Monday, October 06, 2008

Bill Henson’s “unimpeachable” school trawling

Has Australia’s boomer arts cabal lost the plot? Author and SMH journalist David Marr’s radio interview today was Pauline-Hanson shrill, defensive, and illogical. It reads like a parody of itself – or perhaps even an epitaph for an era. (Here’s hoping the latter.)

"I don't see what the problem is so long as the protocols are followed and so long as it is the parents who decide," Marr told ABC Radio. "This is a man who at the time was regarded as an unimpeachable, leading artist in this country, being taken by a school principal into a playground and suddenly it is this monstrous horror."

"There's nothing unusual about artists going into schools, there's nothing unusual about casting agents for film and television going in there." Marr . . . said there was a system of "talent spotting" in schools where people were allowed to look around for talent, without the prior consent of parents . . .

"The child was photographed with the full consent of his parents ... he was not photographed at the school. The boy was not photographed naked, he's got his shirt off." . . .

"I'll be having a couple of words to [fellow SMH journalist] Miranda [Devine] face to face when I get back to Sydney," he said. "Isn't she a charmer."

Perhaps Marr was emboldened by co-boomer Peter Craven’s amazing assertion in today’s Age that “[i]n 25 years no model has ever complained of Henson's conduct”. How would Craven know? While I accept that there is no media coverage of any such complaint, the media’s and Henson’s own silences in this regard speak volumes.

I blogged in May on Henson’s opacity when he was on-the-record re his child-model recruitment and consent processes. Presumably unwilling or unable to go down this path one more time, Marr’s book on Henson actually contains a quite direct admission:

Henson concedes some of his models may have looked back with regret about working with him but says there has never been any negative reactions at the end of a session. "There must have been a few errors of judgment in 35 years of work, where I photographed someone who in retrospect has gone, 'I wish I didn't do that'."

Taking out Henson’s “at the end of a session” lawyerly caveat, and transposing his ridiculous contingent tense (“may” and “must have”) to the real world, Henson has surely said that some former child models of his have complained about their modelling, long after the event, most likely in adulthood.

This admission is hardly surprising, I would have thought, given Henson’s oeuvre. But Peter Craven can’t see the writing on the wall, even when it comes from Henson’s own hand.

On the other hand, Henson’s other quote from Marr’s book on his child-model recruitment and consent processes is, like Marr’s interview today, unintentionally hilarious – a perfect parody of a chin-stroking boomer arts wanker:

"In the book, Henson says he takes photographs only with the 'willing participation and full control' of the family. The child then makes the final decision. He also points out that children have an ability to detect unsavoury people. 'Kids can smell a rat, you know, and we just don't give them credit for it. If there is a dodgy teacher in the school, kids will know about it ... It's all part of the way in which they are naturally equipped to be resilient. Babies are tough'." (same URL)

Henson obviously knows either nothing or too much about serial child sexual abuse in schools – which would always be stopped in its tracks after, at worst, the first adult-in-authority grope of the first child, according to his “smell a rat” theory.

His “babies are tough” line seems a non-sequitur, given the much older age range of Henson’s models (10+). Perhaps he’s defending the photographic art of Anne Geddes, while he’s at it. More likely, he’s unsubtly hinting that the fact that babies don’t care about their own nudity should somehow rub off on older children (such as those he photographs), most (or all) of whom do care about their own nudity.

The greatest silence of the whole Henson affair of 2008, however, relates to the thorough mauling of Henson’s motives by writer (and artist) Adam Geczy - an Xer, of course. Geczy’s article “Humbert or Humbug” was in the same (July 2008, #211) issue of Art Monthly whose cover received blanket media coverage – coverage that never looked past the journal’s cover, or the two photos on page 6, at most.

You won’t find the text of Geczy’s article online at Art Monthly, or anywhere else, it would seem. This is a real shame, as it is worth reading in full. With some misgivings, I’ve set out Geczy’s money-shots – only – below. The only comment I need to make, in case my editing of Geczy is not clear, is that, specifically referring to the controversial opening-invitation image of the naked 12 (or 13) year-old girl, Geczy declares Henson a pervert, in the nicest possible way.

“[Henson’s] naked girl, I think, is a kind of Rilkean angel of the deeper sense that most Australians eschew, an avatar of a forgotten soul. But she is Henson’s creation. We do not see the girl, we see him. Only artists with a strong personality can pull this off. She is also, just perhaps, the artist’s fetish . . . For the fact is that some men like young girls. The true scandal of some artists is the insufficient honesty in articulating their own dark secrets”.

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