Controversy: Bill Henson & the 2008 exhibition

Bill Henson (born 1955) is an Australian contemporary art photographer.
The 2008 Bill Henson's photographic exhibition was shut down by the Sydney police due to a debate as to whether the pictures constituted child pornography or not. The exhibition features 12-13 year old nude teenagers. Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Michael Rudd has deemed the images as ‘absolutely revolting’. Mr. Rudd has said the images have no artistic value. "Kids deserve to have the innocence of their childhood protected," he said on Channel 9. “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.”
However, John McDonald, art critic of the Sydney Morning Herald, says there is nothing sexual about the photos. "To me, the big shame is that the only time that we start looking at art and talking about art in the mainstream media is when it's banned, when it's supposedly pornographic, when it's doing something that's taboo," he told ABC Radio's AM.
The two totally diverse views represent the opposite side of values which leads to the question as to what art is? And What is the boundary between art and pornography? Could it incur pedophiles? Perhaps it is rational to shut down the exhibition before the issue is settled. (Bill Henson Wiki page )"
In a joke, the difference between art and pornography is put like this, " a woman's back is the art while a woman's chest is pornography; the part below a woman's thigh is art while the part above a woman's thigh is pornography; a woman's breast is the art while a woman's nipples are pornography; a woman dropping her eyes is art while a woman looking up is pornographic; man and woman lean back to back is art, men and women lean face to face is pornography; naked body in the eyes of the artist is art, in the eyes of ordinary people is pornography ...... ! " Thus, it is hard to tell the difference.

Responsibility in the Henson Case

Due to the sensationalized articles on the Henson case with explicit reference to his work as sexual exploitation of adolescents and being pornographic, the artistic value of Henson’s work has been muddied in the eyes of readers who have not encountered Henson’s work before. Hence, it is effortless for readers of such articles to conclude that the Henson case is purely a debate of whether his work is pornography or not. However, this question should not be the main focus for cause of this controversy. Instead, it should be asked if the selection of the particular picture of an adolescent girl put on the invitation to his gallery exhibit is a responsible act or not. And if not, whose responsibility is it?

This question is important because though it can be agreed that the picture on the invitation is highly artistic and not sexual material, the method of dissemination of the picture is considered unsolicited and might offend people who might have, given the chance, choose not to view the material. This is against the Harm Principle by J.S. Mill (1910, p. 72-73) which allows a sovereign individual freedom to act as long as harm is not done unto others.

It has been reported that Henson specifically chose the controversial photo for the exhibition invitation and has since admit that it might have been a mistake (Marr, 2008a). This demonstrates Henson’s acceptance of his responsibility over his action of choosing the particular picture though he explains his reason for choosing it was because, to his artist eyes, he thought that it was ‘the most interesting’ work amongst his others (Marr, 2008a). Henson’s remorse in the choice of picture, though unnecessary, is an example of Strawson’s (cited in Lavin, 2008, p. 8) assertion that individual responsibility is naturally inherent when he is linked to the identified cause of controversy (the invitation picture). Henson's sense of self-responsibility also exemplifies Locke's explanation of the term 'liberal responsibility' which is described to 'depend[s] on diachronic personhood and individual sovereignty over actions and desires' (cited in Lavin, 2008, p. 6). As a person in control of his individuality, obviously shown in Henson's confidence in the legitimacy of his work (Marr, 2008a), Henson sees himself to be responsible for his own actions and his responsibility as an artist who chose to present one of his best work on the cover of his invitation card.

On the other hand, Henson’s decision is based on his artistic nature to present what he deems is the most interesting to potential viewers of his work. With no intention of causing harm to others, is Henson, then, not responsible of the offense taken by unsuspecting receivers of the invitations? Instead, could the gallery in charge of the publicity of the exhibition be hold responsible? This is suggested because being in charge of the generation of publicity on behalf of the artist and being a professional in this line of work, the gallery would be more perceptive to what would be considered solicited or unsolicited material. In fact, it could be said that due to experience, the gallery realizes the potential of generating free publicity by using the controversial picture. If this is true, then the gallery has gone against the harm principle and can be considered responsible due to their dishonorable intention. Then again, both Henson and the gallery can be said to be ‘marred’ by their artistic appreciation and perceive the said photograph to be of artistic merit that would not offend others. In this case, both parties would not be responsible for causing offense through the choice of picture and can at most be said to lack good judgment while designing the invitation cover.

