Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 20, 2008

The Henson Case (2008), by David Marr

David Marr’s little book is a hasty response to the furore over the Bill Henson photos, but it’s interesting and it made me think about the issue differently.  I don’t like Marr much – on the Q&A show on ABCTV,  he was quite nasty and personal in a way that none of the other participants were – but he has some important things to say about this issue.

I heard him speak about his book on the radio, and that’s why I bought it  He said that to accuse someone as Henson has been accused was to charge them with a very serious crime that risks long periods of time in gaol and becoming a pariah in society.  He said we should not let our concern about protecting children blind us to the seriousness of the accusation.

He also says that Australians have a predisposition towards demanding action when they dislike something.  It is not enough that they say they are repelled by the photos, they want someone in authority to do something about it.  (This is journalistic hyperbole, of course, something that Marr rails against throughout the book.  The evidence that this is a national tendency is non-existent.)

What Marr says, is that a media and political frenzy was whipped up by a provocative photo on the cover of an art exhibition catalogue.  I myself found the photos disquieting. (They are reproduced, along with others by Henson in the book, but there’s only a head-and-shoulders shot on the front cover).  To me, she looks too young to be making decisions about being depicted in this way, though Marr explains that she is very mature and cognisant about the art world.  She had posed similarly for her sister’s VCE art folio. 

In the ordinary course of events, the sort of loutish boy who will make her life a misery over it, would never have seen the photos.  They’re in art galleries, not footy fields.  But now the contentious one is all over the print and TV media, and Marr’s book shows us more.  I am deeply uneasy about this.

One snippet that hasn’t surfaced into the media from this provocative book is that there are also Henson photos of pubescent boys in a gallery catalogue, with text by David Malouf, which explains what the boys had been doing, though it cannot be seen in the photos.  I do not like to think about just how those photos were obtained, nor what Henson did to achieve them.   I do not understand why Malouf chose to celebrate it with a description in the catalogue – it seems unpleasant and distasteful, and maybe more.  The Censorship Board, however, has not banned those ones either, because they also do not violate the law.  Nevertheless, from what Marr says about these photos, it seems as if there is something suggestive about them, something that happened offstage that we reluctantly imagine. Just like the cover photo on Marr’s book, and the ones inside it. 

The other issue that blew up was Marr’s revelation that Henson was invited to a primary school to look for models.  It turns out that I know the principal involved.  She was a popular teacher when I worked with her, and from what I could see on the school’s blog (until access was blocked at the height of the furore) she was much loved, and they were sorry to see her transfer to another school.  A subsequent enquiry has since cleared her of any breach of departmental rules, though it was clear from what she said on TV that she’s not likely to do it again!

This book has made me think deeply about the values implicit in art.  It seems to me that there is something different in depicting young people as Henson does, and in the way it is done in renaissance and 19th century art.  Photography ‘caresses’ the subject and is more intimate than painting.  I am uneasy about the context of such contemporary photography too, and Marr’s book made me feel more anxious about it, not less.

Did Marr exploit this young girl to write his book? That’s another issue in itself. If it was meant to be an apologia, it failed, and Marr’s naive surprise about the renewed furore after his disclosures isn’t very convincing.  Still, as an expose of the way the shock-jock media can escalate a situation out of hand, this book is very effective.  But that’s probably not why it will sell….

BTW I have chosen not to add the cover photo of the book as I usually do, for obvious reasons.

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