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Art, Australia, and censorship

This contribution has been submitted to Webdiary by a student in the Online Journalism unit for the Masters in Media Practice and Masters in Publishing courses at The University of Sydney as part of the unit's assessment. The topics covered in the pieces awaiting publication are interesting – and diverse. We hope that Webdiarists will enjoy reading them, as well as giving these aspiring journalists plenty of constructive commentary.


Art, Australia, and censorship
by Reuben Brand

In the wake of the Bill Henson fiasco Australians have become divided in the debate over art vs. pornography and censorship vs. freedom of expression.

Australia’s censorship laws came under tight scrutiny at an Arts Censorship Forum convened after the recent furore surrounding artist Bill Henson’s latest exhibition.

Hetty Johnston, executive director of child protection agency Bravehearts, called for an arts tribunal to be set up that artists must first approach before working with children.

“The arts industry does nothing in terms of meeting its obligation and responsibility to protect children,” she said at the forum.

Tamara Winikoff, executive director of the National Association for the Visual Arts, said that although she didn’t agree with Ms Johnston’s ideas, she thought the forum raised some very important issues.

“Hetty Johnston’s proposal of artists having to go to a tribunal to get permission to use children in their work is really not a good idea, and I don’t support what she is saying. Hetty’s continued targeting of artists is a misdirection of her energy; what she needs to be concerned about are the genuine threats to child safety,” she said.

Cameron Murphy, President of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, said there was nothing wrong with a photograph of a naked minor and that the censorship of such an exhibition was uncalled for.

“In my view this is clearly the exhibition of an internationally recognised artist. It is appalling to see police raiding galleries and removing works of art. The position of the Child Protection Agency was extreme and irrational –such a reaction makes Australia look ridiculous,” said Mr Murphy.

Prominent Sydney-based photographer Ella Dreyfus is head of public programs at the National Art School. She said today’s problem was that children’s bodies are over sexualised and Mr Henson should take more responsibility for the sexual connotations in his work.

Ms Dreyfus is no stranger to controversy in her career as an artist. In an exhibition titled Under Twelves she photographed 14 young boys from the chest up, her son included. The difference between Mr Henson’s work and her own, says Ms Dreyfus, is that her models are not naked or sexually suggestive.

“As a mother and a concerned adult it does worry me. The pressure on children to perform, to look like sexual beings, when emotionally and mentally they are just light-years away from it.”

Ms Dreyfus does not support censorship and believes that sending the police in was definitely overkill, but she is glad that the debate about Henson’s work is out in the open.

“I feel that with Bill Henson it’s been a case of the emperor’s news clothes. Like the king’s walking down the street naked and no one’s saying anything because the king doesn’t believe he’s doing anything wrong,” said Ms Dreyfus.


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anorexic teenagers

Fiona Reynolds: "How many anorexic teenagers and children have you ever dealt with, Eliot?"

Not many present here with anorexia. In fact, I cannot recall one presenting where I work with anorexia in the time I've been here. We sure have a lot dealing with obesity and other diet related disorders, though.

Amongst adults, that's often compounded by smoking and other types of substance abuse. But the roots of it are in childhood lifestyle, I'm sure.

But anorexia? Rare. There is one notable anorexic in the community, an older woman oddly enough. But she's never come in here. I've seen her out walking, sometimes with assistance, but mostly just getting by on her own.

Self regulation in ads and arts don't always work

Yes, again, two elements in this issue: child protection and censorship.

When we are talking so much about protecting children in terms of sex, we have never had an agreement on how much artists/advertisers can use body imagines. Ads and art are self-regulated in Australia and most western world.
Bill Henson was deemed innocent under the name of "ART" in exposing children's naked body while Van Heusen's advertisements for men's underwear were banned on buses in Brisbane recently because they were too "racy". Meanwhile those four ads banned will be still acceptable in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, and so on.

Moreover, a lot of imagines that have evoked even much controversy are ok to the public. Some of them are much more nude and intrigue-building than Van Heusen's. These is a message sent that self regulation in ads and arts don't work very well. But a widely acceptable standard of the use of sex and nude body image is hard to set.

So what? We may never calm the again and again controversy over this issue.

I am sorry but maybe I am too pessimistic.