Furthermore, we could also argue that media should take responsibility in what they decide to publish and hence throw into the public sphere. In a quote mentioned during the week 10 lecture by Coetzee chapt 1"giving offense" pg 10. "If we must have censors, then the censors be educated" (Coetzee, pg10) in that the censors, and in this case also the institutions responsible for delivering the information should be art critics, or individuals that have a substantial knowledge in art. However, that is not the case here. New forms of journalism such as television in particular, have raised further questions about how reliant such forms of media are in delivery of accurate information on topics of interest to the public. In short, is the media contextualisng Bill Henson's art and making it appear pornographic and not a form of art in order to get more ratings, or create eye catching headlines to it's audience for the purpose of selling more newspapers? I say this because televisions main purpose is to provide its audience a source of entertainment. Therefore, television is able to depoliticize and reduce what goes on in the world or nation to a level of anecdote or scandal, which may of been the case for Bill Henson and his artwork. It could be found that some information on television could be exaggerated, or only emphasising what is to be considered more scandalous, which will consequently increase its ratings. Secondly, only a section of the community is educated in this arena, not to mention that a large section of the Australian population is uneducated, let alone educated in the arena of art. So in turn, whatever the media feeds them, they absorb like a sponge, they lack the ability to critically assess it on an educated level. So like what was mentioned in the previous paragraph where it was suggested that the art gallery should have taken some responsibility, seeing that they have been in this business for a substantial length of time. In that they may of used the controversial nature of Henson's art for propaganda, in the same sense, media might have done the same in contextualisng Henson's work in order to get the attention of a larger audience.

Reactions by Public Authority Figures


Herald journalist David Marr published a scathing critique of the reactions of NSW Police Force and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to the Bill Henson controversy. In his article, "Tyranny, the price paid for not giving offence", Marr describes the actions of the police and Rudd as a return to the 1950s when "this country was in grip of the tyranny of not giving offence".

Real Time Magazine and other Australian arts representatives

The creative representatives of the 2020 summit put together an 'open letter in support of Bill Henson' and published it in the June/July issue of Real Time magazine - a national publication that deals directly with arts in Australia. There were four main points to their argument:
1. Henson is a highly respected and distinguished artist whose work has been displayed in a number of influential galleries around the world. Many people view his work and there has never been one complaint before. Henson is also been widely studied in schools for many years.
2. Henson's work has included young models for over 15 years. His models and their families strongly defend him and his work. It is suggested that the actions of the media sensationalised the events and in fact caused more trauma to the models and families than Henson's work ever could have.
3. Henson's work is not pornographic. It is outlined that pornography 'endorses, condones or encourages abusive sexual practices', it is personally argued that Henson's work is in opposition to these features of pornography. Instead, Henson's work is meant to make the viewer consider 'the fragility, beauty, mystery and inviolability of the human body...the transition from childhood to adulthood'. It is emphasised that if Henson was charged he would be unlikely to be found guilty, and that this process takes up police and court time that could be better used to find those that actually do abuse children.
4. The most distressing part of the 'trial-by-media' is that it has corrupted Henson's work from now on. It is suggested that the labeling of Henson's work as pornographic does more to promote it to pedophiles than art galleries.
It is thought that 'this action will encourage a repressive climate of hysterical condemnation, backed by the threat of prosecution'.

The editorial provided in this issue of Real Time was particularly poignant in identifying the climate of self-censorship:
Published in the magazine, the names of John Howard, Bill Henson, Phillip Ruddock, Kevin Rudd, Peter Garrett, Roslyn Oxley and Malcolm Turnbull were blacked out, placing a visual quality to the concept of censorship in which no one can be mentioned and no one is accountable for their comments and actions.

Art as a Controversial Institution

Many people regard art as controversial. In fact the most famous artworks throughout history tend to be the ones that have caused the most amount of controversy and in doing so have broken down the proverbial barriers society places on this medium. Art has the potential to challenge society's moral and ethical standards as well as set new levels of acceptance in the community. One such example is the 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon ' painting by Pablo Picasso in 1907. It caused much offence to most who saw it as it was a portrait of prostitutes. This challenged society's views on sex and forced people to rethink what was to be acceptable in art. Art also has the potential to set cultural precedents. The most famous example is a work called 'Fountain ' by Marcel Duchamp in 1917. It is a urinal inscribed with the artist's pseudonym 'D. Mutt'. This caused much controversy and debate in the art world which caused debates over the definition of what art is and what was to be accepted as art.

