Pornography as art?

A great controversy has broken out over a photography exhibition featuring a series of naked and semi-naked adolescents—some in sexually suggestive poses—photographed by artist Bill Henson. As Wikipedia summarizes:

On the 22 May 2008, the opening night of Bill Henson’s 2007-2008 exhibition at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, depicting nude children, was canceled after Hetty Johnston, a child protection campaigner, lodged a complaint about the exhibition with the New South Wales police.

The furore from commentators of the left and right has been intense. Elizabeth Farrelly, repeating a common argument, says:

It’s like that joke. A man on the psychiatrist’s couch sees, in ink blot after ink blot, nothing but sexual imagery. A butterfly shape looks like testicles, a hilly mountain-scape like a rollicking bedroom scene, and so on. But when the shrink delivers his verdict—you, sir, are a sex fiend—the man is indignant. “What?” he huffs. “But you’re the one drawing the dirty pictures!”

This underpins the Henson case. Who’s drawing the dirty pictures here?

To which right-wing satirist Tim Blair retorts, “Nobody. Henson is taking photographs of naked 13-year-olds.”

Indeed. Christians who have in the past been the brunt of taunts about prudishness and wowserism will be somewhat surprised, if pleased, to discover that a boundary line in public opinion has suddenly been reached. There really is a limit to what society will tolerate in the name of art. It’s a pity that the issue has to be so extreme, but it’s surely better than no limit existing at all.

This debate will continue to play out, and rightly so. Christian teaching about the power of sex to damage when misused is (sadly) going to be confirmed again and again. But for those interested in seeing the utter vacuity of secular thinking about morality, this will be worth paying attention to.

Here’s just one example. People defending immorality have often used the argument that peoples’ personal sexual preferences and behaviour are their own business; we have no business prying into individuals’ private bedroom behaviour. Now, astonishingly, some of the defenders of these near-pedophilic pictures are arguing that they are legitimate because they are not private. So Elizabeth Farrelly, in the opinion piece linked above, mocks her opponents with these words:

As though a latent pedophile might enact his fantasies only after popping into a Paddington art show for inspiration … We know that pedophilia thrives less on public erotica, offensive as such advertising is, than on secrecy masked as decency. We know it exploits children’s innocence, not their sexuality, and that it flourishes in the very vestries, boudoirs and private offices of the respectable.

So there we are. Danger now lies with privacy. If we happen to discover that the obscene images are out in public view, we can relax!

Keep a watch on this issue; there will (unfortunately) be plenty of material here for the Christian apologist to use in talking about the nature of sin and our blindness to it.

PS. Soon-to-be-sola-panellist Paul Grimmond sent in this short, sharp comment:

What is art?

Last night I had a nightmare. They’d caught a priest with photos of naked 12-year-old girls on his hard drive. Cate Blanchett was saying how terrible it was that the church had abused its position of trust. Then I woke up. How relieved I was to find that it was all just a dream. And I thanked God that we have ‘art’ to ‘enrich’ our lives.

17 thoughts on “Pornography as art?

  1. One thing that concerns me about this debate is the lack of nuance involved.

    There is an awful lot of caricaturing by the press in this controversy – the immoral artist and the peverse art critics vs. the morally upright, protectors of innocence.

    Will this help Christians in their attempt to dialogue with people about sexuality and its peversion today? I’m not sure.

  2. Also interesting, this comment in the SMH about the hypocrisy of the ‘art crowd’ in demanding free expression, and yet censuring the Prime Minister for his frank disapproval of the pieces in question:

    It makes one wonder whether ‘free expression’ really means ‘free to express whatever I dream up, no matter how perverse’. How curious that the public have reacted against it – some hint of a conscience, perhaps? or another social convention that will pass in time, once enough of these controversies have played out in the papers?

  3. I haven’t seen these pictures but I wouldn’t assume they are ‘pornographic’ or ‘near-pedophilic’ because they involve naked adolescents.

    Gordon – Have you seen these pictures?

    The defenders of Henson may rightly be saying his genuine artistic intent gives him a defence at law and puts him into a different ethical box than the pornographer.

    I’d rather charitably assume he is a genuine artist acting with artistic intent. This doesn’t give him a licence to do anything (Scorcese can’t start making snuff movies)

    My objection is that Henson’s work involves the exploitation and sexualisation of minors which should not be allowed – even in the name of art.

    To say it isn’t art is to say too much.

    How can we connect with the artistic community when we join the chorus of outrage and not engage with the real issues?

  4. I think Tony Abbott makes a good point that if these photos were found on his computer, he would be accused of possessing child pornography.

  5. What evidence do you have that some of the photos were of models shot “in sexually suggestive poses”? I wasn’t aware this had been established, as if it has been it changes the debate considerably, so I’d be interested in a link or reference if it has been established.

    Nor am I advocating for the photos, I agree with the ‘let kids be kids’ sentiment, but if we’re going to attack them we need to be accurate.

