I don’t want to go over more of the same arguments about the Bill Henson controversy but to consider the photographs and the power of the image.
Part of the problem with recent censorship of the visual arts appears to be an ignorance of photography as art. If they had been more traditional arts, painting or sculpture, then the cavemen in the police force would have understood that it was art. But photographs make particularly powerful images. Many of the police and politicians involved have only encountered photography in family snaps, media photography and pornography. Ordinary photographs do not cause anything near the powerful experience of a Bill Henson photograph; the average viewer has little or no experience of art and so is unprepared for the powerful experience of viewing art.
At the extreme end of the power of images is the psychosomatic illness, Stendhal syndrome caused by powerful art. I have had Stendhal syndrome: when I first saw the paintings of James Gleeson I thought that I was about to faint. The minor effects of Stendhal syndrome, include rapid heartbeat, dizziness and confusion. Stendhal syndrome could have impaired the judgement of NSW Police officers and other people involved in the case.
Another confusion appears to be occurring in understanding the artifice of art. Ordinarily a photograph is treated as evidence except in the case of art. In cinemas and art galleries we regularly see apparent evidence of crimes and nobody does anything because they understand that it is not real, that it art. To charge Bill Henson with obscenity makes as much sense as to charge an actor with a crime seen in a movie.
David Hockney writes about “The power of pictures” in The Guardian 4/4/08. Pointing out the history of power of images and attempts by church and state to control this power. Hockney argues who ever controls the image has power. And the better the image the more power it is able to exert. We should not forget that the Bill Henson controversy started when of an anti-paedophile campaigner used Bill Henson’s photographs to gain publicity for her cause. That is she used the power of art to give power to her cause. And the power struggle continues with artists trying to keep control of their images, media exploiting public interest in images and politicians trying to maintain an image. The ABC joined the debate in changed the scheduled program to rebroadcasting a documentary on Bill Henson on Tuesday the 27th. Finally prominent Australians involved in the arts wrote an Open Letter in Support of Bill Henson.
Images have power, they can convict, they can distort, they can even cause Stendhal syndrome. And in this controversy, and many others like it, people are fighting for control of the power of photographic images.