These debates continue today but have been rekindled by one controversial artwork. The artwork of Bill Henson is an example of controversy in art/art in controversy. It caused a lot of controversy because it forced society to think about what it was willing to accept as art by getting us to think about the relation of art and child pornography. It could also be argued that the works were exploring relationship between adolescence and discovery. Indeed, terms such as 'child pornography' were only related to Henson's work by journalists in the media. In doing so, these articles framed the works in a new, and not original framework.
Furthermore, it is arguable that although Henson's work caused offence, it should never be enough to warrant censorship.

However, in an instance such as this where society becomes legitimately concerned with a potentially illegal action (i.e. taking 'compromising' photos of a minor and displaying them publicly) we can see why censorship may be the responsible action to take. If it is found to be illegal (and it hasn't been) then most people would agree it should be censored completely. However, in this case, Henson was found not guilty of the allegations made against him. Therefore the debate has now become one of poor taste and the 'what is art' question. This is no good reason for censorship. Those who are offended by the photos are not obliged to actively seek them out and view them. As David Marr argues, 'freedom of expression must include the license to offend' (SMH, 1/4/2009), otherwise we will enter a puritanical and 'tyrannous' style of government. Marr draws the outline of Australian culture as 'oddly prudish' consisting of people who do not merely accept and express dislike for contentious content, but who expect action, political ruthless action. In short, responsibility must be claimed at any instance of contentious content and punishment given.

Although Mill's Harm Principle is arguable on the side of censors (governmental or otherwise), it ought to be more harmful surely - to those without official censor power - to deny access to content of any form for the sake of offending or upsetting. This is not a matter of politeness and properness. Bill Henson should not have to be polite or proper for the sake of not upsetting viewers - conflict is 'the give and take of a living, breathing society' (Ibid). Bill Henson is not responsible for the reaction of viewers. Or is he? It would be far more reasonable to scrutinize his responsibility in regards to his subjects, whether they are consenting and aware of the artist's intention. And of course to scrutinize this intention from the start.

The problem with Bill Henson’s artwork is not that it is necessarily offensive, or that it is not art. It may have significant meaning in itself. But that is not what is important here. It is the time and place it was done. People do not become outraged with what they are seeing. It is not directly harmful; it is the example it sets. People see the artwork and become fearful that it may open doorways for children to become abused. This has certainly been the case with Hetty Johnson at Bravehearts who argued that the matter at hand was an 'illegal ' one, where children were being exploited for porn. With such huge international controversy at the time of child abuse and pornography becoming a problem, people are fearful for their children’s rights. They do not want to see children abused or taken advantage of. These photographs may be art, but when judged from the context of the political and social agenda, these artworks do not set a good example. They offend people. Henson’s artwork may have significant value within the art arena, however they are completely devalued by the broader context at the time.

At the same time, Art is not necessarily always classified as a separate field to all other schools of thought. Art is the practice of exploring the unknown. Some of the greatest artists of all time have been heavily scrutinised, criticised, and even killed for the message their artwork delivers, but decades, or even centuries later, people have began to become ever more respectful of their work to the point where it not only plays a small significant role within their society, it even defines their culture. Gustav Eiffel, who put forward the design for the Eiffel Tower that was completed in 1889, had his design criticised to the level where Gustav was defending his design with tooth and nail. Out of nowhere a huge pile of metal emerged which in no one thought would have any relation to the architectural environment, and that played such a huge role in the cultural achievements that the French took great pride in. One of the more significant protests to the design was "personalities from the world of arts and letters" which was a letter signed by the Paris opera architect, Charles Garnier and writers François Coppée, Alexandre Dumas fils, Charles-Marie Leconte de Lisle, Guy de Maupassant and Sully Prudhomme. “We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects, passionate lovers of the beauty, until now intact, of Paris, hereby protest with all our might, with all our indignation, in the name of French taste gone unrecognized, in the name of French art and history under threat, against the construction, in the very heart of our capital, of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower, that public spite, often marked by good sense and a spirit of justice, has already baptized the Tower of Babel. "The debate of the Eiffel tower as a 'new artwork' or a 'humiliation to French national identity' could not be fully resolved, and instead, the tower was left to stand. As time passes it has continued to play an even more important role as a global icon for the city.

Another example of censorship in art involves the work of Mexican artist Diego Rivera in 1933. Diego Rivera was comissioned to paint a mural in the Rockefeller Centre in New York City. The mural was themed 'human intelligence in control of nature', it depicted an intricate and elaborate representation of politically relevant ideas of the time including a portrait of Lenin. The mural was considered to be "too controversial" and was taken down soon after completion.