Thin models are bad for the working families of Australia....

Nothing to offer on the economy? Climate change too hard again? What we need is aother emotive sound bight stunt:

THE Rudd government plans to take on the fashion industry with a new code of conduct requiring magazines to feature normal-sized models and disclose the use of digitally enhanced photos.

Youth Minister Kate Ellis will tackle the fashion, media and advertising industries over their portrayal of stick-thin women which, she says, is contributing to a generation of children - some as young as six - suffering from eating disorders.

Why didn't I see it coming?

In fact, however:

One in four children is still overweight or obese. Susie Burrell, a pediatric dietitian at the Children's Hospital at Westmead, said children's diets had radically altered since surveys in 1982, 1985 and 1995, with fruit, vegetables and dairy foods replaced by foods high in kilojoules, salt and saturated fat.

But nobody wants to admit to worrying their daughters may get fat, do they?

Eating disorders

How many anorexic teenagers and children have you ever dealt with, Eliot?

Oh dear, now he's done it

Oh dear, now Mr Henson has really upset everyone. Scouting for children to pose for him in the playground we are told.

But I guess the Henson supporters here think that is quite OK.

Can't you just see it? Little Johnny's mum getting a call from the primary school head saying there was a photographer here who had picked out little Johnny in the play ground as one he would like to photograph in the nude, and did mum object?

I'd like to be a fly on the wall at the next P and C meeting of that school.

Particularly in the light of the extent of pornographic material kicking around the world on the net of kids being sexually abused. The scale of it seems to be just horrendous. Rather destroys one's faith in humanity and no wonder people get wary where their kids are concerned.

Scouting for kids to photograph naked would be a rather risky business these days I would think. I would not like to approach a primary school with such a request in mind, even if I was Van Gogh reincarnated.

Good on ya Julia and Kate

 It's not often that I agree with Julia Gillard, but she hits the nail on the head here!


"But criticism of Mr Henson and Ms Knight continued yesterday, with Education Minister Julia Gillard saying she was shocked that the controversial photographer had been allowed to scout for child models in a school playground and that it would send a shudder down people's spines.

She said she had found his photographs of naked children, which earlier this year attracted the attention of NSW police, "disturbing".

"I found the images disturbing, I was very concerned about them, and to find out now that someone has been allowed to go into a school to look at children, I think would send a shudder through people's spines,'' Ms Gillard told the Nine Network.

"The message just has to be very clear, very simple - people shouldn't be on school grounds unless they're there for a legitimate purpose, associated with the education of Australian young people.''

Youth Minister Kate Ellis also said the incident, which was disclosed in a new book about Mr Henson by journalist David Marr, was "quite appalling''. "

Pretty simple really. People have no business being on school grounds unless it is in the interests of the children and their education.

Henson's presence at the school was purely for self serving  purposes.

The (then) school principal exhibited poor judgement and lack of  foresight in this instance.

The blackboard jungle

Jenny Hume: "But I guess the Henson supporters here think that is quite OK."

So, what are you alleging happened, Jenny? You know? Actually happened?

More absurd paranoia

NORTHERN beaches police have identified a man who allegedly attempted to hug a child on Newport Beach on Sunday.

Police issued a warning earlier this week to parents after a spate of attempted child abductions across Sydney and the suspicious Newport incident.

Police have identified the man as a 54-year-old Indian national who is holidaying on the peninsula.

I bet he cannot believe it.

Too insignificant to notice?

There are a number of troubling features about this statue. Kathy's unkind observation about the need for a magnifying glass and this heroic and ancient King of Israel sadly is not the least of them. Perhaps the most troubling feature is the truly horrific fact that if you employed said magnifying glass, you may notice that David , the iconic leader of the Jews, is uncircumcised.


Hey Geoff!

 Dave's got a gorgeous bod  though, Geoff!

And that ain't insignificant

"Nothing wrong", but is it right?

I really enjoyed reading your article Reuben. It was interesting, timely and balanced. The article was well structured, with short paragraphs that I found easy to digest and it kept me interested from beginning to end. 

Reading large chunks of wordy text on the computer screen is hard work. Your quotes were great and I enjoyed the balance of opinions. The last quote you used worked really well as a conclusion to the article. I believe that you managed to work your opinion into the article through your quote placement and this appeals to me. A subtle approach allows readers to draw their own conclusion.

