Bill Henson and the Explicit Beauty of Children
There is an unexpected moment early in Nabokov’s Lolita when the ‘bland’ and ‘goosefleshed’ Mrs Haze (Lolita’s mother), ‘had the cheek to take a photograph’ of the narrator Humbert Humbert. Meanwhile Humbert takes up vantages all around the house to spy on Lolita’s pubescent body, ‘the thousand eyes wide open in my eyed blood’ taking in ‘her tense narrow nates clothed in black’ as she sunbaths with her mother, hangs cloths on the line and walks the neighbourhood with her friends.
That snap is another little moment of inequity, in the careful tracery of Nabokov’s writing, that builds his narrator as a predator that ultimately harms the child in his care. Lolita is entirely unaware she is under this relentless and sexualising scrutiny. Later Humbert laments that he never filmed the mesmerizing grace of her tennis game. Photographs were insufficient for the delectation this paedophile takes in remembering his Lolita, and he remembers her principally as a visual object.
Earlier, Nabokov introduces his masterpiece as the journal of a dead pederast passed on to a Doctor to edit as a case history of ‘moral leprosy’. The conventionally good Doctor notes that as the book contains explicit scenes it will surely be condemned as obscene. But he appeals to Art. ‘”Offensive” is frequently but a synonym for “unusual”; and a great work of art is of course always original, and thus by its very nature should come more or less as a shocking surprise.’
Over the long of career of photographer Bill Henson Australians still experience his pubescent nudes as a shocking surprise. However, Henson is an artist and his images are exhibited in the sanctified space of a gallery. He has been defended from the imputation, and now formal charge, of child pornographer because of the conventions of display and marketing by which his work is seen and known. His defenders have massed themselves on the ‘High’ side of the high art/mass culture divide. While arguing that part of the value of Henson’s work is that he is self-conscious and destabilizing of that divide, they now invoke it to defend that work.
His trouble is that the wider public, including the Prime Minister, are unwilling to make these distinctions of genre when it comes to explicitness. Despite a long history of the nude in art, photographic nudes are explicit because the explicit is industrial. No amount of high-falutin’ printing, framing and gallery-pricing can protect Henson’s works from the grubby taint of mass-production. Henson knows this and his adolescent nudes and landscapes ask us to think about the status of photography given its ever-expanding private, public and commercial uses.
But some of his nudes of young people on the cusp of childhood ask us to consider, as Nabokov did, the peculiar beauty in girls and boys of what Humbert called the Nymphet, and others have variously called the Maiden, and the Youth. The texture of pubescent skin, its sometimes whimsical and sometimes stark relation to light, is a point of fascination for Nabokov and Henson. They both have a facility to evoke a complex mesh of feeling through the physical qualities of young bodies and faces, though Nabokov does it better. This mesh includes the nostalgia of lost childhood, and the poignancy of an unknown future, the vulnerability of exposure and the power of commanding the gaze.
Some of his nudes I can't stomach. The gothic urban scenes of young adults in rape scenarios - one a girl crawling through the dark away from the camera with blood running down her thigh from her cunt - are, I think, unconscionable. I'm told they refer to Bosch and Carvagio. I wonder how they don't refer to aggravated rape. But why should a photographer not refer to sexual violence? How am I to know if these images are critical? I think the beauty of the models invites a gaze that eroticises the rape depicted. That's a big concern when the rape of children and young women is as endemic as it is. Another 2 images of sleeping girls with their legs open knowingly evoke the conventions of kiddie porn - though in the magazines I've viewed the perpetrator is creeping his hands into the tweetie-bird nightie. They are irrefutably child abuse scenarios and I think Henson has a responsibility with these images to explain himself.
But in that mix is the awareness of sexual potential, the memory of our own intense sexual responses as young adults and the conceit and bewilderment of how our sexual appeal positions us in the world we’re coming into as adults.
Both Nabokov and Henson are men artists who are preoccupied with that mesh of feeling. Both confront us with the reality of child sexuality and through their own artistry get us to feel distinctly uneasy about the confusion between sexual response and aesthetic pleasure. Both of them throw us back on the cultural mire of sexualised childhood, from ‘piccaninnies’ to fashion advertising and they insist that this mire absolutely clouds the ways we see children. It is an inescapable fact that children have been sexualized, it’s the soup we swim in. There is also an epidemic of child sexual abuse that cannot be extricated from this established and entrenched cultural frame. But Henson, it has to be owned, also goes beyond this frame is his dystopic images of exposed and misused adolescents seemingly abandoned to remote landscapes.
What child protection advocate Hetty Johnson has done, in instigating the police investigation of child pornography into 20 of Henson’s exhibited works, is clear-fell the complex scene that surrounds these works and reduce them to one possible interpretation. Since they are naked, the children are shown in a sexual context. Since the image as explicit, the creator is a pornographer who betrays in his work that he has sexual feeling towards children which he celebrates and promotes and then sells to paedophiles for the purpose of sexually arousing them.
My girls are beautiful. I’m often told this and I see their beauty both as their mother and as an observer and consumer of imagery that, from Audrey Tatou to Bratz dolls, has reduced human beauty to the gangling physiognomy and tensile unblemished skin of adolescence. It frightens me that their children’s bodies are proportioned exactly as fashion models, only in miniature, without breasts. I’ve twice seen passing men’s eyes linger with pleasure over their wide-open faces and coltish forms. I fear for them because before they were even born their status as girls was sexualised and their beauty as children was appropriated to the intensely sexualised world of commodity fashion and beauty. I’ve also worked in services for child sexual abuse victims and I know with more detail than I care to remember that no matter what I do, my girls are vulnerable to that abuse –it is certainly not a ‘remote’, Aboriginal problem. It is such a damaging crime that many of us would eradicate it at any cost.
But repression, as censorship, never eradicates. Prohibition produces desire. And Hetty has unwittingly drawn the gaze of paedophiles to Henson’s work, and we can be sure, they will not be looking for nostalgia, ambiguity or the relation of young skin to light. They will be looking for explicitness and intensifying their pleasure in the knowledge and transgression of looking at images that are banned.
I life-modeled for my sister when I was 13. A series of white on black nudes, some of which she sold, and some of which are still hanging around the families’ homes. They are lovely, but there is one that still invokes that peculiarly epidermal feeling of exposure because I remember a neighbour ogling it when she first drew it. Young women negotiate that gaze everywhere they go. And mostly their peculiar loveliness, which is undoubtedly sexual, is ogled and harassed. I would not send one of Hensen’s models, fully clothed, to walk the gauntlet of King Street on a Friday night.
Henson’s status as an artist does not protect him from the accusation that his imagery participates in the sexualistion of children, not if we accept the argument of his work, that the art/mass distinction is a furphy. But it’s a conversation we need to have. While Nabokov insists on that conversation, Henson doesn’t and I have always found that a troubling aspect his more menacing young-nudes. But it is also a limitation of his medium. As a photographer he can’t inscribe any moral viewpoint but only a scopic viewpoint.
Hensen is knowing about all the conventions of child sex that frame his images. Like Nabakov his work provoke us to be honest about that, to see these young people as both disturbingly part of a culture that exposes them before they have a full understanding of the status and meaning of their own bodies. But in his nudes these young men and women also stand apart from this culture. They are inelubtably born into it, in their own beautiful skins. Does and should beauty command respect? Why does it instead command obsessive fascination with no regard for the sexual autonomy of young men and women? We need to have this conversation, but not with police.