This example highlights the ongoing nature of artwork in challenging current views and perspectives that open up new corridors for new inventors. Bill Henson’s artwork may at the same time be completely offensive and disrespectful to the political and social arena at the time, but how do we know whether he is not truly opening up yet another corridor which in decades or centuries time, people will come to truly respect? In this sense, we need to be careful with the way in which we view his artwork, and be careful to avoid drawing conclusions too hastily over the way in which it should be treated. Kevin Rudd said that photos were “absolutely revolting” (Sydney Morning Herald 03/10/09) - perhaps he should have more respect for the artworks, and perhaps it is not even his responsibility to be saying anything about them at all.

In any case, a cultural precedent has been set as a result of Bill Henson's controversial photography.
It seems that Australians today are so caught up with protecting people, and not wanting to cause offense, that we are willing to choke our social commentators to avoid it. In the above mentioned article Marr explores this idea. He quotes a senior officer involved in the Henson case, "...when Australians disapprove of something they aren't satisfied with just disliking it. They want governments to leap straight to category three...(those that must be prosecuted)." This officer recognises this bizarre sadism that is creeping into the Australian psyche. This desperate need to punish the person causing the offense, or, on a larger scale, the need to punish anyone caught doing something someone might take offense too. It seems to be understood that the offense will go away, or be nullified if the perpetrator is punished to a suitable level. And yet it could well be considered that we are therefore missing the point of our artistic world. Art, politics, performance, they are not designed to be pretty and pleasing, they are designed to thrust the reality of society into the faces of those who indulge in it.

Art, for as long as it has been recorded, has commented on the values and directions of it's society, providing a looking glass through which the individual can see his/her world in an almost removed and totally judgmental focus. It is here that Bill Henson's works might find their protection. While it has been argued above that society was legitimately concerned with the 'illegal action' that may have taken place, the real fear here is within each and every person. It was stated at the beginning that there was no issue with the way in which these images were captured. The model of one of the images, and her parents, were more that happy to speak about the experience. However, on page 5 of the document Children In The Creative Process: information for artists and arts organisations (New South Wales) released by the Arts Law Centre of Australia it is clearly stated that "it is not a defense to point to consent either by the child or the child's parents". This, then, questions the realm of responsibility and upon whom responsibility should fall for the publication of the images: should the child's parents have known better? Should Henson have known better than to publicise the images? Should the art gallery owner have had the discretion to not publicise the images?
These questions all have great merit and were the main ones considered by the public and authorities when formulating decisions on the suitability of the content of Henson's images, but they fail to consider an important qualifying clause within the Children in the Creative Process Document which states that "it is a defence to a charge of producing child pornography if it can be established that the circumstances in which the artist produced the work demonstrate that he or she acted with genuine artistic purpose." (p.5) Information regarding Bill Henson's own intention is not readily available - and to great disappointment.

What is alarming to society about this controversy is their desire to see the images. The desire felt to view the original/un-censored version of the images, as they were splashed all over the media, is arguably what the works tried to achieve. They question our motives, our desires for the immoral and the socially repressed, our definition of 'innocence' and adolescence, forcing the viewer to question their understanding of themselves, and of their society. With this understanding in hand it can be reasonably suggested, that Henson's primary aim was not to produce child pornography but to catalyse critical thought within society about the issues suggested in his art and, in turn, to push the limits of what is considered 'normal'. That is, it can be reasonably suggested that Henson, in producing these images, did indeed act with genuine artistic purpose.

The biggest issue surrounding the Bill Henson case is the way it was handled by the media. As the police confiscated the images under the guise of “child pornography” and protecting the best interest of the child the model at the centre of the controversy was branded a victim of sexual assault. But is it reasonable to consider the intense media scrutiny the child has been under; the media’s description of the child as the victim of sexual exploitation, the child’s subjected to police interviewing and child campaigners call for her parents and Henson’s arrest could have been more damaging to the child that their actual participation in the photograph itself.

Additionally in attempting to shock and offend the public, the media allowed the term 'pornography' to be applied in reference to this artwork. As the intention for the work had been to question the individual, the work was intended to be displayed to an audience who would understand this intention and was capable of removing their social boundaries to view the work. By throwing it to the general public, the image became bastardised and allowed to be viewed and accessed in a pornographic setting.

