Police Shut Down Exhibition, Accuse Artist of Child Pornography


Police raided Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney, Australia last Thursday, just hours before the opening of an exhibition featuring new works by acclaimed contemporary artist Bill Henson. Australian news media report that 21 photographs of a naked 12-year-old girl and a 13-year-old boy have been seized from the gallery. 41 images have been removed from its web site. Indecency and obscenity charges will be brought under state and federal laws.

We know the art-vs.-pornography, censorship-vs.-free-speech drill. Political and sociocultural authorities are now locking horns in fury. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has weighed in, calling Henson’s photographs “revolting” and “devoid of artistic merit”. (Rudd was described as being “out of touch with everyday Australia” by opposition leader Brendan Nelson.) The art community is outraged and prominent arts figures have accused the Prime Minister of hypocrisy. Child protection advocates, determined to be offended, are calling for Henson’s criminalization.

I don’t know where I stand on this issue — particularly as it involves children and art whose status continues to be subservient to political ideology. But I do hope it opens up a serious and heated debate (not another theatrical cockfight) about what it means to be a citizen of a certain civilized state. As capital globalizes and we morph into “one world, one dream”, it is important to ask what it means to be an Australian vs. American vs. Chinese vs. Danish vs. Dominican. Citizenship has distinct rights and privileges, as well as moral standards and social responsibilities. What should we be able to see in public and in private?

Michel Foucault famously theorized that what exists has been allowed to exist. Jacques Ranciere writes about the “distribution of the sensible”, loosely defined as the system of divisions and boundaries that define what we as a society can perceive through our senses. As a New Yorker, I’ve grown accustomed to the post-9/11 police strategies of “If You See Something, Say Something”. It’s time we also say something about that which we do NOT see, what we collectively elect to leave out, eliminate, mutilate, conceal, or render extinct. The works we take down and the silences we administer define our humanity just as powerfully as the paintings we leave up and the speeches we amplify.

LEFT – “Amor Vincit Omnia” (translated as Love Conquers All), 1601, Caravaggio; RIGHT – One of Bill Henson’s seized photographs. (Black bar added by Australian news site.)



4 Responses to Police Shut Down Exhibition, Accuse Artist of Child Pornography

  1. Bandage says:

    Well, I may be oversimplifying the issue but if they’re under 18, they’re under 18. That age line is there to define situations like this where other lines are very muddy and centered around personal preference. I don’t necessarily condemn the artist but, if he’s going to ignore defined lines with distinct consequences if you cross them, then that’s that. One of the things art tends to do is try to be controversial in order to initially stir up some interest so this guy may have had this worked into his plan the whole time.

  2. blixity says:

    i think art becomes controversial because some artists push buttons and boundaries to show what has not been expressed before, either because it’s been concealed or because it’s a new way of thinking/looking. but yes i agree, some do it just for the hype. i’m not sure where henson stands, but based on his life’s work, hype isn’t the driver.

    another tricky thing for me is context. everyone’s focused on content. but the exhibition is in a private space, a gallery — not a public space. so the long arms of government is another issue that doesn’t sit well with me. it’s australia, so i don’t know their constitutional laws. thanks b!

  3. crap says:

    Having heard about this “artist” I finally decided to check out his work. It is utter crap. If I was to judge him by his work (subject matter, style etc) I would say he is a sick,sick man. The world does not need this stuff.

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