The Great Divide

[16 October 2008]

By David Pullar

It’s strange to believe that in these days of the twenty-four hour news cycle a minor scandal can be caused by something as old-fashioned as a book.  But this is exactly what has happened in the latest chapter of the Bill Henson case.

If you haven’t followed the story, a Sydney exhibition by the photographer Bill Henson was shut down in May following a complaint about the content of the show—namely nude photos of pre-pubescent boys and girls.  There was moral outrage from the tabloids, condemnation from the Prime Minister and defensiveness from the arts community.

There was a lot of discussion about the boundaries of art and pornography, none of it very edifying, but it did remind us of the strong differences in outlook between “middle” Australia and the creative community.  One side thought that there were few, if any, circumstances when depicting naked children was appropriate—parent’s bathtime photos of their own children being about the limit.  The other caught a whiff of censorship and feared a return to the 1950s or worse.

As things played out, Henson was investigated but not charged with any offence.  Things were quiet for several months, then it all blew up again with the publication of excerpts from David Marr’s The Henson Case.

Marr is a prominent journalist and intellectual.  His treatment of Henson was sympathetic and presumably he intended to defend Henson from the accusation that he was…well, a bit of a perv.  The problem was that the book included a brief reference to Henson visiting a Melbourne school to identify possible subjects—a red rag to the mainstream media bull if ever there was one.

The big question is what Marr intended by relaying the story.  Was he merely following a good reporter’s commitment to disclosure?  Or was he oblivious to the likely reaction?

The second option seems particularly unlikely, given Marr’s familiarity with the best and the worst of the Australian media, but perhaps it’s closest to the truth.

If the Henson case has revealed anything, it’s that Australian public dialogue is hampered by a lack of mutual understanding.  The “truth” seems to self-evident to most people—but that “truth” is different depending on a number of factors.  There seems to be genuine bafflement by the Henson supporters that the majority fail to understand the merit of Henson’s work.

Naturally it’s the job of artists to challenge the status quo and show us new perspectives, but hopefully the arts community will stop being so surprised when the public don’t take too kindly to what they see and hear.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/the-great-divide/