Bill Henson’s work represents childlike innocence like Adam and Eve before the fall. It would be wrong to criticize his form of art as pornographic when it interprets images of the adolescent body half formed and it looks both back to innocence of childhood towards the experiences of adult life. This work also speaks about the pain and isolation of adolescence as one’s mind and body goes through the difficult transformation from child to adult. A fairly standard dictionary definition of pornography is “creative activity (writing or pictures or films etc.) of no literary or artistic value other than to stimulate sexual desire”. This work clearly does not fit that definition. Nudity is not necessarily pornography and the age of the subject does not change this simple fact. So for people like Kevin Rudd who have no artistic background and condemns someone’s art is Censorship. This illustrates Labor’s encouragement of assaults on basic democratic rights and restriction on the society from seeing the work or even given the chance to make up their own mind. Politicians say their main concern is children not being protected; however there have been no complaints from models but on the contrary former models and their parents have praised Henson’s work as “beautiful, it brought tears to my eyes” (Marr, 2008). Wwhat happened to freedom of speech and the right to express yourself and when someone does they shut it down, what happened to living in a free country. At what point is censorship justifiable?

Children in Art and Pornography

The Law

There is considerable ambiguity surrounding childrens' roles and rights in art in Australian law.
  • The legal Age of Majority across the whole of Australia is 18 years old. Above this age, persons are considered fully 'adult' and are accorded the relevant roles and responsibilities befitting a person of that age. For instance, they can participate in the democratic voting process, or be tried as an adult in court.
  • The Age of Consent, above which a person is legally entitled to engage in sexual relations is 16 years and above.
  • Regarding child pornography laws, there is also a distinction between children aged above or below 14 years of age.
It is important to highlight what the law means by 'pornographic purposes'. Clause (3) of Section 91G Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) Section 91Gstates pornographic purpose is when a child is engaged in sexual activity, placed in a sexual context or subjected to torture, cruelty or physical abuse. The penalties for child pornography involving children below 16 years are:

91G Children not to be used for pornographic purposes

    • (1) Any person who:
    • (a) uses a child who is under the age of 14 years for pornographic purposes, or

    • (b) causes or procures a child of that age to be so used, or

    • (c) having the care of a child of that age, consents to the child being so used or allows the child to be so used,
    • is guilty of an offence.
Maximum penalty: imprisonment for 14 years.
    • (2) Any person who:
    • (a) uses a child who is of or above the age of 14 years for pornographic purposes, or

    • (b) causes or procures a child of that age to be so used, or

    • (c) having the care of a child of that age, consents to the child being so used or allows the child to be so used,
    • is guilty of an offence.
Maximum penalty: imprisonment for 10 years.
This seemingly arbitrary classifications further confuse rather than clarify the issues surrounding the Bill Henson controversy. Why is there a distinction between under and over 14-year olds? It seems (despite being minors) that it is legally permissible for persons aged 16 years and over to partake in pornography, which is congruent with the age of consent laws. This raises the question: why do these persons, who have seemingly been accorded full authority over the use of their own bodies, still not have the right to watch R18+ films which often depict other people engaging in sexual acts? It is slightly ironic to be prohibited from watching people on screen engage in sexual acts and be permitted to do so yourself.

The UNCRC rights of the child: child participation vs. protection in art

As Valentine (06/08) sees in the controversy surrounding Bill Henson “the debate has largely been between adults over the values that adults should hold in protecting children and viewing art. Children and young people themselves have been almost entirely absent.” The debate is polarized by defendants of the welfare of children or Henson's supporters dismissing the issues as irrelevant. In the process the adolescent’s sexuality, the agency of the child in negotiating both sexuality and its representation has been cast aside.

During the initial developments of Human Rights legislation, in the seventeenth century, children were excluded from what was known as the 'rights of man'. Children's participation in the public sphere was limited as they were considered objects of politics not subjects. Children where seen to be deficient of reason, with the incapability to consent or make conscious decisions. Rosseau in his work on the child and education, states the word infant itself means 'the one who cannot speak' (v2. pg1), and therefore without the capacity to speak for themselves.

There is been an emerging body of work that argues children are more capable and therefore more rational than is often assumed. One of the key documents for recognizing the capacities and rights of children is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

"Article 12 (Respect for the views of the child): When adults are making decisions that affect children, children have the right to say what they think should happen and have their opinions taken into account”(

"Article 34 (Sexual exploitation): Governments should protect children from all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse. This provision in the Convention is augmented by the Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography” (

Working from this rights framework the rights of the child under article 34 would protect children from the risks of exploitation and sexual abuse. And in more cases it would be considered to trump the rights of children to participate (article 12) in decisions that affect the child’s own body and life. Hence Valentine (06/08) concludes “even if, as seems most plausible in the Henson photos, the child models consented and were in fact active participants in the process, the precedence of protection over participation would suggest that consent is no proof against harm.

