Tag Archives: Bill Henson

Dark vision: the world of Melinda Tankard Reist

24 Sep

Last night’s Australian Story on ABCTV invited its audience into the world of the remarkable photographer Poli Papapetrou and her family, in particular that of her daughter, Olympia.

When Olympia was six, Poli took a portrait of her naked in a re-creation of a much earlier image made by Lewis Carroll, known as the author of Alice in Wonderland, as well as for his photographic studies of young girls.

Poli’s photograph caused expressions of outrage from Kevin Rudd, Bravehearts founder and child advocate Hetty Johnston, and of course my old nemesis, Melinda Tankard Reist, all of whom found Olympia’s image highly offensive and her mother even more so for making it.

Olympia, now sixteen,  has become interested in what’s known as “selfies” which for the uninitiated are self-portraits, usually taken by teenage girls in various stages of undress, and posted on the internet. Her critique of this practice can be read here.

Australian Story  invited Melinda Tankard Reist to comment on selfies, and the manner in which we gaze upon young girls in our culture. Tankard Reist declared that because our vision is so tainted by pornography thanks to the pornified, sexualised atmosphere in which we dwell, it has become impossible for us to innocently view images of girls, whether they be those made by Poli Papapetrou of her daughter, the notorious photographs of Bill Henson, or selfies.

My damn spell check will not accept selfies as a word and insists on changing it. That means something, doesn’t it.

The sudden appearance of Ms Tankard Reist in the middle of what had, up till then, been an engrossing  portrait of a loved-filled, creative family life complete with what I suspect were rescued greyhounds, was something akin to the shocking effects felt at the  manifestation of a bad fairy at a joyous christening. Dark, forbidding, increasingly grim-lipped, Tankard Reist described to us of our loss of innocence, our inability to ever see a naked child as anything other than sexual fodder, thanks to the porn saturated universe we have wilfully allowed to engulf us.

We have, whether we realise it or not, had our capacity to gaze innocently upon the young stolen from us by pedophiles. In some abominable alchemical exchange, that gaze has been replaced with their dark and evil vision, and most of us do not even know what we have lost. Obviously, it is up to Melinda to tell us.

I don’t know about everybody else, but when I see a naked child the last thing that comes to mind is sex. I don’t think, oh my, that child is sexualised!Heavens, I even take photos of my grandsons with their willies out and their gorgeous naked buttocks that I could just kiss and kiss!

Set against the backdrop of Olympia and her family, Tankard Reist’s message has never sounded so insanely deviant. Of course there are situations in which girls are exploited and abused. But to lose the ability to tell one thing from another is a dangerous tragedy. Most of us retain that ability. Tankard Reist does not. In warning us of the loss of the innocent gaze, she reveals only that hers is lost. Mine is not and no matter how many pornographic images I’m bombarded with, it will never be lost.

Olympia’s family are an excellent example of how to combat pornographic assaults on the gaze, and raise children capable of distinguishing between art and beauty, and exploitation and abuse. Tankard Reist’s dark vision has no place in this world, and indeed, brings only destruction.

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The woman and the octopus, or how anti porn activists sabotage their own message

20 Oct

This article was first published in On Line Opinion

It ought to be de rigueur for anyone warning society about the perils of pornography to first state what they consider to be pornographic. As it is, the word is used to describe everything and anything to do with the public display of sexual behaviours, from the most innocuous, to the most stupid, to the most alarming, violent, and frightening. In fact, the word is rapidly becoming meaningless as anything other than code for “here come the wowsers,” and activists have only themselves to blame for this. They are heeded largely by those who already agree with them, which is useless in terms of getting any serious action going against the kind of pornography that damages people. They refuse to see that in tarring all pornography with the same brush they are sabotaging the message with generalizations and stereotypes, and that this deafens people.

In reality, many of those who dispute the anti pornography position are decent people, highly indignant at the activists’ lack of discrimination in determining the pornographic, and understandably resistant to having someone else’s moral perspective imposed upon them. One person’s sexually objectifying and degrading music video is another’s reference to surrealism and the politics of race, yet it could likely be that both are in agreement on the undesirability of violent porn.

From the outset the activists are frequently defensive, oppositional, and cult-like in their fervor and insistence that their interpretation is the “right” and only one. This is no way to get a message out to anybody other than those who already agree with you.

Agreeing on the pornographic

While what is considered pornographic can be very subjective, there are some criteria which most of us would agree could be used to set a community standard. Government regulation is already in effect in every medium other than the Internet, and I think, outdoor advertising. The Internet is a rogue beast. I would agree with the same restrictions on Internet content as are in place in every other medium. The problem is technical: how do we do that?

