Banned Books in Australia A Special Collections-Art in the Library Exhibition

Obscenity and Bill Henson

One photograph of a nude adolescent girl by renowned Australian artist Bill Henson was the ignition point for a censorship-in-art debate not seen in Australia since the attack on Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. Henson’s image, which appeared on the invitation to his 2008 exhibition of photographs at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney, sparked outrage from some members of the public and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd for its perceived mistreatment of a child. Photographs of children under the age of 16 were seized from the exhibition by police and charges were laid but eventually dropped. Copies of the Art World magazine containing the image were pulped. In response to the controversy, Art Monthly magazine depicted Melbourne artist Polixeni Papapetrou’s work of art ― which featured her nude daughter ― on its front cover.

In January, 2010, a working party set up by the New South Wales Attorney-General to report on the Henson case recommended a change of law that would make it no longer possible to claim artistic merit as a defence for using images of children deemed to be pornographic. As the Attorney-General explained: ‘The working party's report suggests that once such material has been found to be unlawfully pornographic, whether or not it is intended to be art is irrelevant.’

Such a change would reverse a tradition affirmed in the 1959–1960 trials of the publishers of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, when it was established that the artistic intention and artistic merit of a work could redeem any obscene content.

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