    BTW the wikipedia link is broken.

  6. [moderator comment]


    Thank you for those who are contacting about bugs in the system and broken links. At the moment I am just removing broken links and we will get to the bug issues as soon as we can. Apologies!

    Second, should you be interested in the links now omitted, they are:

    [the Wikipedia article]


    [Tim Blair’s comment on Elizabeth Farrelly’s opinion piece]

    [moderator hat off]

    Unfortunately, Michael and Luke, I have seen some of the Henson photographs. If you search through old editions of the Sydney Morning Herald from this week you will find an example. I don’t recommend this. They are sexually suggestive and involve under-age girls and boys. I am not sufficiently in touch with community standards to know whether they would be broadly considered pornographic, but I consider them so.

    I’mm aware that there are questions of nuance and intent that will make discussion of individual examples difficult. But I think the principle that artistic expression ought not to trump morality remains. Biblically speaking, artistic culture is a neutral thing, not inherently bad but not inherently ennobling either. Morality is not, for the Christian, something that can be set aside.

    Mike, I think you believe this anyway, as in your acknowledgement that “Scorsese can’t start making snuff movies”. And I’m actually more interested in highlighting principles along these lines, than in discussing specific definitions of what might or might not be pornographic.

    Although I’d make the general observation that if a significant number of the secular community <i>do</i> consider something to be pornographic in nature, it would be at the very least surprising to find Christians arguing that no, it was perfectly acceptable on artistic grounds.

    I think we can be seduced into taking too lightly Paul’s instruction to ‘Flee sexual immorality’ (1 Cor 6:18). Surely this would play out in a way that is, whether intentionally or not, going to make us look somewhat like fuddy-duddies on matters like this.

    1 Peter 4:3-4 says “3 The time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry.  4 With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you…”

    Some rather disconnected late Friday night thoughts there.

  7. Gordon, if you want Christians to throw rocks at “the utter vacuity of secular thinking about morality” I think there is an onus on us to offer something better.

    If Christians sneer at this from the sidelines, and see it as an opportunity to “gather material” for apologetics, I think we forfeit our right to criticize the quality of the argument.

    If our contribution is to say “we agree with most secular people that this is pornography not art” then we’ve said nothing at all – or at least nothing distinctively Christian.

    The Bible has a lot to say about: youth, beauty, sin, image, sex, lust, youth, good parenting, justice, exploitation, bodies etc Maybe I’m hungering for a Kategoria article, rather than a quick Sola post. It would seem to me though – that if we speak about these things – then maybe we’d be heard by both sides of this debate to be speaking with a distinctive gospel voice.

  8. I think most of the things we say with regard to ethics are not distinctively Christian, Mike.

    There is nothing distinctively Christian, for example, about injunctions like “Do not murder” or “Let the aid through to Burma” or “Tell the truth”. Even Gentiles can occasionally get ethics right! (Romans 2:14-16)

    That Christians would find themselves in agreement with many secular commentators on a particular moral issue is hardly problematic. Nor does noting the fact of such agreement on an issue constitute sneering from the sidelines—does it?

    However, I do think that one of the tasks of good apologetics is highlighting the inconsistency and absurdity with which moral issues are addressed, once belief in God is abandoned as a given.

    So you or I, or some other person may disagree in a particular instance about where the boundary line between pornography and non-pornography lies. But despite that, demonstrating the absurdity of the view that art justifies moral transgression is a really good thing.

    Yes, Martin Scorsese can’t start making snuff movies. And the day he does so (if it comes) will not necessarily be the day Christians choose to respond by presenting a thoughtful paper on violence, militarism, Augustine’s just war theory, and the innate impulse to human aggression as seen in the world of art. Those would be useful contributions at another time, and in another place.

    So I don’t disagree with your analogous list concerning youth, beauty, sin, image (and so on), and the worthwhileness of Christians thinking about these subjects.

    I <i>do</i> disagree, however, that highlighting a silly argument in a moral debate constitutes sneering from the sidelines. Surely demolishing foolish arguments is something that Christian apologists do! That they (in this specific matter) find themselves in agreement with some secular commentators (who by the way include figures from the left of politics as well as the right) may even indicate that they haven’t taken leave of their senses.

    It certainly would show that if they are on the sidelines, they are there with a lot of other people—including the Australian Prime Minister. Possibly 10% of the population had heard of the artist in question before this furore? But in buying in to the debate at this time, we are addressing the 90%. Given this, I even (somewhat cheekily) wonder if the sidelines are where the real action is, as far as Christians are concerned.

