Controversy Sells: The Representation of Girls and Women in Art and Culture

In an art world overflowing with unhealthy relationships, the old guy photographer and the hot, young, eager, barely legal female model is a tried and tested formula. It’s a look that ain’t going out of style yet. The photographer can always find an audience, a market, a home, a collection, a retrospective, a publisher for his sequence of back-lit photographs, of pretty young nameless things staring unflinchingly, down the lens. Pert little titties out, fairy lights all round. We never get to see this girl/child/woman grow up, reach maturity and actualize. She remains frozen in time, captured forever at that interesting moment of burgeoning sexuality and endless promise, only to be cast aside and replaced by another, when that moment has passed. Forever. For she is re-placeable. Once we’re all done looking at her. And so it is that Bill Henson has a new book out.

Particle Mist it’s called and you can almost hear the orchestra playing along in the background, such is the girth of romantic sentiment that’s been applied. The publicity blurb for said book says:

The elegant cover illustration is a commissioned arrangement of three songs from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, adapted into a musical maze which is based on a 14th Century scribe’s version of the French ballade titled En la maison Dedalus.

I think Bill Henson likes European orchestral music almost as much as George Brandis does. And Ballerinas. George and Bill both adore ballerinas. Then there’s Degas; he’s French, aren’t the French just so cultural! Degas is opening soon at the NGV. He’s our latest European Winter Blockbuster. Degas will be a long way from home, but ballerinas travel so well, they’re universal, ballerinas. Yep, even sport-obsessed Australian society loves looking at ballerinas, seeing what they’re up to now and (surprise, surprise), there’s no change in Ballet Land. Except falling attendances. In Ballet Land they play covers, over and over again, it’s Swan Lake this, and Swan Lake that, because that’s what the audiences want. Throw in a Sleeping Beauty, a Romeo and Juliet, a Cinderella or Giselle, end with The Nutcracker. Reminds me of Billy Joel’s 90’s music on Gold FM.

You could argue that Ballet is the art form that has patriarchy most embedded within its very essence. Ballet Land is a nightmare for a feminist in areas other than sexist Rom-com plots. Because, guess who’s still in charge of the Ballet Companies? Men. And guess who’s still Artistic Director at the well-funded Ballet Companies? Men. Yep, It’s men who tell the young girls where to line up, and how high to jump. It’s difficult for an individual to emerge from a chorus line. Chorus lines teach females compliance. All that competition, all those egos. Issues of body image and weight are as prevalent in Ballet as they are within the Fashion Industry.

In her writing Sexism in the ballet world: A study of its causes and effects, Jenna Jones talks about how Ballet perpetuates the viewing of the female through the eyes of the male, to the detriment of the female. Link to it here:

The history of Ballet is interesting. It began at Court, in Italy, then France from about 1570 onwards. It was funded by, influenced by, and produced by the aristocrats of the time, fulfilling both their personal entertainment and political propaganda needs. So nothings changed to the ballet of here and now. Ballet has colonialism written heavily into its being too, so that’s another reason to diss it too. My favourite historical dancer is Fanny Elssler, who arrived at the Paris Opera in 1834. She was known as the Pagan Dancer because of the fiery qualities her dance moves. Moves that made her famous. When I’m out too late, inebriated, on one dance floor or another, I like to interpret the moves that Fanny, the Pagan Dancer, may have busted out, way back when.

The Australian Ballet has appointed a female conductor, the first since the Company was founded in 1940, and here Nicolette Fraillon talks about the sexism she has confronted throughout her career. There’s a familiarity to her story that’s depressing, it’s like different occupation, same glass ceiling. We’ve heard this before, but I guess we women must celebrate any advancement, or we’re ungrateful bee-arches. And don’t mention the suspicion that tokenism may be at play?

Anyway, I digress: For his new book, Bill Henson has gone full nostalgia on it. These soft focus photographs of schoolgirls and ballerinas were taken back when Bill was a young artist, in the 70’s. But really, not much has changed since then except he’s got a whole lot more successful. Back to Bill’s publicity blurb:

 The series shows Henson’s recognised and celebrated style, capturing the delicacy, magnetism and celestial nature of the ballerinas, that is both bewitching and disturbing. When photographing the dancers, Henson found himself fascinated by the faces, which were ‘lost to the world, absorbed in the dance’. He was drawn to the idea of a spirit of an individual in a space.

 Speaking of the spirit of an individual in a space, I’d had a couple of chardonnays (down at another West Space Fundraiser) before I arrived late to Bill’s opening. MY ART HAD FOUND A HOME OTHER THAN MY OWN, SO I WAS CELEBRATING!