It’s likely true that since the advent of the Internet, public tolerance for sexually explicit images has risen as they are more easily accessed than ever before by greater numbers of people. The anti pornography crowd can rail as much as they like, they aren’t going to stop the production of these images, and they aren’t going to stop people viewing them. The very best we can hope for is enough restriction to protect children and limit access, safeguards we already have in place for other media, and that should be in place for outdoor advertising as well.

Woman with octopus

There is also no reason to oppose all sexually explicit images, as if the sexually explicit in itself is dangerous and anti social. This past weekend, for example, I visited the Queensland Art Gallery and came upon a work by Japanese artist Masami Teraoka called “Sarah and the Octopus/Seventh Heaven,” in which a woman is being pleasured by an octopus. (Yes, I would have laughed if someone just told me about it. Seeing it was another thing altogether.) In Japanese erotica images of women enjoying sexual pleasure with tentacled sea creatures is nothing remarkable, though the images are often interpreted in Western culture as being pornographic depictions of rape.

I found the painting erotic, and could see no signs that the female subject was feeling anything other than intense pleasure. I did wonder momentarily what Gail Dines would say about it, and assumed her comments would likely be stridently negative. As I gazed at the painting I thought that there are people who would like to stop me looking at an image such as this one, because they believe it will do me and the wider society psycho-sexual harm. Such people see sexual violence in every pornographic image. They see pornography itself as an act of violence against women, and they want me to “see” as they do.

Their vision casts images such as this painting in a negative and destructive light. I would never consider Teraoka’s work as dangerously pornographic unless that had first been suggested to me as a lens through which I ought to view it. So it is that the careless manner of speaking negatively about all pornography causes everything to be viewed as dangerously pornographic, and we are left with no other possible or legitimate ways of seeing. This is a tyranny and oppression we should resist.

For example, Clive Hamilton argues in his essay on photographer Bill Henson’s controversial images of adolescence that:

It is tragic that those who are responsible for sexualising children have robbed us of the ability to see Bill Henson’s photographs the way he intended. In destroying the sexual innocence of children they have destroyed the innocence of innocence.

Those who are responsible for “sexualising” children have not robbed us of anything in my opinion. On the contrary, those who like Hamilton and Dines demand that we relinquish our “innocent” gaze and replace it with the gaze of, in this case, the paedophile, are those who are responsible for attempting to if not rob, certainly alter for the worse our ability both to see innocence, and to see innocently. Henson should have known better, Hamilton concludes, and he should have realized that in today’s world photographs such as his cannot be “innocently” viewed. Therefore they should not be offered for viewing at all.

Personally, I will resist to my dying breath the efforts of anti pornographers to make me view the entire imaged world through a sexually dangerous and dysfunctional lens, whether I’m looking at Henson, music videos, Japanese erotica or Cosmopolitan. To look in innocence means to look without prejudice and preconditions, and to trust in the integrity of one’s own gaze. Hamilton’s ability to innocently gaze may well have been irrevocably damaged by those who seek to “sexualize” children. Mine has not, and I do not wish to join him in that trauma.

How to stop people wanting and making violent porn

The only way people will not participate in violent pornography, either by producing it or as viewers, is if they have a sense of self-worth that prevents them demeaning and abusing others or allowing themselves to be demeaned and abused. How are we going to produce human beings like that, given the culture in which we live and raise our young? The degradation of human beings is endemic in Western capitalist society indeed it’s a necessity if this form of society is to survive. Violent pornography is but one expression of this degradation. Like drug trafficking and people smuggling, it will never be “stopped” because there’s too much money and too much corruption involved in its production and distribution.

The best we can do is to educate our young to care for themselves and others, with the goal of creating a society in which degradation isn’t inherent. The rest is just sound and fury, unless the activists open their minds and hearts enough to engage with those who might not entirely agree with them, but who may well be on their side in some aspects of their battle.

“Art is dangerous. Art is not chaste” Robert Crumb and the anti child abuse campaigner

20 Aug

The recent Sunday Telegraph campaign against graphic artist Robert Crumb’s proposed participation in an exhibition at the Sydney Opera House, used the opinions of anti child abuse campaigner Hetty Johnson to infer that Crumb’s work is complicit in creating communities that are unsafe for children and should be banned.

The Tele apparently faxed Ms Johnson (who had previously never heard of the artist) a few copies of Crumb’s cartoons, leading her to decide that: ”the Sydney Opera House is endorsing the depraved thought processes of this very warped human being. These cartoons are not funny or artistic – they are just crude and perverted images emanating from what is clearly a sick mind.”

Crumb cancelled his trip, giving reasons in this open letter to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Anti child abuse campaigners like Ms Johnson have an important role to play in any community. Children must not be abused. We must do everything we can to address child abuse of every kind wherever we find it, because we are cruel and inhuman if we don’t.