    Maybe I’ll ask my friends at the choir rehearsal tomorrow what they think. ; -)

  9. Without condoning the photos, it seems to me that people’s views on childhood are just as confused as their arguments on morality…

  10. Gordon, I now disagree with you over art and ethics! If “most ethical things we say aren’t distinctively Christian” then they should be – I would have thought murder the most obvious example (think image of God and abortion and euthanasia for starters).
    I don’t understand your point about 10% and 90%. My point about the sidelines is that highlighting the weakness in secular moral thinking on a Christian blog is less useful than entering the debate – although I’d concede there is a place for it in apologetics. By choosing to not pursue the nuanced difficult questions (which I think you would acknowledge are there) and instead following the popular outrage you make the same mistake as the Prime Minister. You put at least a significant number of the art community offside because they feel unfairly caricatured and misrepresented (something that happens to Christians in media regularly). Do we make the same political judgement that the PM does and say its ok to alienate 10%? (I’m hoping that wasn’t your point about ‘where the real action is’)

    Again – I’d love to hear an artists perspective on this – I’m no expert. I’ve got family and friends who are artists. Its hard to be an artist in Australia and even harder to be a Christian artist. Often Christians in the Arts live in these weird parallel universe where no Christian friends understand their Art world and no Artist friends understand their Christian world. One of the things that makes it even harder is when the church is so regularly throwing rocks at the art world.

    [This isn’t to say that artists don’t sometimes throw rocks even harder at the church and deliberately provoke and transgress moral and ethical boundaries – remember the whole Mapplethorpe controversy?  There will be times when a Christian will need to say: ‘This is bad art” or “This is pornography” or “this should not be done”.]

    Please tell me you would be more alarmed about pictures of naked 12 year olds on a Priests hard drive than a Paddington Gallery?

  11. On the question of whether Christian ethics are different from other ethics, we can probably discuss the distinction between ethical injunctions and ethical reasonings on another occasion.

    <i>Please tell me you would be more alarmed about pictures of naked 12 year olds on a Priests hard drive than a Paddington Gallery?</i>

    It would be alarming, yes. But as we are arguing for a nuanced position, it would depend on why. Anyone who did the opposite of what I recommended and looked through old versions of the <i>Sydney Morning Herald</i> now has those images on their own hard drive. Is this bad, especially if the person concerned is a priest? It may not be ideal, but it’s no worse than having the pictures on display at the Paddington gallery, and may even be unobjectionable.

    All of which is to say that we would both agree, then, that the reasons for an action (the taking of, or the reproducing of, or the viewing of questionable photos) will form part of an ethical judgement.

    So I think we are basically in agreement on whether ethical questions need to be thought about in nuanced ways.

    We also seem to agree that:

    <i>There will be times when a Christian will need to say: ‘This is bad art” or “This is pornography” or “this should not be done”.</i>

    I’m just saying that this is one such time.

  12. It will be interesting to see if the police prosecute the Herald for distribution of the images – they would not be able to argue the artistic intent defence that Henson presumably will – if charges are brought against him.

  13. Label me cynical, but I wonder if this was a deliberate strategy on the part of the SMH to confuse matters further. One of the reasons I concluded that the material was pornographic was on the basis of descriptions in one of the Herald articles.

    Normally (for historical reasons to do with efficiency and a dial-up modem) I read the SMH in the text-only edition. When I couldn’t find the relevant article in the text-only edition (which is where I originally read it), I looked in the regular online edition and there was the article, complete with offensive picture.

    It will make it harder to prosecute a case, I would have thought, if the defence are able to observe that any regular SMH reader has potentially viewed this material online and, if they have viewed it, now have it cached on their hard drive.

    But possibly the SMH had nothing of the sort in mind.

    What do you think?

  14. I suspect the Herald knows that sex sells online.  Today’s most read (viewed) stories on
    1. Multiple orgasms in parliament
    2. Anti-knife campaigner stabbed to death
    3. Father finds daughter, 1, alone in locked-up centre
    4. Fountains on tap, Britney reads book
    5. The toll in shattered lives
    Not unusual for titillation and gossip to be big online – bigger than in the print edition. The hypocrisy of media outrage over pornography while using it to flog copy should not be lost.

  15. The DPP have advised the police there is no reasonable likelihood of prosecution and the case is dropped – no great surprise there.

    More surprising is the news that Hetty Johnson, who brought the complaint against Henson to the police, is being financially supported by the EROS Foundation who represent Australian pornographers (aacording to ABC Lateline) The EROS Foundation supported Hetty Johnson saying that they weren’t able to sell this kind of material so why should Henson? My guess is that they are pitching for a review and loosening of these laws.

    Did the Professional Standards Unit of the Diocese know this when they circulated her petition? Has this whole exercise been a cynical manipulation of people who rightly object against pornography and the exploitation of children to further that very end?

    Given the horrific news of internet paedophilia that are front pages at the moment you’ve got to think the police have more pressing priorities than giving publicity to Henson or EROS.

  16. Reviving an old thread here, but seeing as another artist has stoked the fires, I thought Andrew Bolt’s opinion piece was well worth considering.

    Phillip Jensen also wrote on the matter of censorship as it might apply in this sort of issue soon after it first broke.

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