Tuesday, May 27, 2008

No Animals Were Harmed in the Composition of this Post

Before I get to parceling out memories and photos this spring's Oregon Adventure, I want to post my own knee-jerk reaction to the Bill Henson controversy before it vanishes from the blogcycle.

Australian photographer Bill Henson faces a handful of criminal charges under that country's Child Protection Act. He photographed naked girls under the age of 16. Enter the censorship debate, the pornography debate, and the child abuse debate. The last of those three is the only one that concerns me at the moment. But because public hysteria has been satisfyingly reactivated after years of Britney Spears whoring, the artistic blogosphere has taken the occasion to swat down the misplaced puritan reflexes running rampant. I think people are right to object, and George Hunka and Alison Croggon are right to match the objections with substantive defense and praise of Mr. Henson, but I also think the central question of abuse has been stolen in the shutter along with some young women's souls.

That's my reaction at the moment, but I post it here in the hopes of learning something beyond my own reflexes. And while my reflexes aren't exactly Puritan, they do have a tendency to escape into formal/conceptual debates about the medium. So here goes ...

If Henson were a painter, would we be having the same debate? In other words, if the medium allowed for some pretending past the direct action of the craft on its subject would we not still have access to all the thorny questions of sex, innocence, maturity, expression, etc.?

If the young women had chosen to photograph themselves without the mediating eye of Bill Henson ... if, in other words, they were expressing themselves instead of offering themselves for expression by an adult man, would the question of consent and exploitation vanish or change?

The photograph -- as an art-form and a journalistic tool -- doesn't just invite such debate, it directly binds the viewer, artist, and subject because the medium itself mediates very little. Unlike, say, a painting of the same: Henson would have to imagine his way through the same subject instead of seeking that subject out and capturing it concretely, photorealistically.

I'm sure the "dividing line," as George puts it, would be much more clear-cut if Henson were a musician giving poetic expression through lyrics, or a film-maker or theatre director using the suspension of disbelief to explore the same phenomena.

I happen to think that these kinds of artistic mediation can be more exacting (if less concrete) than direct photo-representation. And we've had no shortage of censorship spats over music lyrics, film content, paintings, and theatre pieces. But when the execution of the craft eclipses the subject in our contemplation of the art-piece ... something has gone wrong -- perhaps not legally, but aesthetically.

The pornography charge is, as always, a deflection. People don't want to be complicit in the abuse of a child by looking through the same view-finder as Henson. On George's blog, a commenter posting under the name "JFK" shares his/her experience as a subject of such art-work:
I was photographed in revealing poses when I was twelve years old. To this day I cannot adequately explain how unprepared I was to understand what was happening to me. My photographs, though not as skillfully executed as those of Mr. Henson, do have one eerie similarity: I recognize their blank, often downcast facial expressions that can be so easily interpreted as placid or even insouciant.

Being turned into a sexualized photographic subject before I could give any meaningful consent caused me indescribable pain and shame and led to years of misery and danger, in which I sacrificed my education and personal safety because of who I came to believe I was because of those photographs.
To draw from JFK's testimony, the meaningful consent of the child must be re-examined a million times over because that consent is being offered every time a new person sees the picture.

But just because people don't want to look through Henson's viewfinder doesn't mean they aren't capable of contemplating child sexuality in a meaningful and non-pornographic way. George's own Organum explores the contemplation of the "bodied soul" in live theatre and while I can't isolate the specific passage that mentions this, I recall his choice (if not his aesthetic prescription) to eschew nudity in Theatre Minima. I'm not sure why a live adult body has no place in his theatre while a photographed child's body remains worthy of defense. If, as we say, art should not be commodified or used, then surely we must explore how the essence of our particular craft turns subjects into objects. It's not just "Oedipus ... brought to you by Coke!" ... it's also the blunt fact that photography turns the subject into a static object fit for undiminished reproduction while the ephemeral theatre resists precisely that.

But perhaps even that formal distinction is merely my way of avoiding the real conflict here. Henson should be passionately defended from censorship and slippery charges of pornography. In a way, these claims are incidental. Censorship acts on ideas and expressions, not concrete actions. It's not that a young woman's body is unfit or forbidden from expression and contemplation or that a child's sexuality is off-limits in any way. It's the action of capturing that on film that triggers such reactions (including my own).

For whatever it's worth, I don't find Henson's work to be pornographic. But then I don't think pornography should be against the law, either. The bloggers seem to be defending him on both fronts. The real subjectivist divide here isn't over the Eye of the Beholder -- i.e. whether some jackass will masturbate to his images or whether some cultured person will find them sublimely beautiful. We can have that debate until the end of time, just as we can continue to debate Lolita and whether it should be taught in middle-schools. But since Henson's personal liberty is at stake here, we need a different binary to determine if he's exploited the liberty of others. The debate is whether Henson represents and reveals sexuality or whether he creates or imposes it. Two different fronts emerge since Henson's medium is photography instead of literature, music, or theatre. It's not the artist vs. the audience vs. the state. It's the subject vs. the artist vs. the audience. This is why comparisons to Lolita and the Bratz girls only get half of it. No young women were exploited in the creation of either -- but two different audiences are offended by what each asks of us.