I’d left my leotard and tutu at home, but I thought I’d have a fossick ‘round Bill’s back catalogue. See what I could turn up.

Bill was signing books, and I wanted mine signed. You see, as a fellow artist, someone who thinks about art and culture like a lot, I’ve begun ruminating that Bill Henson may have worked himself into a bit of a conceptual cul-de-sac. What with all these young girls he’s been photographing for decades. I thought I might try to get Bill Henson to take my portrait, thus giving his teenage models a well-earned break.

I was like: ‘Hey, Bill Henson. Back up a bit. Enough already with the pre pubescent flesh fest! Fix your male gaze on this. Give the young nubiles a break already, they’re too busy now self objectifying, taking selfies and generating ‘likes’ to meet you in some car park for another photo shoot:

“Sure, there’s some miles on my speedometer, but I’ve kept the ‘ol engine well oiled and ready for action! Why don’t you take my photo Bill Henson? I’m falling out of this training bra here! Let’s ease up on the whole “high art” cliché too and get a bit street. A bit WAYYY! A bit WOOOO!

Bill Henson has saturated the market in blown up photographs of hot young babes with or without their tops on. Not that the market seems worried by Bill, they just love it when an artist has one idea (which can include titties) and repeats it for 40 years. But to me, it was all looking a bit Picnic at Hanging Rock with a hint of Spring Breakers menace. The Spring Breakers thing could seem a bit off, but I reckon if the wrong combination of three of Bill’s teenage models put their heads together, they may well don a bikini and a balaclava and start shooting shit up. During Schoolies week for instance.

It’s not an easy job being a teenage girl and you guys ain’t helpin’.

You know, I’ve got a soft spot for Bill Henson, from even before Kevin Rudd got Bill’s photo arrested, thus thrusting poor Bill right into the heady glare of the nation’s spotlight. Following the arrest of Bill’s photo of a topless teen, the public acted out the “Is it porn or Is it not porn” debate, one that it clearly needed to have verified. Despite the nations vast and growing consumption of pornography, Bill’s photo had antagonised a nerve. We’re not great debaters here in Australia, we’re better at football. Better turn to a male authority figure to help us: David Marr, author of The Henson Case (2008) talks about Bill Henson being crucified by public opinion, ‘panic is David Marr’s subject, what do eruptions tell us about ourselves?’ 3.21mins

 Speaking of controversy, if an artist has a brush with the censor, there’s precedence that it will be very good for sales. There was Lady Chatterley’s Lover, there was Ulysses and there was Nabokov’s Lolita. Yep, that Nabokov really let the genie out of the bottle with his tale of the old literature professor, Humbert Humbert, who gets it bad for his 12-year old stepdaughter Dolores Haze. Nabokov gifted us a new word too: nymphet, which has joined the dictionary it’s so important. Lolita had trouble getting published back in 1958, back when everyone was conservative, except Graham Greene who was the first critic to notice it.

Here are the thoughts of Dorothy Parker: “I do not think that Lolita is a filthy book. I cannot regard it as pornography either sheer, unrestrained or any other kind.  It is the engrossing, anguished story of a man, a man of taste and culture, who can love only little girls. They must be between the ages of nine and fourteen, and he calls them nymphets.” 

Lolita captured the public imagination and has appeared on the stage, the screen and they’re still studying it at University. In Poems for Men who Dream of Lolita (1992), Kim Morrissey intervenes and gives the child (Lolita) a voice, writing Lolita’s diary in poetry form. Because really, Lolita is very much about poor old Humbert who just can’t help himself. I’m reminded here too of artist Ryan Gander who (in much the same way as Morrissey), intervenes in the narratives surrounding Degas’ ballerina sculptures. Gander gives Degas’ ballet dancers a life outside of the male gaze that they are frozen in. Gander gives them a Gameboy to play with, a cigarette to smoke, a window to look out, a friend to chillax with, just like a normal teenage kid has. Ryan Gander acknowledged a problem within the Degas works, he artistically intervened, and I love him for that. His art is feminist art.

 In his book Chasing Lolita: How Popular Culture Corrupted Nabokov’s Little Girl All Over Again, author Graham Vickers notes that the two main predecessors of Humbert are Lewis Carroll and Charlie Chaplin. Vladimir Nabokov was fond of Lewis Carroll and had translated Alice in Wonderland into Russian. He called Carroll: “the first Humbert Humbert” and this brings us strangely back to contemporary Australia.

