The recent episode in a Sydney Art Gallery opened up a lot of wounds. Talented photographer Bill Henson had half his exhibit confiscated by police and found himself arrested and charged with producing child pornography. The offending material was a series of semi-nude photographs of a young girl, just on the verge of puberty.
“Philistines!” was the predictable outcry from the trendy arts community. “It’s Stalin and Mao all over again! Are we becoming a police state? What about freedom of expression? No one can tell us what we can and can’t do in the name of art! You cannot muzzle free expression in art!” They pointed to the subtle and beguiling beauty of Henson’s work, and there is no doubt that the censored examples of his photos shown in the general media do indeed possess great artistic merit.
Interesting that Henson shares his surname with the creator of the Muppets, Jim Henson. You remember them? They first became famous through the ubiquitous Sesame Street children’s programme, and then graduated to their own prime time variety show, lead by Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and a host of cute characters. The Muppets epitomised the guileless innocence of childhood. Much of their wholesome humour stemmed from the fact that they behaved like children wandering through an adult world, represented by their guest celebrities. Today’s Bill Henson has also addressed the innocence of youth through his images, but he has stripped it bare, he has vulgarised it. He has focused on the physical body, as if it were the core and centre of a person’s being, when in fact it should be the least important aspect of our existence.
It is a sign of the times. We live in an age where children are no longer allowed to be children, and where that sweet stage of innocence is snatched from them far too early. Even children’s cartoons contain sexual innuendos. The Australian answer to Sesame Street, the venerable Play School, had its own controversy not long ago when they decided to replace the traditional male and female hosts with two females for a few episodes. “Families are changing,” the producers explained, “and we must cater for all forms of family, including same sex couples.” Play School is a show for pre-schoolers: has the world gone mad???
More interesting still was the breaking of a story shortly after the Bill Henson incident that involved international arrests of men involved in child pornography. As of today, 90 men have been arrested in Australia, and more are expected to follow. They were tracked through their downloading of horrible pictures of child abuse from a European website. Those arrested included a policeman and chillingly, a number of teachers. The timing could hardly have been more significant. No one complained about those arrests. The arts community did not come out in support. There were no cries of “Philistines!” or “Freedom of expression!”
What’s the difference? Henson supporters would point out that his pictures were taken with the consent of the girl and her parents. They tell us that nudity doesn’t have to be sexual, and that these photos were not intended to be sexual, whereas the child porn definitely is. But they miss the point. In today’s world, with the media’s obsession with sex, nudity has become sexual. Pornography that is done very artistically is still pornography. Perhaps I’m wrong, but that is the only difference I see between Henson’s work and the web porn – one is very artistic and subtle, the other is coarse and crass, but they both mean the same thing: the exploitation of children, the feeding of the culture of obsession with sex and the children being robbed of their innocence.
Are we descending into an age of decadence? There are strong parallels between our times and those of the decline of the civilisations of ancient Greece and ancient Rome. The ancient Greeks were pioneers of art, their works much admired by all some two and a half millennia later. Poetry and theatre, mythology and paintings and sculpture. And yet, the ancient Greeks are also known for having adopted the practice of “boy love”, not in the innocent sense, but in the sense of an adult man engaging in sexual relations with young boys. And the Romans became famous for their decadence, indulging in orgies that dulled their consciences and destroyed their values until they had little strength or will to repel the invading Barbarians.
Consider the trends of the past 50 or so years. First divorce and de facto relationships became more accepted. Then it was the sexual revolution caused by the contraceptive pill, and the number of sexual partners people had sky rocketed. Sexual references, once restricted to late night TV shows, have gradually crept earlier and earlier on our evening televisions until now the can be seen by children around the dinner table. Then there is the emergence of homosexuality out of the closet and into our laws, workplaces and culture.
Is paedophilia the next corruption of God’s beautiful creation to become accepted in our society? I fear that work like Henson’s is just one more little step in that direction, a step to develop tolerance in the community to child nakedness.
May God have mercy on our world, and on the children of the future …