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The Bill Henson debacle – Part 1:

Art and pornography.

I have no qualifications here, and yet it would appear to me that there are some quite fundamental differences to the goals and effects of art and porn. Art uses nudity, and the naked subject to pose questions, to unsettle, to provoke thought, to evoke memory – we search the naked subject’s face and body language – how is s/he feeling? What is happening? What do they want? Art taps into nudity and sexuality to query or capture the effects of sexuality, of constructions of gender, of standards of beauty – perhaps we find a particular nude captivating, enthralling in its power, but the sexuality on display is complicated, rich, human, bodily…far more complicated and nuanced than the sexuality on offer in porn.

Porn it would seem to me uses nudity for the sole goal of getting us to reach into our pants. That’s why we look it up, that’s why it sells. We’re after the Macdonalds of sexual gratification, and there are certain archetypal¬†¬†representations of bodies, sex and sexuality which cut through all the conscious choices we make about sexuality and present us with some rather cliched images of sexuality designed for the specific purpose of getting you there quickly. Women playing either the virgin or the whore…girls writhing around with certain sexualised props, it’s all cliched poses and facial expressions, all “Golly gee Mister, I’d like some of what you’ve got there in your pants”, all “I’ve been a good girl all my life, but OH BABY you make me wanna be bad”, and “You can put it ANYWHERE”. In contrast to art, porn is not asking us to quietly, slowly ask ourselves questions about what we find erotic, it is not asking us to weigh and measure the standards of beauty or the consequences of sexualising bodies so young, to ask us to empathise with the conflicting feelings of a teenager who has had sex for the first time…on the contrary, the language advertising porn tells us this shit is HOT HOT HOT, the more “wrong” the more “hot”, don’t think, just wank, feel guilty later. I’m not in fact against pornography as such…I am against advertising and imagery so common on the net such as “Young teen slut takes it up the arse for the first time and cries”, and I am frustrated by the idiocy of the images based on sex=conquering=degradation of women=the younger the better.

I am against the teenage female body being held up as the ideal of femininity and sexuality – which it is in mainstream society in some fairly obvious ways. I’m thinking here of the revolting display of adult men salivating after Anna Kournacova when she was 15. I’m thinking of preteen runway models, sexed up to the hilt and modelling clothes designed for *WOMEN*, I’m thinking of the masses of ads for porn featuring teens, of modelling competition shows whereby teenagers are encouraged to sex it up or be percieved as cold…This idealisation means that a teenagers body is sexualised in a proprietary way (again I refer to being quite graphically sexually harrassed from the age of 13) by adults who should know better, that there are massive pressures on real teenagers to “sex it up” from an early age and that the standard of beauty is unattainable almost as soon as you reach adulthood (is “Enjoy it while you’re kids, before you’re too old to be sexy” really the message we want to send about sex to children?)

I cannot see the images which have been banned, so I can’t comment on whether I feel they have any pornographic qualities…however the images I have seen of Hensons teenage subjects have been immensly moving. It would appear that what Henson is doing in his work is examining the effects of our society on actual teenagers, investigating the pressures of youthful beauty, of the pressure of sexualisation on teenagers. The images I’ve seen have never been “Yeah, dig it, I just had anal for the first time, it hurt, and MAN that’s hot, here’s the Youtube video of him coming on my face after” – how can society thrive on an economy of worship of the teenage body, use teenage models, tell teens to sex it up, then condemn a man who tries to point out the confusion, chaos and ambiguity all this can set up for real people?

When I was growing up so many kids were having sex at thirteen or fourteen…I remember listening as one friend asked another how it had felt…the smile slipped and she said in a distubed way “It felt like a stick was in there”. I remember being really thrown. She seemed kinda proud to have graduated to this new grown up activity, but it seemed it had not been enjoyable for her in the least. It had been a service performed in the duty of her boyfriend. I also remember the beach parties I was never allowed to go to (I never argued that much to be allowed) – two twin girls had moved to the area from the city, one got horrendously drunk and the boys “took turns”¬†on her. She was, by all accounts barely conscious. At school on Monday she was actively villified for being a ‘slut’, while the guys were business as usual. I say all this not to set up a seperate debate on the specific impact on girls (which is well worth having)…but to point out that adolescents do have real experiences with sex, often unsatisfying in the extreme, often barely or not consensual, often causing conflicting emotions…I have seen many images of Henson’s which explore this aspect of adolescence, and in asking us to remember what it was like, to remember the chaos, and angst and confusion, to identify with confused teenagers, to ponder growing up, to identify with raw emotions.

There are artists who would explore pornography in art, who would utilise any overlaps, who would use pornographic images in order to make us ask question about ourselves and about pornography. I do not believe that Hensons work falls into even this category. Every image I’ve seen has been to ask us to engage with ambiguity, emotion, motion, places, time, real people. None of the images have been posed in the porn style, they are moody, evocative, haunting, disturbing, ethereal…again. I cannot answer for these pieces as they’ve been removed and I have not seen them. But you know what? That’s enough for me to feel that these people have condemned themselves. If these artworks really are indecent, then show us so we know you’re right. To refuse to do so seems to imply that there’s a hidden/repressed paedophile in all of us, just waiting to be triggered by the mighty ‘temptation’ of the naked adolescent body…for one thing that’s a disturbingly bleak and pessimistic view of humanity, and for another it’s an awful thing to do to teenagers…”Your body is the site of temptation to sin”. Dangerous dangerous logic. I will write about that next post.

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