I know you must all be sick to death of the Henson debacle (I certainly am, and am looking forward to a break from Australia next week) but I feel obliged to update, I hope for the last time, since this case has signalled some warnings for all of us. I am a bit tired of those who keep casting this as a question of The Arts vs Everyone Else: no, it's a question of whether we want to live in a society where moral questions are rigidly applied in state law. As in, for example, theocracies ruled by Sharia law, or the extremities of the Taliban.
Western democracy balances individual and societal freedoms and, for the moment, there are places where the state, quite rightly, stops. As far as I'm concerned, its authority in questions of private morality should focus on the question of harm to others, and that harm should be actual and not perceived. It has yet to be proved to me that Henson's art has harmed anybody, although the kinds of distress these campaigners have caused Henson, his models and their families with their ugly accusations about child porn have, I have no doubt, caused a lot of damage. For all her supposed concerns about the rights of young people, Bravehearts campaigner Hetty Johnston hasn't shown a great deal of respect for the young models in Henson's photographs, and has certainly paid no attention to anything they have said in defence of Henson.
There are various responses to yesterday's dropping of charges against Henson. Hetty Johnston, whose complaints to police sparked the Roslyn Oxley9 raids, has announced her intentions to pursue her campaign against Henson. And, as comments posted here demonstrate, campaigners have decided that he's a menace to society and must be stopped, even over the dead body of democracy. As UK anti-porn activist Gregory Carlin said to the pro-life (homophobic, anti-Harry Potter) LifeSiteNews, "Material which is child pornography in Britain, is now considered child friendly viewing in Australia". Watch out.
Michael Leunig today claims that those who defend Henson do so "in chorus" (unlike, presumably, the brave individuals going with the flow of public outrage): "Some say his work is creepy pornography that culturally legitimises and fosters pedophilia, others hold the considered view that it's abusive and exploitative, while others defend it unreservedly in chorus, seeing any forceful questions or challenge about its essence as a sure sign of ignorance, repression and mindless resistance to change." He reflects many accusations recently made of the arts world, which reflect attitudinal prejudices rather more than what was actually argued; and of course there are many "considered" and thoughtful defences of Henson's work. And it's hard to think of a world more riven by disagreement than the arts.
But there we go: take heed, my friends, and think on. It is not the fault of artists that they are thought of in these ways so widely, since the arts are in general so badly discussed in the mainstream media, but it is up to artists to address the problem.
And finally, a word from Patrick McCaughey, whom many of you will remember as the flamboyant director of the NGV until he moved to the US, where he was a major defender of Robert Mapplethorpe. He has an interesting reflection in the Australian today, in which he talks with great good sense about the ethics and limits of art:
The artist as rebel against bourgeois order may be an over-familiar image. But working at the edge has brought us great rewards in modern art, from James Joyce's Ulysses to Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles and, yes, Henson's photography. That edge deliberately pushes the envelope of the acceptable, both morally and aesthetically.
Best practice among the arts hews to a morality of truthfulness: truthful to the artist's experience or imagination, to observed reality, to a belief, to a concept of art. That morality may find itself in conflict with bourgeois expectations, such as acknowledging openly the irreversible moment of sexual awakening in teenage children.
The morality of truthfulness also acts as a shield and a sword against racism, xenophobia and prejudice against the other, be they gay or lesbian, Jew or Muslim.
There are limits on the artist as there are limits on the laity. They are intimately tied to a morality of truthfulness. An artist cannot claim the impunity of artistic freedom and be, for example, a Holocaust denier, an addict of hate speech or a child pornographer.
Each carries a denial of truthfulness. The first is a denial of history, the second is a denial of authenticity and the third is a denial of responsibility and empathy for the innocent, without which good art cannot be made.