Operating within this legal and social convention, supporters of the rights of the child would argue children cannot consent to activities that may be potentially harmful, because they have impaired capacities to foresee the potential consequences of their consent or participation. In practice Valentine (06/08) sees this means all children are prohibited from participating in activities, such as Henson’s work that adults conclude are damaging to them. As Bernadette McMenamin of the organization Child Wise observed the UNCRC would prohibit not only the children from consenting themselves but the parents of the child from consenting to such photographic shoot (Valentine, 06/08).


According to Mill, children “require being taken care of by others, [and] must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury”. Thus according to Mill, the onus of the protection of children is upon adults with the requisite “maturity of their faculties”. Therefore the child's consent is inconsequential.

Case Studies

Dave in the Life: Art or Porn?

This program screened last night on SBS (Dave in the Life) and asked the question, is Bill Henson's photography art or pornography? Dave (host of the program) wished to see what it would be like to live a day in the life of a controversial artist such as Bill Henson. Dave decided to walk around Circular Quay and Coogee beach to ask the general public whether Bill Henson's images of the girl from the controversial Roslyn Oxley9 invitation and Caravaggio's painting “Amor Vincit Omnia,” Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio he was displaying was indeed art or porn? To Dave's amazement, the majority of people asked concluded that Caravaggio's painting of a naked young boy was indeed porn over Bill Henson's frontal nude of the 13 year old girl at the centre of 2008's controversy. Adding to this debate is the question of Victorian erotica from the 1850s. Here is an interesting article from the UK Telegraph on Victorian erotica by Guy Kennaway called Victorian erotica: the original cheely girls( UK Telegraph)

Food for thought: Are these images Art or Porn? Take a look and see what you think...

1850s Victorian Erotica
Modern day erotica

Caravaggio's Amor Vincit Omnia

1850s Victorian Erotica

Annie Leibovitz Photo Scandal

Annie Leibovitz is a world-known artist and photographer, best known for her iconic portrait of Yoko Ono and John Lennon, hours before his death that appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 1980. However, she came under fire after a series of photos were shot of then 15-year-old teen-idol, Miley Cyrus, for a Vanity Fair magazine spread. Controversy surrounds whether Leibovitz exploited the child actress, with claims that the portraits are child pornography, however Leibovitz argues that the shoot was merely artistic and images of art (The Insider, 2008).

One particular photo shows a topless Cyrus clutching a blanket to her chest, as she looks over the camera over one shoulder with her entire back exposed (, 2008). An apology took place on February 9, 2008 where Cyrus stated 'I took part in a photo shoot that was supposed to be 'artistic' and now, seeing the photographs and reading the story, I feel so embarrassed. The pictures of me on the Internet were silly, inappropriate shots' (, 2008).

Photographer Annie Leibovitz issued a statement in response to the pictures; 'I'm sorry that my portrait of Miley has been misinterpreted. Miley and I looked at fashion photographs together, and we discussed the picture in that context before we shot it.The photograph is a simple, classic portrait, shot with very little makeup, and I think it is very beautiful' (, 2008). On the other hand, criticism of Vanity Fair's responsibility over the shots was voiced by Cyrus' spokesperson from the Disney Channel. They argued that Cyrus had been treated unfairly for commercial purposes and stated '...a situation was created to deliberately manipulate a 15-year-old in order to sell magazines' and the magazine was further accused of 'exploiting her body for profit' (, 2008).

This incident not only raises issues of responsibility - whether the photographer, the subject or the magazine itself is to blame for allowing the photo shoot to occur and be published. But more importantly, the issue of sexuality amongst young girls in society is addressed. There needs to be a balance with censorship in the media, but also an acceptance of that young girls will express their sexuality in different ways. However, who has this responsibility to draw this line? Further, there are also questions over whether there was an abuse of power by the magazine who may have intentionally wanted to use the subject for 'commercial purposes'. Clearly, this scandal stresses the significance of what is considered 'art' by society and how sometimes pushing the boundaries for art can often be misinterpreted by its context.

Can something be both art and pornography at the same time?