But it’s a symptom of psychosis to mistake illusion for reality. Campaigners such as Ms Johnson are striving to impose a psychotic world view when they campaign against images such as those produced by Crumb, and closer to home, Bill Henson. Such campaigners necessarily view the world around them through the eyes of those who are sexually aroused by children. They seek in images of all kinds what they imagine paedophiles desire. They assume these images will provoke undesirable action in their viewers. They have no basis for these assumptions. They have no evidence. They simply object.

After working for many years with survivors of childhood sexual assault, I can attest that one can eventually see suspicious behaviour everywhere, in the most innocent of gestures, and on reaching that point a sensible practitioner knows it’s time to take a break. Yes, there are adults who abuse children. No, it’s not everybody. Yes there are images that paedophiles seek out and exchange. No, they are not every image in art or advertising that feature children.

These efforts by campaigners to colonise the public gaze have nothing whatsoever to do with preventing child abuse. Children are overwhelmingly sexually abused by people they know, frequently close family members. They are not necessarily abused by sexually crazed admirers of Robert Crumb and Bill Henson, or even by those sad human beings who earn their livelihood designing “sexy” underwear for little girls, and the even sadder mothers who buy it for them.

Here, I have to say that I don’t find the linked advertisements guilty of “sexualizing” the young models. I believe we need a conversation about what is and isn’t sexy and to whom, because it seems to me that campaigners are adopting a definition of “sexy” that is not necessarily shared by the whole community.

I find these images of the girls silly and sad. There’s not one thing that’s “sexy”about them. They are degrading not because they sexualize, but because they commodify. The young girls’ beauty is not sexualized, it is ruthlessly co-opted and exploited to sell product. The girls are dehumanized because of this, as are we all to varying degrees by the capitalist society in which we live.

It’s also worthy of note that these campaigners cannot, apparently, achieve their goals without perpetuating and trafficking in the “offensive” images. So on websites such as that belonging to Melinda Tankard Reist you will find links to purported “evidence” of the “sexualization” of young girls, sometimes tantalizingly prefaced by comments such as “if you can bear to look.” Unless you are willing to take Reist’s word for it, you have to open the links.

Without public outrage, these campaigners will cease to exist. They have everything invested in encouraging the viewing and sharing of the images they condemn. The question must be asked, are they too engaged in the process of commodification and exploitation of the child models? Is this the underlying reason why they are unable to address these matters as corporate and consumer issues?

What campaigners such as Hetty Johnson and Tankard Reist are actually engaged in are diversionary tactics. In blaming the art they do not understand for creating a climate in which the so-called “sexualization” of children is promoted and nurtured, they are distracting attention from the real culprits: corporations and consumers. Human beings have long been reduced to the status of a commodity in the interests of profit. Greed, not paedophilia underpins the increasing  sexualization of children. The personal worth of adults has long been measured by their exchange value: it was only a matter of time before this extended itself to the imposition on children of  impoverished and crude adult notions of what is “sexy,” designed purely to extend the profitability of human exploitation and commodification.

Back to Robert Crumb. Crumb’s work is a fine example of the power of catharsis. The artist owns himself as “weird,” highly anxious and neurotic, and possessing a vividly boisterous sexual imagination. These characteristics imbue his work with powerful feeling, and viewing Crumb’s images is often a disturbing experience.

But remember: “Art is dangerous,” Picasso claimed. “Art is never chaste. Where it is chaste, it is not art.”

The artist’s job is often to expose to the rest of us what we might not want to see or acknowledge as human. The best artists won’t flinch in their task of expressing what we would most like to deny about humanity. Those who are too afraid to rise to the artist’s challenge will demand censorship. They will clamour for the silencing of the artist’s imagination because, they claim, there is an inherent link between the imagination, and the acting out of imaginative visions. In other words, they take Picasso’s claim that art is dangerous far too literally.

Art is dangerous to the closed mind. Art can take us to emotional experiences and spiritual realisations that are not always easy and comfortable. But art will not turn us into paedophiles. The horrifying photographic images of sexually exploited and tormented children passed around a paedophile ring are not art.

While the artist may be expressing a personal vision, the fact that others can identify with and appreciate the artwork transforms the personal into the universal. Finding imaginative ways in which to safely express the darker and more dangerous emotions is the cathartic experience, and the cathartic experience is one that can enable a safe release of unconscious conflicts in the viewer as well as the artist. This is the power of art, and I include in the category of “art” all mediums of expression. Dark and dangerous emotions are human. They demand acknowledgement and safe expression. Art offers safe emotional release, both in its making and its appreciation.

