict to a conclusion rather than continue with the tension. This is why there have been so many letters and comments about the Bill Henson controversy as people weigh in on various sides.

The battle, between Australia’s cultured and the philistine wowsers, is worth fighting. The outcome will have wide, but not unforeseeable, effects: the brain drain, the number of skilled professionals willing to work in remote areas, the number of teenage pregnancies, the general education standards of the country and many more areas. For example, Australia is now the fattest country in the world. Australian culture has an ugly body image stuffed with junk food. Has it become a culture where any attractive naked body, young or old, is regarded as sexual bait because so many Australians have made their bodies so unattractive?

I have nothing but praise for the tactics, Art Monthly editor Maurice O’Riordan, he has chosen the work of art worth fighting for and with excellent defenses. He has restored some “dignity to the debate”. The fact that Opposition leader Brendan Nelson (no relation to Olympia Nelson, the nude model) can only understood this in terms of “two finger salute” is an indication of his lack of comprehension and not O’Riordan’s tactics.

The politicians are on the run and their tactics are highly questionable. They bark loudly in the popular media in a manner offensive to one little girl, Olympia Nelson. They call in the police, threaten prosecutions, threaten to cut funding and then retreat under the cover of an independent organization capable of making reasonable, informed decisions, like the NSW Public Prosecutor. The politicians hope that this controversy would just go away but it is a battle worth fighting and I would encourage everyone to keep applying the blowtorch to Rudd.

Peter Propaganda Garrett

When Peter Garrett was still Shadow Minister for the Arts I wrote about his arts policy – Burning the Midnight Oil.  I did not hold out much hope for his arts policy at the time. On that occasion Garrett calls his political opponents “philistines” but in the Bill Henson controversy one of these alleged philistines, Malcolm Turnbull has defended the Henson against philistine attacks by the ALP. Garrett also said that he and his party would talk more about the arts but on the first major arts issue Garrett has remained silent.

I emailed Peter Garrett to find out what the Minister for the Arts was doing to reduce the chill effect from the recent censorship or if he wanted to reduce the arts to a mouth piece for government propaganda. I have heard nothing, not even an acknowledgement of my enquiry and I am not alone. In the open letter leading writers, dramatists, filmmakers, musicians and artists called on the Minister for Arts Peter Garrett to “stand up for artists” against the “encroaching censorship, which has resulted in the closure of this and other exhibitions”. Garrett ignored their letter too.

Garrett like other Christian socialists wants the arts to be a well-crafted propaganda suitable for the masses, without subtly or any genuine insight. This sums up his entire artistic career as front man for Midnight Oil.

If Garrett now wants to do something for the arts he should resign as Minister for the Arts. He has failed according to his own standards. He has lost the confidence of the arts community. He does not even have the courage even reply to the concerns of the Australian arts community.

Unlike Garrett, the ABC is doing its job and educating the public about the arts with multiple repeat broadcasts of a documentary on Bill Henson, as well as another story about Henson on Sunday Arts. And unlike Garrett, the ABC is unconcerned about prejudicing an ongoing and going nowhere police investigation. 

Power & Photography

I don’t want to go over more of the same arguments about the Bill Henson controversy but to consider the photographs and the power of the image.

Part of the problem with recent censorship of the visual arts appears to be an ignorance of photography as art. If they had been more traditional arts, painting or sculpture, then the cavemen in the police force would have understood that it was art. But photographs make particularly powerful images. Many of the police and politicians involved have only encountered photography in family snaps, media photography and pornography. Ordinary photographs do not cause anything near the powerful experience of a Bill Henson photograph; the average viewer has little or no experience of art and so is unprepared for the powerful experience of viewing art.

At the extreme end of the power of images is the psychosomatic illness, Stendhal syndrome caused by powerful art. I have had Stendhal syndrome: when I first saw the paintings of James Gleeson I thought that I was about to faint. The minor effects of Stendhal syndrome, include rapid heartbeat, dizziness and confusion. Stendhal syndrome could have impaired the judgement of NSW Police officers and other people involved in the case.

Another confusion appears to be occurring in understanding the artifice of art. Ordinarily a photograph is treated as evidence except in the case of art. In cinemas and art galleries we regularly see apparent evidence of crimes and nobody does anything because they understand that it is not real, that it art. To charge Bill Henson with obscenity makes as much sense as to charge an actor with a crime seen in a movie.

David Hockney writes about “The power of pictures” in The Guardian 4/4/08. Pointing out the history of power of images and attempts by church and state to control this power. Hockney argues who ever controls the image has power. And the better the image the more power it is able to exert. We should not forget that the Bill Henson controversy started when of an anti-paedophile campaigner used Bill Henson’s photographs to gain publicity for her cause. That is she used the power of art to give power to her cause. And the power struggle continues with artists trying to keep control of their images, media exploiting public interest in images and politicians trying to maintain an image. The ABC joined the debate in changed the scheduled program to rebroadcasting a documentary on Bill Henson on Tuesday the 27th. Finally prominent Australians involved in the arts wrote an Open Letter in Support of Bill Henson.

Images have power, they can convict, they can distort, they can even cause Stendhal syndrome. And in this controversy, and many others like it, people are fighting for control of the power of photographic images.

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