This type of reporting inspires both individual thinking and healthy debate. I'm not sure why there is an absence of hyper-textual links. I understand that some of our links did not translate. The story could definitely have benefited from links to relevant news articles and information about the artist etc.

Richard:  Jill,  what is your opinion on the subject material?  This is what Webdiary is about... people raising points of view and others discussing it with them.  Might I suggest  you (and some of the other students) include some more opinion in your posts, and a little less skill critique?

Churlish Richard

"Might I suggest  you (and some of the other students) include some more opinion in your posts, and a little less skill critique?"

For god's sake why Richard? Surely we have enough (flippant) opinion from the likes of Eliot Parsons (and myself every second month).  A little critique - of skill or periphrastic flatulence - might not be amiss methinks....

Father Park

Richard:  I didn't mean to sound churlish, Father, was only trying to help!! However, point taken.  Tomorrow I shall take two pints of black beer as my penance.

Family snapshots excluded

Sorry Richard.

It was my understanding that we were to critique the skills of our fellow students. Here is the assignment instructions for posting, "follows posting guidelines, makes constructive remarks about story, indicates possible corrections, changes or value adds."  

I guess they are open to interpretation hey.

My opinion on the subject matter is that taking photographs of other people's naked children is highly suspect. I don't care if it's being passed off as art.  I would feel  uncomfortable hanging these pieces in my own home and if I was invited to someone's home who had a collection that included or focused on naked children I would question their taste, motivation and capacity to 'get real' with me and themselves. Having said that I will remind you that I have already professed to being old, single and bitter. 

Richard:  Jill, now you're sounding like a Webdiarist!

Hetty now self proclaimed expert on policing and criminology

Hetty Johnston was on the Seven Network this morning mouthing off her totally unqualified opinions about police methods as they relate to investigating reported child abductions.

This came after Queensland Police yesterday confirmed their much trumpeted child abduction alert system had been activated only twice in Queensland since December 24, 2004.

And check this out from Hetty's offsider Carol Ronken:

"Bravehearts research manager Carol Ronken said kidnappings were thankfully rare in Australia but the alert system remained vital.

"My understanding is that when it has been used it was for tracking down kids who were eventually found," she said.

"My understanding". Don't you love that?

The system has been put into effect twice in four years, Carol.

"Ms Ronken said she did not know of any situation were police had failed to activate the system in a genuine emergency."

Hetty, likewise, was this morning adamant that the alerts had to be kept in place. After all, they are potentially good for whipping up fear and loathing, I suppose.

When are these ignorant nincompoops going to be put out of their misery??!!

Henson? Never heard of him...

I jest, of course - but I do like the topic of your piece, Reuben.

My only question would be, funnily enough, to those that would support the artists' right to exploit kids: "How many times does someone need to take soft-focus, poorly-lit photos of naked kids before the theme has been explored?"

Honestly - Henson's not the first person to do it - and, to be frank, what I've seen of the photos... they're nothing special, artwise. 

I think Anthony Nolan summed it up best: the issue isn't censorship - it's child protection. And when an 'artist' believes that his right to take photos of children is more important than the rights of the child, then I honestly think there's something wrong.

Panic stricken by children

"Two teenage boys who made up a story about the abduction of a Sydney girl in the city's west will be dealt with under the Young Offenders Act, police say."

Hetty Johnston and fools like her are not a new social type exactly, but they do have distinctive features which seem to be suddenly more prevalent in Australia.

Boundlessly self-righteous but culturally almost illiterate, they are so wholly convinced of the correctness of their own visceral opinions, despite being universally ridiculed for them, it does not at all strike them as incredible to propose setting up tribunals to regulate art, for heaven's sake.

It's the sort of idea that would have left even the ancient Spartans slack-jawed in disbelief.

I bet if Hetty was required to justify any of her opinions with even a shred of evidence, she'd go completely silent apart from shouting insults at us.

Like I said, a recognisable type of illiterate bigot notable only for the extant to which it thumps its own chest in self-congratulation.

