“I FIND them absolutely revolting… Whatever the artistic view of the merits of that sort of stuff-frankly, I don’t think there are any-just allow kids to be kids.” This was Kevin Rudd’s assessment of photographer Bill Henson’s latest exhibition.

His response, which has helped boost right-wing moral hysteria, will be a shock to those who had hoped for a break with the Howard government’s conservative social agenda.

Rudd’s comments came after police raided the exhibition at its opening and seized photos featuring a naked 13 year old girl and others depicting a 12 year old boy.

NSW Premier Morris Iemma called from China to join the attack on Henson’s work, labelling it “offensive and disgusting”.

Bill Henson is a world-renowned photographer with more than 250 photographs in major Australian galleries. In 2005 more than 115,000 people viewed a major retrospective of his work presented at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the National Gallery of Victoria.

Scenes of police raiding galleries around the country and removing artworks as “evidence” have sent a wave of shock through the artistic community.

Forty-five of the 102 hand picked “creatives” who attended the “Creative Australia stream” of the 2020 summit-including Cate Blanchett, the icon of the summit-have signed a letter condemning the response, noting:

“[T]his action will encourage a repressive climate of hysterical condemnation, backed by the threat of prosecution. We are already seeing troubling signs in the pre-emptive self-censorship of some galleries.”

Henson’s opponents argue that the photos are pornographic, exploit the children depicted, and that pedophiles will use the web images for sexual gratification and be encouraged to attack children. Jenny Macklin justified the police’s actions with a general denunciation of the sexualisation of children in the media.

But Henson’s work is not responsible for encouraging the exploitation of children, either by individual pedophiles, or by the advertising companies who are cultivating an ever younger and thinner ideal of female beauty to sell their products.

His photography explores the human body and the transitions between childhood, adulthood and old age. His more controversial photos portray children on the cusp of puberty, exploring adolescent sexuality. Henson’s dark and eerie portraits are sometimes confronting because they expose society’s discomfort with the combination of childhood innocence and adult sexuality that characterises adolescence.

This is a world apart from images portraying children as sexual objects. As the 2020 protest signatories argue:

“The work itself is not pornographic… It is more justly seen in a tradition of the nude in art that stretches back to the ancient Greeks, and which includes painters such as Caravaggio and Michelangelo.”

Henson was, after 15 years of producing such works, threatened with a possible 10-year prison sentence. Police talked about charging him with “publishing an indecent article” under the Crimes Act. The owners of the gallery which held the exhibition could have also faced a possible five years’ imprisonment.

Now the case has collapsed, after the Department of Public Prosecutions advised the NSW police there was no case to answer, and the Australian Federal Police announced no charges would be laid over images in the National Gallery. The Classification Board has declared the images “mild” and appropriate for children.

Rudd’s social conservatism

The Prime Minister’s outrage has lifted the veil on what his social conservatism will mean. He has seized on the Henson raids to assert his version of family values. This is a vision of Australia where “kids are kids”, marriage is between a man and a woman and social problems are caused by the “break-down of the family”.

But as his recent budget showed, Rudd’s concern for child welfare doesn’t extend to policies that would lift children and their parents out of poverty, or re-fund essential social services slashed under the Howard government. The populist moralism which former British Labour prime minister Tony Blair perfected as a cover for his neoliberalism is being embraced by the Rudd government.

But Rudd has misjudged the public response to Henson’s arrest. With the artistic community and the Law Society, among others, prepared to throw their weight behind Henson we can hope this episode helps take the sheen off Rudd’s government, and prepare us for the campaigns we will need against this new agenda of social conservatism.

By Jean Parker

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