As of this morning, the case against acclaimed artistic photographer Bill Henson appears to have collapsed completely. A few days ago, the censored versions of the most controversial images, as published by news outlets, were given a G rating. The uncensored version of the most controversial image has now been rated a lowly PG. Australia's censorship authority, the Classification Board, has stated that the "image of breast nudity … creates a viewing impact that is mild and justified by context … and is not sexualised to any degree".
As of this morning, there seems to be no prospect that the relevant authorities will view the images as pornographic or that any legal action will be taken against Henson or anyone else. The Australian justice system appears to be working well. [Edit: A bit later, it was confirmed that no charges would be laid. Hopefully, the idiocy is now at an end.]
Assuming that there are no further dramatic twists, we can now reflect on the lessons to be learned from this debate, including the crude populist streak that has been revealed in a number of politicians, the cowardice of others, the prudishness and often sheer stupidity of many prominent commentators in the media, the Orwellian lengths to which others have been prepared to go to dream up some kind of plausible-sounding argument against Henson, the willingness of many to demonise the arts community for its supposed insensitivity and elitism, and so on. It hasn't been a pretty picture, and Australia has not been looking good - there's been all too much willingness to pander to the prudes and the merchants of moral panic.
One of the lessons is that many people are still unable to make even slightly nuanced judgments about images that involve nudity (another is that many people cannot make even slightly nuanced judgments about when it is, and when it is not, appropriate for the state to interfere on paternalistic grounds with family decisions, but perhaps enough has been said about that elsewhere, at least for now).
A few days ago, Guy Rundle - in a particularly wrong-headed piece in The Age - complained that Henson crossed a line, partly because nudity and "the power of photography" have deep-seated meanings. His piece doesn't tell us what those meanings are, but he claims, fatuously, that the images are "unmistakably sexualised". Well, the Classification Board obviously had a different view.
The images at the centre of the storm are, no doubt, open to many interpretations, but one thing that they certainly are not is unmistakeably sexualised. Nor are they pornographic by any reasonable standard. They are not even provocatively erotic, which is not quite the same thing (difficult though it is to draw any principled distinction between "pornography" and "erotica"). The images do nothing - certainly nothing unmistakeable - to encourage the gaze of pedophiles or invite sexual arousal.
At most, they suggest the sexual potential of the young people whom Henson has photographed, as they begin to metamorphose from childhood into the beginnings of adulthood. It's a vulnerable time, often misunderstood by the adult world, but with its own fleeting beauty (a beauty that most of us find unerotic, fortunately, but our opponents don't seem to be able to make the distinction between aesthetic beauty and sexual attraction).
In an earlier version of this post - published as a comment on Alison Croggon's blog - I said that I'd be astounded if this adds up to the "sexual context" referred to in various legislative instruments that are meant to forbid child pornography. As of this morning, I'd have every reason to be even more astounded (when I wrote the original comment I hadn't caught up with the very latest news that the controversial image of the young teenage girl had been given a PG rating).
It distresses me that so many participants in the current debate seem to think that nudity, in art or elsewhere, means one thing and one thing only: sex ... literal, unqualified sex. Not that I'm against sex. Quite the opposite. The point is, I'm against tunnel vision. It also disturbs me that anything even remotely associated with sex, or sexuality, or sexual potential, or perceived as having such an association, is automatically viewed as somehow shameful and (at the same time) dangerous.
We need to grow up as a society and take a much more informed and worldly view of these things. If we look around us, we'll see that our forebears adopted varied, and sometimes even contradictory, attitudes to sexuality, nudity, and the body, and maybe we can remind ourselves that all of this is our cultural heritage — and legitimate subject matter for artists of all kinds.