Not always, Graeme Watson

Popular in Victorian times were "modesty fig leaves" where one could still enjoy their reproduced statue of David with a removable fig-leaf covering the offending bits.

A long time ago but not that far away

Scenario - police enter bookshop seeking obscene material to confiscate.One spots a particular print and suggests it should be added to the collection:

"It's a photo of a naked man."

"We'll have that!"

"And it even has the subject's name." "What is it?" 


Too insignificant to notice

Hi Graeme. I reckon you need a magnifying glass to see David's penis.

This magnificent statue is over five metres tall, very impressive and imposing.

Not the least bit obscene or sexually suggestive.

Went prepared perhaps

Hi Kathy, do we assume the police had a magnifying glass on them for that very purpose? Or does it say something about the police involved?

Not so long ago

Could have been these cops, Graeme.


Not that far ...

Kathy, I don't recall if I those cops came to mind when I read the news report. I thought that if any humour was involved it was more absurdist than slapstick.

Obviously, Michael, I am not writing of Victorian times but in another sense Victoria is not irrelevant. No mention of fig-leaves in the report.

I did use some licence in creating the dialogue on my first post but otherwise it is based on fact. A hint: think of a leftist bookshop proprietor. And if you successfully follow that hint you might see factors other than allegedly obscene material at work.

A tribunal of rednecks, no doubt.

Jenny Hume: "You will find it was mostly the women commenters, though not exclusively, who condemned Henson - all mothers,"

No disrespect, Jenny, but I'm not aware that the mothers of any of Henson's models objected to their children participating in the photo sessions, nor did any of the children themselves, some of whom have since grown into women themselves.

So, I'm not sure that we can speak on their behalf. And they all rejected Hetty Johnston speaking for them.

"Hetty Johnston, executive director of child protection agency Bravehearts, called for an arts tribunal to be set up that artists must first approach before working with children."

Who, perhaps apart from herself and her like, would Hetty Johnston, deem worthy to sit on such a tribunal?

Obviously not Bill Henson and the broader arts community which rallied to his defense.

Maybe she had in mind the sort of folk who gathered outside Dennis Ferguson's safe house after it was disclosed she'd been in contact with Ferguson's neighbours.

Hetty does Dallas

Hi Eliot, you make a very good point: "Who, perhaps apart from herself and her like, would Hetty Johnston, deem worthy to sit on such a tribunal?"

All this coming from the woman who took such a moral high ground regarding this very sensitive issue. Ms Johnston was clearly not phased when she accepted a substantial amount of money from the adult pornography industry to help fund her unsuccessful campaign for a seat in the Senate

Morals? Where? 

women with knickers up run faster than...

One supposes there's no reason, in our degendered era, why women can not be be considered "rednecks" also, if reason enough exists.

Also, Jenny, it is not just a single category; "mothers" that may have views concerning given issues, presumably to the exclusion of all others.

It is mothers' duty to train daughters to keep their knickers on, but more or less in regard to certain types of conduct of the pregnancy-inducing type- not as a mechanism for stifling free expression in art galleries.

Btw, would appreciate a post from Kathy Farrelly concerning these issues.

Knickers and knockers

"You will find it was mostly the women commenters, though not exclusively, who condemned Henson - all mothers."(on Webdiary)

Too much is being made of Jenny's innocuous comment above.

She wasn't criticizing or passing judgement, just making an observation.

And, of course women can be rednecks, Paul, I agree. Look at Sarah Palin. Many consider her a redneck.

Yes, it is up to a mother to lead by setting a good example.

With regards to stifling "free expression in art galleries" Well, if it involves kids under the age of 18 photographed in suggestive poses (nude or clothed) then, that's where you and I vehemently disagree old mate.

Richard: I'm still recovering from Perverts in the Shrubbery, Kathy. Hey Anthony, are you still working on that Henson follow-up?

Hey you lot

Hey Paul Walter and Eliot and all you lot. I was clearly, as Kathy Farrelly seems to have no difficulty understanding, referring to the fact that on the Perverts thread and the Henson issue, the mothers on Webdiary, with the exception of say one, were all of much the same mind about the issue of the use of that kid in those photos. Stating a fact fellows, observing a fact from that thread. Nothing more, nothing less.