Ultimately, any answer will be subjective in that photos and paintings appeal in different ways to different people. However, given the vagueness of the definitions of both art and pornography I feel that a photo or painting can be considered as being art and pornography. Given the laissez-faire approach to defining art (see the above debate about what art is) one may make the claim that pornography is a type of art, albeit one that is often judged as immoral. However, whilst pornography may be regarded by some as art, art does not necessarily need to be associated with pornography. Art can be in the form of paintings, poetry, music and photography to name a few. In other words, there are many cases where something is undoubtedly a piece of art and clearly not something else (such as pornography). Anything could essentially be considered art, so long as the artist atributes a particular meaning to it - something which is generally achieved by composition and most importantly the context of a subject. Most of the greatest artists of all time have never felt the need to blur the line between art and pornography. This of course does not mean that if the line is blurred (as Henson's work obviously did for many members of the media and society) then the work should be dismissed as pornography. It does however mean that such a reaction is to be expected; that we should not be surprised that some people may perceive it as pornography. This is because every work is perceived subjectively. I would go so far as to suggest that this kind of debate is good for art as a means to break down old misconceptions and set new precedents for future artists, society and culture.

The term "art" refers to an expression of "what is beautiful or appealing" in an aesthetic view. Pornography, on the other hand is the "depiction of explicit sexual matter for the purposes of sexual excitement" according to Wikipedia. Hence some people argue that pornography may be regarded as some form of art. In the article 'Adolescent Nude photos not Unusual: art expert' an art expert claims that the naked body has, for thousands of years, been the "subject" of art and thus the naked body of teenager (by Henson) should also be regarded as art, not pornography. An art critic, John McDonald has also argued that there are no traits of sexual matters in the photo. However many other people do feel that this work of naked adolescent can never be acknowledged as art. The NSW Premier Morries Iemma commented about this as an "offensive and disgusting" as a father of four. Kevin Rudd, Australian Prime Minister also agreed upon the statement and said "I think they're revolting". (C Masters & J Vallejo, Who would call this art? 23 May 2008, Daily Telegraph)
I, thus agree with the above paragraph that a photo may be regarded both art and pornography as different people think different ways.

As mentioned above, the line between art and pornography has become blurred. Perhaps, again, as mentioned above, the naked body has been the 'subject' of art for thousands of years, however, people have become obsessed with this and have taken advantage of this art. Thus, pornography and the abuse of children has come out of this. We can blame pedophiles and pornographers for this as they have turned the art of the naked body from beautifully natural to sickeningly abusive. Nowadays we are so afraid to produce art of the naked body in fear of being called a pornographer, or worse a pedophile! This presents problems for artists who portray the naked body as genuine art. But how are we, as the audience supposed to know whether am image was created for the purpose of art or pornography? We don't know, and thus jump to conclusions. Therefore an image which is publicly accused of being pedophilia, will automatically taint the view of other onlookers. Do we actually look at the artists work as art (after all this is their job) and their intentions, before we decide their work is pornographic? Perhaps art requires a deeper thought process than most average people have.

Similarities with "Spiritual America"

In early October 2009, after intervention from the London police's obscenity division, a photo of Brooke Shields titled Spiritual America", which showed her standing naked in a bathtub, was removed from its display at the Tate Modern gallery amid concerns it may have breached child pornography laws.(Totaro, 2009). It was argued, and accepted by the gallery, that the photo may attract paedophiles, even though it was meant to draw attention to the then child-stars plight (Totaro, 2009).

Garry Gross, the photographer who took the original photograph of Brooke Shields said he was "disappointed but not surprised" (Leonard & Singh, 01/10/09). Gross himself did not consider the photograph pornographic though conceding in his intention for the photograph "she was supposed to look like a sexy woman" (Leonard & Singh, 01/10/09).

The work itself was commissioned by Brooke Shield’s mother intent on a making her daughter a child star. Interestingly, Shields herself has no say over the display of the pictures. And unlike the case of Bill Henson's work raised the question of the child's consent and the life of the photograph beyond the original context of the creative work. The picture was also featured in a Playboy Press publication and there were also plans by the photographer to release the pictures as a poster. She has previously sued for the rights to the photo in 1981, which was commissioned by her mother, and lost (Totaro, 2009). A judge ruled that she was a "hapless victim of a contract... to which two grasping adults bound her" (Leonard & Singh, 01/10.09).

The subject matter and its choice of display children's campaigners were concerned would become a "magnet for pedophiles" (Leonard & Singh, 01/10/09. Michele Elliot, founder of Kidscape warning "If you are using a picture of a naked child to bring people to your exhibition, then you are exploiting that child. It's as if they are using a 10-year-old girl for bait" (Leonard & Singh, 01/10/09).The photograph in question was displayed in its own room behind a closed door and a warning sign that the work was "challenging".

