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.


Anonymous said...

And yet you choose to illustrate your blog entry with picture of same child -- and does the "tasteful" cropping of the photo really render it devoid of implied sexuality and the state of nudity below the crop line for the viewer? And are you not using her image for your own purposes to enhance your blog?

And do the numerous National Geographic photos of third-world nude children of color living in poverty situations (whose consent I doubt was obtained prior to publication)pass the decency test because their starving bodies don't register sexual interest for most observers?

And if a woman of legal age gives consent to pose for nude photos, but then later regrets that consent, have the right to take back her image and destroy the work?

So many interesting questions...

Cadiz said...

"And if a woman of legal age gives consent to pose for nude photos, but then later regrets that consent, have the right to take back her image and destroy the work?"

Well at 13 I don't think she is in much of a position to be very adult about it,

which is one of the reasons why in London we put that kind of photographer in prison.

No art, no hobby, no research, no gang of pro-pedophile idiots signing petitions, do it, and you go on the sex offenders register.

Henson may have produced the most downloaded naked little girl photo in the history of the internet, are we supposed to let him off the hook?

Karl Miller said...

Trillum! I knew I could flush you from the ... um ... whatever one gets flushed from when scraping for a good argument.

I don't think "enhancement" comes into it. And as I explain in my post, I don't believe Henson's photos (as objects, as works of art) are the issue, even if they are pornographic, which they aren't. It's the action of capturing them that raises questions. I didn't crop the picutre, it's how I found it on George Hunka's blog. There are others out there that are awkwardly censored and I will leave it to others to bang on about the inalienable rights of artists to not be censored by whatever yahoo reproduces the picture. I also think Henson's story (and his ethical-legal predicament) can be told without the aid of his pictures. If anything, it should be about the testimony of the models and their parents.

But this is where the slippery issue of meaningful consent enters in -- and where I would hate to be a lawmaker or judge in court. My point here is that I don't know if a child can give meaningful consent. But clearly they gave consent; they were not coerced or photographed against their will. Presumably, their parents have something to do with this, so if it becomes a straight-up legal issue about the activity in Henson's studio, they'll be just as accountable in the final analysis (I would hope).

Alison Croggon explained her own position and mentioned that when she was growing up, kids just ran around naked, skinny-dipped, and no one really cared, so what's the big deal? It's a good point, I suppose, until you remember that everyone is entitled to their own subjective norms and boundaries for violation. Alison also feels profoundly offended and disgusted by the use of sexualized young girls to shill whorish dolls ... but I don't think she'll ever storm a toy store, confiscate the stuff, or sue the company that made it.

National Geographic? Okay, as I said, the photograph can also work as a journalistic tool, so of course the reportage of suffering (and through that, the beatification of suffering) is not nearly the same thing as a deliberate studio session full of poses and direction from the photographer.

As for your third hypothetical ... I have no earthly idea. I would be interested to hear how "JFK" woke to his/her memory of that time and what s/he did with those feelings.


Yes, if, say, a painter had a particular knack for the color red in his magnificent abstract paintings of lord-knows-what ... and then you read in the placard that this red was actually the blood extracted from terminal cancer patients who gave consent while on morphine ... blah blah blah, I'm bored with my own position now.

No one's letting Henson off the hook for becoming an Internet sensation ... but the proliferation of his images isn't a crime, you understand. Plus, I'd be willing to be that if you googled "naked little girl photo" (to quote your query), you'd find plenty more than Henson ... and targets more worthy of prosecution.

But I hear where you're coming from. On another blog, I posed the question this way, as an insoluble binary:

"Does the acumen of the artist take precedence over the consent of a child?"

I'm still not sure ...

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