Australians howl at artist's pin-up children

Some Australians make a living taking photographs of naked children and selling them through dealers or over the internet, dpa reported.

Alone among them in putting his name to his work and getting it hung in public galleries is internationally acclaimed artist Bill Henson.

Henson now looks set to be lumped with those of lesser talent and be branded a pornographer. His dealers could find themselves in court, or even in prison.

Henson's troubles began last week when police raided a Sydney gallery and took away pictures that featured photographs of children aged 12 and 13 with no clothes on.

"Police are investigating this matter and it's likely that we will proceed to prosecution on the offence of publishing an indecent article under the Crimes Act," Superintendent Allan Sicard told reporters outside the Roslyn Oxley9 gallery.

Police want to speak to Henson, the parents of the 13-year-old featured full-frontal in the photos and the girl herself.

Henson has gone to ground. The owner of Roslyn Oxley9 is also avoiding the media. But members of the art establishment have rushed to defend Henson's high-priced snaps.

"They are breathtakingly beautiful, they are about the vulnerability of life," former National Gallery of Australia director Betty Churcher said. "How they could incite anything other than admiration I can't imagine."

But censorship, or what constitutes art, is not the issue. As Jim Baxendale wrote to his local paper, "the moral question at the centre of the Bill Henson censorship controversy is whether a 13-year-old person can give informed consent to being photographed naked and having her image reproduced for public viewing."

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has made up his mind on that one. "I find them absolutely revolting," he said of Henson's images. "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."

Politicians of all stripes condemned Henson as a sleazebag and welcomed the police action.

Arts Minister Peter Garrett, who railed against censorship when he was lead singer of anti-establishment rock band Midnight Oil, sided with his new workmates. He said he couldn't comment on something that was under police investigation.

There have been threats to burn down the Roslyn Oxley9 gallery. At least one other public space has taken down Henson artworks for fear of inciting an attack.

The arts establishment hasn't helped its case by deriding Henson's critics as philistines. Gallery owner Tim Olsen said the police raid "puts Australia in the Dark Ages" and makes Australians an international laughing stock.

Rather than focus on the central issue - whether it's decent to invite the public to see photographs of a naked 13-year-old- Henson's supporters have pointed to the artistic merits of the images.

According to art critic Edmund Capon, Henson's snaps are "veritable symphonies of decadence and beauty, of squalor and opulence, of mysterious darkness and ominous light, of quiet obsession and subversive ecstasy."

Child welfare activist Hetty Johnston defended the police and stuck to the core issue. "You can call it anything you want, but at the end of the day, these are images of naked adolescents."

Henson has in the past spoken about the attraction that photographing naked children has held for him.

"Kids of this age, they seem to, as all those cliches go, be half in childhood, half in the adult world," he said. "They're at a point where there's an exponential change, both psychologically and physically, taking place and this all kind of creates a floating world of expectation and uncertainty."

Henson now finds himself at a point where he finds himself accused of stealing the innocence of childhood at the very nanosecond his camera seeks to capture it.

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