Bill Henson Part 5: When can children decide for themselves?

October 05, 2008

Some background

Regular readers of this blog know that I've written a number of posts about the photographic art of Bill Henson and the debate about the inappropriateness of using photographs of naked children for artistic purposes. You can follow the threads of the earlier debate and my critique here.

For overseas readers of this blog here is some brief background. Henson was at the centre of a major controversy caused by an art exhibition featuring his photographic work. He is a one of Australia's most famous living artists and has gained widespread international acclaim. However, in May this year the police were called to a gallery where his latest exhibition was to be opened. A number of members of the public had taken exception to images of naked children used for advertising the exhibition and some which were placed on the gallery website. Henson has for many years included photographs of young pubescent children in his work. In his own words he likes to express "..ideas about humanity and vulnerability and our sense of ourselves living inside our bodies and our bodies in space" and has been interested in the transition from childhood to adulthood (amongst other things). The police originally charged him and the gallery owners, but eventually the charges were dropped. However, interest in Henson and his art continues to attract comment and debate.

The latest twist to the controversy

Just when many of us had forgotten about Henson, he has broken his five month long silence with an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald (here). This was followed the day after by extracts from a book concerning the Henson case in the Herald's weekend magazine. The extracts are from a forthcoming book by David Marr, "The Henson Case". It took just hours for the first article and the extracts to cause further concern. In both the article and the extract Henson shared that "he has been invited into schools in his search for models". In his words "I went in there, had a look around at lunchtime, just wandered around while everyone was having their lunch....I saw this boy, and I saw this girl too actually, and I thought they would be great and the principal said, 'Fine, I will give the parents a ring and let you know'. So the ball is always in their court...."

One can only wonder why a school principal would allow an artist into a school to search for children who might be suitable for nude modelling without the consent of parents to be there for this purpose.

Curiously, Marr seems to have shared this detail in his forthcoming book (and in the extract) in an attempt to present Henson as a normal decent bloke who also happens to be a great artist. I have no reason to doubt that both these propositions might be correct. As my previous posts should indicate, I have never accused Henson of having wrong motives, and I have always acknowledged his ability as an artist. What I continue to question is his use of naked children as his subjects and the way that they are presented. The SMH article on Friday suggests that he still doesn't get this. I find it incredible that neither Marr nor Henson can grasp that your average parent would feel quite uncomfortable about someone visiting a school to look for appropriate models. But that's not why I've written this post, I'll leave this part of the debate to others. What I want to comment on is Henson and the child's parents approach to parenting.

The folly of children being able to make such choices

One of the clear themes of the David Marr extract is that parents are closely involved at all stages of Henson's work and that the children themselves make the final decision to pose or not to pose. The reference to visiting schools and the manner in which children were solicited as models also appears to be an attempt to rather naively suggest that parents are involved from the start.

On three occasions Marr uses quotes from Henson and the mother of the young girl referred to as "N" to make the point that it is the child who makes the final choice:

"They gain some strength because it's (i.e. posing for Henson) a big decision to make, and no one can really make it for them." Quote from Henson

"...We have always given our children a voice in our family and as an educator I know the value for kids to take responsibility and learn through authentic life experience. N is accustomed to making decisions, trusting her instincts and she certainly has a pretty good handle on what is right and what is wrong." Quote from the mother of the 12-year old girl "N" featured in naked poses.

"....we were a bit concerned about N's self esteem as she was at the tricky time in her life anticipating the horror of starting high school....this was an extremely stressful time for her. We felt that working with Bill would give her a bit of a boost and help her regain her confidence (and it did). Ultimately it was her decision........." Quote from the mother of the 12-year old girl "N".

The view that a twelve year-old not only can make such decisions, but should, reflects the lie of liberalism that humans and their children should be free, in John Locke’s terms, “…to order their Actions…as they think fit…without asking leave, or depending on the Will of any other Man”. The Fundamental Liberal Principle holds that any restriction on liberty must be justified, freedom to choose is always the default position.

Henson and the mother of N, like many parents immersed in a society that fails to question such ideas, have accepted the argument of philosophers like John Stuart Mill that one basis for endorsing freedom is by developing individuality and cultivating capacities ‘…it is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings.’

The good life for the liberal philosopher is one that you freely choose. Such a life is characterised by a person developing his or her unique capacities as part of a plan for their life; this is still the most significant liberal ethic shaping the way some parents raise their children.

What follows from this thinking is that being a good parent is all about helping our children to make good choices themselves. Ultimately, they argue, the child must choose. Which like all ideas has some truth. Of course we want children and adults to be able to make good choices, but we cannot assume that if we allow total freedom to do so, that they will. The folly of applying this to a 12 year-old should be obvious. Yes, good parents encourage their children to make good choices, they help them to think through the rights and wrongs of any choices, as well as the consequences. There are many decisions for which we hope children might take early responsibility: Will I do my homework? Should I lie to my parents about why I was late home from school? Should I disobey my mum? But can, and should, a 12 year-old decide whether she should pose nude or not? I don't think so. Children should be helped to grow in their ability to make good choices in life, but at age 12 years parents need to be wise in deciding in which areas they will give them the freedom to choose.

We live in a society where there is a need to accept that one's choices are made in relation to other people. Our choices have an impact on other people. That's why there is great wisdom in the Bible's teaching that all are under the authority of others (see for example Ephesians 5:15-6:9). First and foremost, we are accountable to God. But we also are accountable and have responsibility to the state. Then we have various relationships with each other, some of which involve authority structures. Children are under the authority of their parents and parents in turn are responsible to teach their children, to take responsibility for them, to love and to care for them, and to help them make right choices. When they are young, or too immature to make the decision in question, then the parents must make the choice for them.

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. "Honour your father and mother"—which is the first commandment with a promise— "that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth." (Ephesians 6:1-3)

Of course, this begs the question, what if parents make bad or wrong choices? If this happens, then it is our hope that the law will protect the child, and other children who might be impacted by the family's 'freedom' to choose. The whole 'Henson Case' shows that perhaps our laws need some strengthening.

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