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.