Nudity in art and the Bill Henson controversy

Green Nude

Recent events.

Last week was quite a week in the Australian art world, with ‘keystone’ cops raiding  art galleries. They’ll be burning books next. The police raided Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery - possibly the most prestigious commercial art gallery in Sydney.  What interested them was the work of Bill Henson who had an exhibition opening there. People have become very polarised, and there have been threats against the gallery. In a very small nutshell, Henson is an internationally famous artist who photographs adolescents, nude.

You can read more about Bill Henson here, and  more about the shenanigans on the Art Life Blog.  In this post, ‘Seven Days in May’ the writer talks about the side issues that the controversy has raised. Some of these issues cover subjects dear to my own heart, and may well be raised again in posts in this blog. (‘The Art Life’ is the art blog in Sydney – you have to read it to be in the loop).

Nudity – naughty or not?

One of the questions The Art Life raises is, “Can our society take the chance that some people might consider art works with otherwise principled motivations to be porn?

I was already wanting to talk to you about nudity in art.  Mostly, anyone who has been an art student, or taken life drawing classes, takes a bit of nudity in their stride. I clearly remember my first life drawing class, in first year at art school in 2002. My friend said ‘ I’m going to try to get around the back.’ and ‘I hope it’s a woman.’ Well, it was a man, and there is no back in life class.  (The green image is one of my life drawings from a recent class – not there for its merit, but merely because I can’t post without a picture!) For the record, life drawing is difficult, and once you start to draw, the body becomes just shapes, & you’re  concentrating on the drawing, so you don’t have time to think about the nudity.

Of course, there are famous nude paintings from art history – those have all been dragged up this week – Manet’s Olympia and Dejeuner sur l’Herbe.  Most people don’t turn a hair at these. However, it has been a source of surprise to me, how varied my friends’ reaction to nudity in art can be. I blithely assume everyone is like me – but it’s not true. Some are much much more conservative. Would they think Henson’s work was pornographic. I doubt it – but I’ve been wrong before. The ‘art world’ (what is that? …..the commercial gallery system?) knows about Henson – he’s been going for 30 years – but the general public on the whole do not, it seems.  But the ‘art world’ is more insular than it thinks. It appears the police hadn’t heard of Henson Does that mean they haven’t got their eye on the ball? 

So, what do I think about the Henson fiasco?  I think it’s bizarre that the police have become involved, and if charges were to be laid I’d think it was appalling. Nevertheless, I voted with my feet and skipped his exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2005. Too many of my contemporaries were affected by child abuse, and I can’t bring myself to support anything that might lead the perpetrators to believe it is OK.

Speaking of the Art Gallery of NSW, I have an artist’s book in an exhibition there, starting on 18th June. You can see some images here and here.


Filed under the art world, Uncategorized

9 responses to “Nudity in art and the Bill Henson controversy

  1. Sandy

    What a very thought provoking post. There are so many angles that one can view this from; and for me, well at the risk of sounding wishy-washy, I’m not sure where I stand on the whole issue. I’m afraid that I don’t know Henson, or his work well enough to judge whether or not his work is considered pornographic or what his intention are/were. But this is a very interesting subject and one I’ll keep my eye on for sure.

    Very well written.

  2. caseytoussaint

    Wendy, first let me compliment you on your exhibition – your books are really gorgeous. I wish I could see them in person, but at least there are photos.
    I’m extremely ambivalent about the nudity of young children and adolescents in art – especially photographs. I know it’s art, but it’s troubling. I’d certainly have done as you did and avoided the exhibition.
    And yes – who are the “art world”? Galleries and people with loads of money?
    I like your life drawing too – did you prepare the paper beforehand?

  3. While I think child nudity can be a beautiful innocent thing. I’ve changed my mind about the appropriateness of it with the realization of just how many pedophiles are out there. So, I don’t think it should be allowed. I’d just about kill someone if they were having sexual fantasies about my child (okay, my children aren’t children anymore). It’s a much more dangerous world now, or maybe it always was and I was just ignorant.

    Enjoyed looking at your artist book!


    • taffysaur

      should we ban bruce willis movies because of the alarming amount of murderers out there?
      the world is no more or less dangerous than it’s ever been.

  4. Carolyn

    I was overseas when the Henson affair broke in the Australian media. I could hardly believe it. I know Hensons work and it is dark and provocative but it is art. I think it is wonderful that a photographer can capture so many emotions in his pictures. Adolescents are not as innocent sexually as we would like to pretend but Hensen captures a beauty in the flowering of that self knowledge of sexualitity and I would certainly take my teenage children, were they still teenagers, to see his work just to see the beauty in those young bodies which teenagers themselves so often reject. If pedophiles get their kicks from Hensens work it is their sick minds that are the problem not the children and not the artists interpretation of those children through his photographs.

  5. Pingback: Blogging Classes @ LVS Online » Blog Archive » Controversy in Conversation

  6. lvsblog

    Personally, I have always been fascinated by the way the lines of the neck blend and change with the shoulder and how then how the body shapes into the back. I like to play with those lines in art. Sometimes with continous line art or in conte drawings the fact that those lines are from the human form are far from obvious.

    I am also facinated by the human breast: as a scientist, an artist, a breast feeding advocate, a health provider and as a woman who happens to have a pair. So when is a drawing of a woman touching her breast porn, or art and when is it an educational tool to promote self breast exam? Intent and audience are the main means for me in differentiating the three. I know that after redesigning health education materials for the 32nd time to gain approval, that intent and audience do not always matter. Sometimes a breast image of any type will just not be allowed!

  7. grayroots

    This was very thought-provoking to me, thanks. To me artistic expression should be like speech, free. I also have the freedom to not go into a gallery I expect to have difficulty with. I think the context is also very important, as commented above. I would have no problem viewing a nude in several circumstances, but a child would cause me horrored pause because of my past, and I would see no art in it…but that’s subjective and I own it. I’m not sure that the art would warrant a raid unless there was proof child abuse occurred in the creation of such art. Didn’t sound to me anywhere near that happened.

  8. I’m not put off by nudity in art but I always question whether or not it is absolutely necessary. It’s certainly how it’s portrayed in imagery that may get me to like it, dislike it or be indifferent to it. This isn’t because I’m a visual artist either. There are many artists who flat out frown on any nudity, whatsoever, appearing in imagery. To understand my POV, see here:

    I have come across many situations that in my judgement, nudity or even semi-nudity was absolutely uncalled for, and it makes me seriously question whether or not I need; not want, to display it in my own illustrations, graphics and photography.

    I have to question why Henson deliberately photographs adolescents in the nude. From Wikipedia to other sources I find other people, seemingly his supporters, sounding off on what they believe is his intent but I’d really like to see an autobiography or self-written artist statement from Henson to clearly explain his motives. I can’t find this anywhere.

    I certainly would not illustrate or photograph anyone underage, unless I was doing a story on extreme child poverty in a place where the nudity is inevitable aspect of that child’s living conditions. That’s different from hiring a child to pose nude, and even then, such photojournalism isn’t always correct.

    My wife and I don’t have any children but I don’t believe I need any to be sure that there is no way in this universe that I’d permit any artist to deliberately photograph, paint, draw or sculpt them in the nude. No matter how honest and good the artist’s intentions may actually be. As others have pointed out above, this world is a dangerous place for children. The modesty of the young must be protected from anyone who might so much as gaze upon an image of them naked.

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