The controversy about the Mr Bill Henson's photographs has touched deep feelings. The issues involved have inevitably been reduced to single words or phrases, like exploitation, censorship, pornography, parents' response and freedom of artistic expression.
The issues however are complex, because the social relationships involved in taking and showing photographs of pubescent children are also complex and interrelated. They need to be named and thought through patiently.
The central question is whether it is ever right to photograph children, particularly children partially or totally naked, as an art form. There are many different contexts in which it is possible to photograph even undressed children. They range from a doctor making records preparatory to medical treatment, to war photographers filming families fleeing in terror from bombing, to filmmakers producing pornographic images.
Most of us would judge the act of taking photographs differently in these contexts. Our judgment is based partially on the intention of the photographer, but also on the likely impact on the child. So is it legitimate for an art photographer to take photographs of children in order to illuminate the aspects of childhood that we normally don't attend to?
As part of the context, the working relationship between model and photographer is also significant. Our judgment may be affected by knowing whether the photographer was abusive and manipulative or respectful and professional.
One of Mr Henson's earlier child models has described her experience as deeply respectful and safe. If she is believed, it cannot be argued that this kind of photography invariably damages children. It can certainly be argued that it is highly likely to damage them. But then we would also need to ask under what conditions the process would be safe.
One of the knottiest issues raised is whether children are capable of giving informed consent to an activity that is likely to affect them deeply. Even if they are capable of such consent, should we regard their consent as irrevocable? Children, after all, can change their mind totally and often.
Even if we judge that children cannot give irrevocable consent, that need not totally exclude their involvement. Their consent would clearly need to be supported by wise parental support. It would also need to be revocable. If they did revoke their consent, the image presumably would be removed from display and excluded from publication. Such conditions would have added benefits in discouraging the commercial exploitation of children in advertising.
The way we answer these contextual questions affect our judgment of Mr Henson's photographs. But we remain left with the deeper and troubling question whether children are appropriate photographic subjects for such searching study of the darkness of childhood. I do not find conclusive the evidence that they suffer hurt from the experience. But should even the possibility discountenance the making of such images?
Other questions arise about the display and reproduction of the images. Our answers may also vary with the context. It might make a difference whether the images were displayed in a gallery or on a tram. Galleries and specialist art journals usually attract people with a relatively trained artistic sensibility who look for the meaning of the image. Images in the public realm might draw a more superficial viewing.
That is not to say that everything claiming to be art should be entitled to be shown in a gallery. The making of the artefact or its content may involve such abuse of human dignity that to invite an aesthetic response to it would be morally unthinkable. Snuff movies of high quality, if such exist, might be an example. But I am not persuaded that Henson's photographic images are based in such disrespect for human dignity that they may not be shown.
Art is intimately related to currents in contemporary society and culture. This exhibition has revealed how strongly in our culture runs anxiety about child abuse. This anxiety has also expressed itself in concern about the sexualisation of children in media and advertising. It is natural that Bill Henson's images should be seen as part of this broader phenomenon. To support his enterprise will inevitably be seen as weakening opposition to this noxious trend.
Nevertheless what I have seen of Bill Henson's photographs suggest they work in quite a different space. His images seem less to sexualise childhood than to make sexuality just another of childhood's terrors. In his photographs nudity represents a disturbing vulnerability rather than a high sexuality. They are not pornographic. But it remains true that as a media event his art has been confused with the commercial exploitation of children.
Under the judgments we form about the legitimacy of making and showing art of this kind lies a view of the place that art plays in society. The higher our estimation of its importance, the greater the privileges we will give artists to make and display images that in other contexts we might exclude.
I would argue for a real but limited privilege. Art is central in any culture because it reflects the large human questions and the deep movements within the culture. This is a vital task. To do it properly artists must have space to make mistakes and to cross boundaries. Even repugnant images can illuminate a culture. But there is a moral framework in which art must work.
Finally, if we were convinced that Bill Henson's images should neither be made nor displayed, would it be right to invoke the law and involve the police? The answer will depend on whether these measures are likely to achieve the goals that the law is made to uphold, in this case to free children from exploitation and harm.
I suspect that most legal cases involving works of art do not achieve their goals. They bring the law into disrepute, arouse sympathy for the accused, and erode support for the good values the law is designed to protect. In the event, it is not only art that is liberated, but also pornography and exploitation.
Bill Henson at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery
Andrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.