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4b - No nudes today, zealots rule, OK?

Peter Craven; The Age; October 6, 2008

David Marr, The Henson Case -Australia

David Marr's The Henson Case, the book that traces the progress of the recent controversy that overtook the nation's most celebrated photographer in May this year, goes on sale today.

Its publication has been preceded by a further and unexpected installment of the furore that had Bill Henson's exhibition closed and subjected to police investigation, as well as accusations that it was pornographic.

Now we have Premier John Brumby calling for an investigation into the fact that a primary school principal allowed Henson to visit his school for possible models.

Federally, the Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Turnbull, the only major political figure to speak on behalf of "freedom" in the context of the previous Henson hysteria, has now declared that he feels "outrage" at these reported visits.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who found himself in disagreement with Cate Blanchett and J. M. Coetzee over Henson, has once again declared himself "disgusted".

Why? Because Henson happened to visit a primary school and asked the respective parents of one boy and one girl if they would like their children to be models for him. The boy's parents said yes, and the girl's parents said no. End of story you might have thought.

But no. The image of the depraved artist is once again mighty in the land. It is an ironic consequence of David Marr's account of Henson's travails. I have read The Henson Case and it is in some ways surprising how quiet the book is in its representation of the outrageous accusations Henson was subject to. 

The Henson Case does not, for instance, constitute a savage and explicit denunciation of the anti-pedophile campaigner Hetty Johnston, who thinks that to take a photo of a young girl with her clothes off is necessarily pornographic. 

Nor is there much in the way of criticism of the Prime Minister's unrepentant revulsion. Marr says the Camelot moment with the arts community is over, but his book is not the cri de coeur that one might expect from Marr if the philistines in this case were conservative. 

Perhaps this reflects the split in liberal Australia that the Henson case produced. Marr is clearly pro-Henson and pro-artistic freedom, but he's careful not to step too heavily on the toes of the child protection zealots. 

What does come through with exceptional clarity in David Marr, not least because of this restraint, is that there is no charge for Bill Henson to answer.

And this is directly pertinent to the primary school "scouring" as one newspaper called it. When Donald McDonald's Classification Board, in response to a concerned alert from the Australian Communication and Media Authority (the body that polices the internet) was asked to rule on the Henson images that had inflamed debate it concluded that "the image of nudity" in each case was "very mild", that it was fit to be viewed by persons of all ages and therefore warranted a G rating.

When the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions, Nick Cowdery, QC, looked at the Henson pictures that had been seized by police he said that although the models were naked: 

"There is nothing about the manner in which they are depicted which would cause offence."

He said of the now notorious image of N, the young girl with the budding breasts: 

"There is nothing in the photographs of the girl that could be fairly described as providing a sexual context."

The fuss had been about nothing. Forget for a moment that the director of the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, could come to Australia to testify to Henson's "high artistic merit". According to any reasonable interpretation of the very tough NSW Crimes Act, the images were not pornographic. 

They were also declared to be fit for general exhibition in the eyes of the nation's censor. 

Bill Henson having a look at some kids in a primary school is as innocent and straightforward as a junior footy coach or a casting director of Neighbours doing so. Geoffrey Rush instanced Kodi Smit-McPhee, the young star of Romulus, My Father. Are we to say that he
could not consent because of the possible future ill effects of appearing in a film about family disarray? 

The argument about children and Henson is just as silly. In the case of the boy in question, from the primary school, nudity was not involved, but that is not the point.

The photographs by Henson, subjected to the most intense scrutiny by the highest authorities, in a context of aggravated moral panic and revulsion, have been cleared of any taint of pornography, quite apart from artistic merit. 

The opposite viewpoint has no legal basis and is socially deranged because it assumes the only non-family motive for ever taking photos of children must be perverted.

This falls into precisely the trap of sexualising children that the campaigners so fear.

It's sick, and it has to be resisted. The president of the Victorian Principals Association, Fred Ackerman, said of letting Henson look around the school that this was not a serious breach of regulations. 

Of course it isn't. In 25 years no model has ever complained of Henson's conduct. Brumby should back off, Rudd should reserve his disgust for matters of moment, and Turnbull, who spoke on behalf of freedom when no one else would, should return to form.

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