This is the experience campaigners such as Johnson and Tankard-Reist wish to deny us. Trapped in a spiral of denial, they need to universalize their positions in order to feel validated. They need us all to agree with their critical judgements. They demand that we all adopt the paedophile’s gaze, and interpret the art that surrounds us, whatever its form, through that lens. They do not discriminate, their responses are formulaic and tiresome: if it is weird and sick to them, it has to be weird and sick to everyone, and the weird and sick must be silenced and denied.

What currently passes for “sexy” in our culture seems to me to be highly unsubtle, crude and largely uninteresting. Yet these campaigners have somehow managed to turn this one-dimensional representation of human sexuality into a cultural threat of nuclear proportions, especially for our children. Artists such as Crumb and Henson, of all people, have been caught up in this manufactured threat.

Campaigners themselves insist on reproducing many of the very images they decry, because, they claim, people must see them in order to be able to protest them. Outrage is their weapon of choice, and they must create enough of it to bring about their censorship goals.

Yet all they ever achieve is a band-aid solution. They do not address the underlying issues. They do not go deeply into the immorality of the increasing commodification of the human. They do not address a global economy that survives only as long as we all consume as much as is possible for as long as we are alive, making the construction of new markets an absolute necessity, even when that market is children and childhood. They do not address the complicity and collusion of mothers and caregivers in the sexualization and commodification of children and childhood. They do attack art, in all its forms, because that is easy.

The conflation of the “sexualization” of children and paedophilia with the perceived dangers of art needs to be challenged and resisted whenever it rears its hydra-head. The real role of anti child abuse campaigners is to work for educative and economic services that will help protect children, and that will offer accessible services for adults recovering from the frequently life long aftermath of childhood abuse.

There is no place for these campaigners as arbiters in the world of art. They have proved over and over again that their perspective is warped and one-dimensional, and that censorship is their only response to expressions of the human that they do not understand.

Bill Henson revisited

11 Apr

I’m putting this upfront again because a new discussion has opened up as a result of my piece in the Drum yesterday on Robert Crumb and Hetty Johnson.

Bill Henson by publik 16 via flickr

Bill Henson has a new photographic exhibition at the Tolarno Galleries in Melbourne.

The usual suspects, who art critic John McDonald calls the “despisers of the body” (Spectrum, April 9-10, 2011) have taken up cudgels against Henson’s images.

Interestingly, two prominent objectors, journalist and media researcher Nina Funnell, and Christian conservative Melinda Tankard Reist, both admit they haven’t seen the exhibition, however Reist says she has seen previous works and she knows what Henson is up to.

I haven’t seen this exhibition either, so am in no position to comment. What I do object to, however, is the conservative attitude that any depiction of adolescent nudity is pornographic, and the implication that everyone who views the images of adolescents is doing so from the perspective of a paedophile. That is, the danger they perceive is that all viewers will be sexually aroused in an inappropriate manner, and will want to sexually engage with the young people depicted in the photographs.

Therefore, the photographs  are “a catalyst for forbidden desires” to quote McDonald again, and  as such, should be censored.

Objectors such as Funnell and Reist have as their basic assumption that the young person’s body can only ever be viewed as a sexual object when portrayed in Henson’s photographs, even when they haven’t actually seen them.  They do not allow for any other understanding or interpretation, such as those Henson himself has advanced that are to do with his interest in capturing the liminality of adolescence, and revealing the young person on the threshold of immense change, in the throes of  all the uncertainties and ambiguities that accompany this state.

In the world view of the protestors, there is no room for any interpretation other than the sexual, and they urge all of us to view the images through the eyes and with the imagined desires of the paedophile.

There is something very alarming about their perspective, and something even more alarming about their urgent need to thrust that perspective on everyone else. Funnell tells us breathlessly that Henson’s images are known to be collected by paedophiles. Well, so are Target catalogues picturing little kids in their undies. Does this mean we must order and censor the world around us according to the base desires of the perverted? Does this mean that anything likely to appeal to the paedophile’s gaze must be obliterated from our cultural landscape?

Or are they arguing that any gaze directed towards photographs such as Henson’s is inherently paedophiliac, simply because the owner of the gaze directed it there in the first place?

This attitude turns everyone who visits the exhibition into a vicarious paedophile. It defines all visitors as abusers. It suggests that all those who view the images are compelled to adopt the perverted gaze to the exclusion of any possible other.

And this is what makes people like Funnell and Reist dangerous. They see a world comprised of sexual predation and abuse, and are unable to allow the legitimacy of any other vision. For this reason alone, they should not be trusted in the matter of Henson’s work, anymore than one would trust a paedophile’s limited and distorted perspective.

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