Now thank you Marilyn for your gem: Got that fellows. Good.  

Now give it a rest will you. I am not interested in revisiting the Perverts stuff. It was as I said, all said. I have not changed my views, nor I suspect have any of you - nor the mothers here for that matter. 

Yes Anthony - give us your piece and save us all from this.

With respect Eliot

With respect Eliot, it has all been said by the regular Webbies here on the previous thread. 

Including all the mother stuff - all said before. I am more interesed in any new slant the students may have on the subject.

Kid Free Zone

Nice article, Reuben. It’s not easy to write a balanced news story on this subject because most people have a strong position on it and it no doubt tempers their writing. However, as I’m not attempting a balanced news story I’ll just weigh in with my view. I’m very much of the Anthony Nolan school that this is a child protection issue. The sexualising of minors isn’t art, it’s pornography – child pornography. No shield of “art” or “freedom of expression” can bring any legitimacy to the defence. If artists or photographers want to capture the human form in a sexual way by all means do it. Parade a thousand naked females down George or Collins Street and call it performance art. I’ve got no problem with that. Just make sure the females in question are women not children.

Ian M (Ed) Welcome to Webdiary, John.

Hysterical Hetty

In private she's a very kind woman but give her a microphone and all hell breaks loose. I'm convinced poor Ms Johnstone is obsessed with sex.

This isn't always about children. Two years ago she was proposing the law be changed that forbid men older than 21 having it off with women between the ages of 18 and 21. Ronnie Woods from the Stones would never get a visa again. Actually probably most of the Stones wouldn't!


Is there an irony in the discussion of censorship on Webdiary, a site which surely censors the written word?

Freedom of expression is already limited in several areas in our society, in ways that we presumably find acceptable. "Censorship versus freedom of expression" is a misleading dichotomy. Perhaps "moderation" should be substituted for "censorship".

OK - I'm in

Hi Reuben and happy to see you here at Webdiary. I'm also happy to endlessly step up to bat for the real issue here which is child protection rather than censorship.

My view is that if there is a conflict between a child protection issue and, say, the right to freedom of artistic expression, then the former trumps the latter. It would be an exception if the latter were putting the case for the former. In other words if art were in the service of the ethical protection of children but I've seen no evidence of our artistes taking up that issue.

The ignorance among the arts community about the issue of child sexual exploitation is profound and I guess I'm pretty much at the point of taking artists whingeing about censorship seriously when I see some reciprocal concern from them about child protection.

I did offer to write a "Henson revisited" piece and will do so from the point of view of a critical analysis of the actual content of Henson's work ... but after the dust has settled properly from moving house.


Hi Anthony, thanks for the warm welcome.

It is a very contentious issue, from which has sprung two camps.

I did my undergrad in Fine Art and have painted, drawn , pottered, photo'd etc for as long as I can remember. So I can understand completely where a lot of the upset is coming from in relation to the arts community.

As a journalist, I really don’t like the idea of censorship. I want my voice to be heard just as much as the next person.

BUT, I really have a lot of issues with photographs of naked minors. We all know what the naked form looks like. We have all seen it. We have all gone through adolescence (hopefully) and personally, I really don't want to see a naked child in between the stages of growth to adulthood.

This is a deeply personal time for anyone. There is innocence in this stage of life that should really be left in peace.

Henson is a brilliant photographer and has mastered the art. His technique is flawless, but his subject matter? I would say move on mate, you've been doing it for too long, try something new.

This is the dilemma of the journalist/artist/humanitarian.

Did Dreyfus really say

Did Dreyfus really say "...the emperor's news clothes"?

Otherwise, good straight reporting.  Wish there were more of it. 


Well now Reuben Brand, it would take a brave heart here to revisit this issue. You might be interested in the 300 odd comments that were posted here on the thread devoted to that issue earlier this year.  Enjoy! That thread would be worth a media student's piece in its own right methinks.

As you will see from that thread I am opposed to the portrayal of children in art, a la Henson. Anthony Nolan made some good points. He works in child protection.

You will find it was mostly the women commenters, though not exclusively, who condemned Henson - all mothers. That might tell you something.  A rare  consensus of the females here I might add, though our editor Fiona Reynolds broke ranks with the gels but we forgive her.

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