The incident is reminiscent of another child pornography scandal attached to Shields. At the age of 12, she starred as the photogenic daugther of a prostitute in the Louis Malle film Pretty Baby. The confronting themes of the film - including where the virginity of Sheilds' character was to be auctioned - and apparent nude scenes by a pre-pubescent Shields triggered complaints that led to a US congressional enquiry. However, it was established that body doubles had been used for the most controversial scenes and the filmmakers escaped censure on the grounds that the controversial aspects of the production had been handled sensitively and tastefully. Their defence could be interpreted as the notion of 'responsibility' as set out by Lavin and others in the Theory Book.

Freedom of speech/ artistic expression VS social harm (harm principle)-

As art developed from centuries until now, controversy has somehow managed to keep up. Going back to the beginning of art historical study we can find cases of both individual artists and groups who have rocked the artistic status quo with their innovative contributions to the art of the day. The 21st century is no exception. The international, although by no means universal, appeal of art is mirrored by its ability to provoke controversy the world over. Significantly, the catalysts for outrage and censorship seem by and large to be the same; countries that take pride in their liberality and support for freedom of expression react in ways remarkably similar to those they perceive to be repressive.

Freedom of speech implies that an individual may be sovereign over his body and mind; each person must still respect the fact that every other individual is entitled to an equal right to freedom. This bring us back to Mill’s harm principle where "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will is to prevent harm to others"(Mills, p72-73) and "The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others" (Mills,p 73). Mills is clear that danger to liberty comes from “a social tyranny," which tends to be as strong as, if not stronger than any sort of political oppression because. Thus tyranny is seen as impinging on opinions which is then impinging on individuality.

The harm principle can then be applied to Bill Henson’s case whereby, the paintings itself are an expression of individuality, however, the social tyranny sees it as a form or child pornography and therefore frowns upon his works. However, this then raises the question as to whether art can really be a medium in which to cause harm to a society. Society can choose not to view these pieces if they find them offensive, and therefore this eliminates the harm to which the paintings itself could cause harm to that individual. In any case, instead of seeing artistic expression as being able to cause harm to an individual it can be seen as medium in which people can take offence to, but only by choice. This is because “freedom of expression must include the license to offend” (Marr,2009). And “for a free and energetic society, giving offence is necessary” (Marr, 2009) or as one persons view of what offensive material is, can differ to another’s. The harm principle implies that “there are dangers and society must be protected from them. But too often-indeed all the time-Australians call on governments to protect them merely from ideas they find offensive, images they find distasteful and facts they find disturbing. Big claims are made about the dangers lurking here, but in truth, most of the time, all we’re talking about is protections from offence” (Marr, 2009) and not harm.

Works Cited:

Leonard, T. & Singh, A. (2009) "Brooke Shields photographer 'disappointed' by police pornography claim", website:, last updated: 01/10/09, accessed: 05/10/09.Marr, David. "Tyranny, the price paid for not giving offence" (SMH, 1/4/2009)
Marr, D. 2008b, ‘Henson photo not porn, says censor’, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 June.
Marr, D. 2008a, "Henson breaks his silence on that picture", Sydney Morning Herald, 3 October.
Mill, J.S. (1910) "On Liberty". Utilitarianism, Liberty and Representative Government, p65-77 (Introduction).
Totaro, P. "Police visit prompts gallery to remove naked Shield's picture", Sydney Morning Herald, available:
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques.(1762) Emile. Trans. Allan Bloom, Institute for Learning Technologies. accessed 02.10.09
Valentine, K. (2008) “Innocence defiled, again? The art of Bill Henson and the welfare of children”, website, last updated: 06/08, accessed 05/10/09.
"All you need to know about the Eiffel Tower", The official site of the Eiffel Tower, <> viewed - 02/10/09
'Art community defends naked teen photo exhibition',
'Annie Leibovitz Is Sorry Her Miley Cyrus Art Was 'Misinterpreted', The Insider, 29 April, 2008
'Photographer defends Miley Cyrus photo', Entertainment, 28 April 2008

"The politics of art", May 14, 2004 (prior to Henson but inclusive of Hookey):
Artists, curators and critics argue that all art is political. But should public money be used to support artists with a political message, especially one that offends parts of the community? Gabriella Coslovich reports...