Bill Henson and the Paedophilic Gaze

Ben Peek has written an eloquent response to the Bill Henson controversy. I started writing a quick reply to his post but it quickly became rather long and I started to say some things I figured might not be appropriate to stick in someone else’s blog. Probably better to put it in my own instead, but read what Ben has to say first.

I’ve just heard that the police investigation might be extended to some images in the Newcastle Regional Art Gallery (purchased in the early 90’s, with not a single complaint from the viewing public). And the yellow-bellied Albury Regional Art Gallery voluntarily pulled three of their Henson works from exhibition yesterday.

It makes me seethe.

The current societal concern about paedophilia and child abuse is bordering on – some might say crossed over into – outright hysteria.

Of course children have a latent sexuality. Adolescents more than latent. And adults have a different kind – or many different kinds – of sexuality again. It’s perfectly normal and healthy for kids to muck around with kids in the sexuality arena, and for teenagers to muck around with teenagers. Serious problems arise when adults get involved and impose their own sexuality (and inherent power imbalance involved) on children and adolescents.

Ironically, sadly, while Henson is not doing this, his detractors certainly are.

The attitude that ANY nude – hell, naked, let’s dispense with the arty words and say NAKED – photograph of a child or teenager is inherently pornographic and sexualised (in the way adults perceive sexuality) is simply vile. It imposes the paedophilic mindset on all of us. Naked babies in TV commercials, children modelling underwear in KMart catalogues, works of art in galleries … we are now forced to look at such images with a paedophilic gaze. Worse: toddlerspaddling unclothed at the beach, and happy snaps of our own children (and of  our younger selves?) shrieking bare-skinned beneath summer sprinklers or splashing in bubble baths, become things we are unable to view without at least a niggle of unease.

I resent it more than words can express.

Moreover, it’s dangerous. If all images of naked children, if the naked children themselves, become imbued by default with an adult sexuality then how few small steps does it take to normalise a sexual attraction on the part of an adult for a child? Or to justify acting upon such an attraction? (Hell, it’s the guiding philosophy behind those MAMBLA cunts.)

The following image disturbs the hell out me. It’s a reproduction of one of Henson’s images from the Sydney gallery at the centre of police investigations. The pixellation and black bar have been added by the online media outlets that have published stories about the Henson case. I have seen the image several times now in various places on different days.

Bill Henson
I have not viewed the original, uncensored print but I imagine from what I have seen of Henson’s work that it would be a beautiful, powerful portrait. I imagine a complex expression on the girl’s face. I imagine adolescent uncertainty and fragility, combined with a flash of youthful pride and promise. I imagine her semi-shadowed eyes staring back at me, challenging me to regard her as a person, not as an image, not as THE image. I imagine a smile. I imagine deadpan. I imagine timidity. I imagine boldness. I imagine what her breasts might be like. They look like they would be much smaller than mine would have been at her age. I was teased because my breasts got very big, very early. I was one of the first girls to wear a bra in primary school, when I did wear it and didn’t hunch over trying to pretend my breasts weren’t there. Is she teased because her breasts are small, in an age when plastic surgery is fast becoming the norm for girls only a scant few years her senior? Is she insecure with her body, or does she rejoice in it? Does she wish she looked different, as I did (as I still do sometimes, too many times)? How does she look? Is she beautiful, boyish, bambi-esque?

I don’t know, I might never know. Twenty years apart, I might have locked gazes with this girl in a gallery at some stage or an art book, and thought such questions. Or different questions. Engaged with her, with the artist, with myself, with the society we all inhabit together, but separately.

Instead, I have this image. This censored image, an image completely the reverse of Henson’s original intention.

Girl as Victim.

Her face obscured, rendered anonymous. Expressionless. One of many. Victim. Criminal. Pixellation is indifferent and will do for both. And that black bar. So ugly, so solid. “Look,” it says. “But don’t look. Because it’s bad, what I’m covering up. You’re not supposed to look, you’re not supposed to see. It’s bad. You’re bad. But look, you mustn’t look.”

Girl as Perpetrator.

(What’s under there? Don’t you want to know what’s under there? What you’re not supposed to see? What can’t you see? What they don’t want you to see? What she doesn’t want you to see?)

Girl as Striptease.

Bill Henson didn’t do this. Hysterical, holier-than-thou fucktards did this. The Wowsers. The Police. The Media. The Politicians.

And they’re making all of us paedophiles together.

6 thoughts on “Bill Henson and the Paedophilic Gaze

  1. yeah, that image they have going round is pretty powerful, isn’t it? i even had my own go of deciphering it.

    1. Yeah, talk about “inadvertent art”. It’s genuinely disturbing and, no matter how many times I see it, it still manages to creep me out. One of the worst elements is the positioning of that damn black bar. It’s just low enough leave the suggestion the cleavage, the early pubescent upswell at the top of the girl’s breasts, in view. There’s a perverse sexualisation in that alone.

      All kinds of fuck-up-ed-nes.

      Thanks for your post. I’ve been stewing about this for days and couldn’t come up with the right words, but your piece dampened my seething resentment enough for lucidity to gain a foothold.

      1. well, you know, i’ve long been a dampening influence 😉

        yeah, the position of that bar is kinda weird, hey? i mean, why not raise it, or just make it bigger? cause only nipples need to be hidden?

  2. “The sign of a philistine age is the cry of immorality against art.” – Oscar Wilde

    I love hearing sane voices in hysteria and moral panic, it reminds you that there are still some people able to keep a level head when everyone around them is caught up and trying to protect themselves against an empty threat at their logic’s expense.

    Damn that was a long sentence, haha.

    In a week’s time I’m publishing my next news column about this topic, with the same angle your opinion carries. I don’t think people are intentionally vile and dictatorial in these topics, we just have a mainstream culture stifled by the post-victorian fear and paranoia of sexuality. It’s very freudian, the way people cry ‘deviant’ at innocent things these days. And that picture above – which I’ve seen uncensored – confronts you. It slaps you in the face, then as it intends to, fills you with an uncertainty and sympathy for the girl. You really worry about her and the confusing time she’s growing through.

    My point is, please, keep spreading the message that art is not something to hide from ourselves or (a much worse sin) others. Our culture is still recovering from a very immature, fanatical phase as I mentioned above, so we need people like you to press good and rational arguments like this. Even consider going into opinion journalism, hehe.

    *hugs the writer* Thanks for spreading the word, if I ever actually sign up here I’ll read more of your stuff.

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