Christianity has been one (rather dull and miserable) thread through the history of Western civilisation, and it has tended to consider the body to be shameful, and insist that it be hidden. But that nasty manner of thinking about our physical selves needn't control our thoughts any longer. In many ways, modern Australia is a post-Christian society, and that's entirely a good thing. We don't need to look at all the amazing phenomena of the world around us through the lenses and filters offered by Abrahamic religion. We can open our eyes to view its splendour (and misery), well, naked.
In any event, those of us who live in countries like Australia (or the US, or the UK, and wherever else readers of this blog are most likely to come from) have the benefit of living in modern, pluralistic societies where no one cultural interpretation of the body (or anything else) is privileged over all the others. All must take their chances, and none merits endorsement by the state.
I said that our forebears had many complex, even contradictory, attitudes to nudity (and sex and the body). Here are just a few examples to think about:
* The stripping or revealing of the naked body when questions arise about what it is to be human - think of maddened King Lear, driven to despair by his ingrate daughters and exiled into the storm. (I can't help but think of Sir Ian McKellen's electrifying performance in the lead role when King Lear played recently in Melbourne.)
* Ideas of baptismal rebirth or the return to an Edenic or Arcadian state.
* Sexuality that is merely potential, not yet come to ripeness.
* The rejection of monogamy, prudery, and convention. A kind of wildness that defies society.
* The worlds of faeries and pagan gods: beings that far transcend the need for clothing to protect them from the world.
* Vulnerability. Not much more need be said about this; clothing can be a protection against the world, and the portrayal of nudity can represent various kinds of vulnerability. Notice, though, the word "represent". It does not follow that people who model nude of their own free will are vulnerable in ways that require the state to step in and protect them on paternalistic grounds. To conflate the two ideas is a form of magical thinking.
* Invulnerability (think of the gods and faeries again — they don't need clothes to survive, not like us; their bodies are at home in the cosmos in a way that ours can seldom or ever achieve).
* Lush exoticism with all its problems (sometimes a disturbing soft racism can be found in the domain that I'm trying to suggest here, in such works as Rider Haggard's nineteenth-century novels and their many imitators; still, the exoticism is sometimes quite innocent).
* The glorious muscular power displayed by strong unclothed bodies, male or female.
* Beyond this, the spectacle of super bodies in comics ... or in movies that use stunningly "built" actors such Arnold Schwarzenegger.
* And beyond this again, the suggestion of a different kind of power when humanlike aliens or monsters appear naked - simultaneously glorious and dangerous, perhaps both more and less than human.
* And finally, for now, moral decadence (yes, there's no doubt that that can sometimes be a connotation of the nude body, based upon the long cultural association of the body and its erotic capacity as shameful - but this goes along with all the other meanings that I've mentioned, and more).
For the past three millennia of Western civilisation, the body has often been despised; equally often, perhaps, it has been loved and glorified. At other times, it has been scrutinized intellectually or aesthetically, and yes, of course it can be utilised for erotic display. None of these ideas — or any combination — exhausts the potential of the subject matter.
The nude human body has endless connotations that have been explored by many artists in many forms and media over the centuries since civilisation itself was in its cradle. It would take a crude sensibility to reduce its depiction by a skilled visual artist such as Bill Henson to some kind of shameful voyeurism (and yet, much of the debate in the blogosphere consists of fools equating Henson's work with pedophilia, some even engaging in disturbing fantasies about how Henson must relate to his models).
Henson is surely well aware of the rich cultural tradition that I've been describing, probably more aware of it than any of us.
However, his detractors don't seem to understand it one bit. Much of what I've been reading over the past couple of weeks is thought without rigour or nuance. Some of it scarcely deserves to be regarded as thought. Much of what has been written in the blogosphere has been no more than puerile posturing (the commentators showing less maturity than Henson's much-condescended-to youthful models).
Maybe I'm an elitist, but if it's elitist to make an effort at analytical rigour and sensitivity to nuance, then I call elitism "good". I'll go and join the carnival of elitists and be proud. It certainly beats dismissing Henson's images as "revolting" in the charming language of our prime minister.