A group of leading public intellectuals didn’t shy away from the controversial aspects of the Bill Henson saga, tackling the topic of “Disturbing Australia: Art or porn?” in Melbourne.
Allan Myers AO QC, a Melbourne Law School alumnus and National Gallery of Victoria Chairman, led a panel of experts in the second of the series of “Courting Controversy” lectures held at the Melbourne law school.
Other speakers included a Melbourne University art and law expert, Associate Professor Andrew Kenyon, children’s rights expert John Tobin, freedom of speech expert Professor Adrienne Stone and modern art expert Norbert Loeffler.
Each brought a different philosophical angle to the debate over the photographs of Bill Henson, illuminating both his works and the theoretical and practical implications of the Henson debacle.
Myer’s keynote speech focused on the artistic merit of the works and dismissed claims of child exploitation surrounding the photographs as hypocritical. He pointed to the consent of both the parents and the children involved, and contrasted Henson’s work with the depiction of children in modern media.
“The accusers are like the false friends of Alexander Pope’s poem, [An Epistle to Arbuthnot]: ‘willing to wound but afraid to strike’,” he said.
“I assert that there’s not the least evidence of exploitation of any child in relation to any of Bill Henson’s photographs. No-one has suggested a single instance of it,” said Myer. “Could this be said for every magazine and advertisement we’ve seen the last week, month year? There’s a whiff of hypocrisy here,” he said.
Associate Profession Andrew Kenyon addressed the topic from a rights perspective, focusing on the rights of the subjects to freedom of expression.
“[It’s the nature of] expressive freedom, that the artist certainly has interests in speech: the audience and recipients have interests, the wider public has interests as well, but so do the subjects in the photos,” he said. “There are many reasons that the voices of the subjects should be heard and not overlooked”.
John Tobin, senior law school lecturer and international law and children’s rights expert, also emphasised the rights of children. Tobin’s argument was the most conflicted of all the panellists, debating the merits of state intervention where the welfare of children “as a class” is threatened. Tobin also advocated a clampdown on the distribution of images, particularly via the internet.
This raised the ire of his fellow panellist, Myers, in the question and answer session. “It’s a muddleheaded idea, it can’t work,” Myers retorted. “It will only lead to less tolerance in the society.”
Professor Adrienne Stone, freedom of speech expert, lamented the heavy-handed treatment of the Henson affair, pointing to the inadequacy of the Criminal Code as a regulatory tool for this category of content, and calling for a regulatory system that would solicit expert advice where needed.
Myers took issue with Stone’s calls for a regulatory body, saying: “I believe in freedom of speech. I don’t believe in calm experts making decisions about what I can see or hear, or what I can give expression to. There’s no such thing as a calm expert in human affairs.”