Following the public skewering, classification and arrest of Bill Henson’s photograph, Art Monthly Australia decided to add to an emotional public debate, by publishing on its cover a photograph of Olympia Nelson taken by her mother, photographer Polxeni Papapetrou. The work is from a series, that re-stages a nude photo of Beatrice Hatch taken, way back when, by Lewis Carroll author of Alice in Wonderland. Kevin Rudd hates this work too, and then, the culturally significant moment occurs: the child model speaks. To the nation. And not only does Olympia defend her mother’s art, but she eloquently challenges the male authority of the Prime Minister of Australia. On National TV. And this people, is the face of progress. Lateline footage of Olympia and Robert Nelson, check out Olympia taking photos of the assembled media pack. I want the photos Olympia took that day.

When I look at the photos of young girls taken by Bill Henson, I see old, established systems of patriarchy. Patriarchy that’s hanging on for dear life. Bill’s photos aren’t pornography, but (for me at least) they’re not good art either.

I don’t care what men think about female sexuality, I’ve seen it, I’ve heard it, I’ve grown up with it, I’m bored by it. I care about what women think about their own sexuality and how they want to express it. When I look at the portraits of girls that Bill Henson takes, I see a world where the man is in charge, and the nameless young models stand on their mark and do what they’re told. And that’s just not interesting to me. It’s stale. How much airplay are we going to give men and what they like looking at before we scream ‘enough now’?

When I look at the photos of Olympia Nelson, taken by her mother Polixeni Papapetrou, I see a collaboration between a mother and daughter that looks back to another time and references the nude photographs a famous man once took of a young girl. I see that the poses were ‘orchestrated by the child herself’. I see a girl, growing into a woman, who has the confidence to speak eloquently about what it’s like being young now.

When she was in Year 11, Olympia Nelson got an article published in The Age in which she analyses selfie culture. What is it like to be living in a culture, where we now upload and share 1.8 billion photos to the Internet each day? A society where female sexuality is a tool to be used to attract likes. How can you best prepare and equip a girl to grow up in the face of the pressures that constant public scrutiny entails?

Who do we blame for this moral mess? As feminists, we correctly blame patriarchy because boys are securely at the top of the status game. Boys end up with the authority. They have their cake and eat it.

From the moral high ground, they can damn a girl for visual promiscuity, yet enjoy the spectacle at the same time, both with the same misogynistic motives: I like your form but I’m able to scorn you. You’re what I want but you’re less than me. Girls try to conform to this ”ideal” stereotype in their photos and these boys sarcastically comment: ”Nice personality” – really implying that the cleavage is their only attribute. Yet they also click the ”like” button. The boy who mocks a girl showing her cleavage is in fact the same boy who craves sexual opportunities with her.

If you troll (I mean scroll) down the comments responding to Olympia’s article, find the more comments button, and push that, have a read, right to the end. Here you may bear witness to the full nightmare of gender politics in Australia today.

Houston? We have a problem. According to some male readers Olympia was doing fine until she mentioned the words ‘feminism’, ‘patriarchy’ and ‘misogynistic motives’. If you want to see a portrait of male privilege, read this and weep!

In America, Richard Prince is selling blown-up images (mostly of hot women) appropriated off public Instagram feeds. The resulting online Angerfest again proving, that controversy is very good for sales. This link includes a hilarious interview with art critic Jerry Saltz on CNN. One old rich white man, defending another, old rich white man: (3.42 mins).

‘The copyright is getting very fuzzy on all of this now. Everybody now is a photographer, everybody is an artist and everybody is self-publishing. Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, images taken from the public domain and sold as art. It’s nothing new. Prince is using Drone Warfare, and drone warfare is very controversial right now.’ Jerry Saltz doesn’t mention the long history of men profiteering off the use and manipulation of the representation of images of girls and women in their art. Men defend each other predictably well. Saltz admits that ‘this is a rich person making money from defenceless people.’ When I look at the various images of women Richard Prince has appropriated and sold as his own art, I don’t see defenceless people though. I see women playing around with their self-image, and sharing it, on their own terms. And the value in that lies with the women, not some old rich white guy art star parasite who done gone messed with their magic. Those days are over.

The eternal ballerina

The eternal ballerina

Picnic at Hanging Rock meets Spring Breakers

Picnic at Hanging Rock meets Spring Breakers

Up close and personal

Up close and personal

Teen angst

Teen angst?

'Bill Henson captures the delicacy, magnetism and celestial nature of the ballerinas, that is both bewitching and disturbing

‘Bill Henson captures the delicacy, magnetism and celestial nature of the ballerinas, that is both bewitching and disturbing’

Hear the orchestra?

Hear the orchestra?

'Take my portrait Bill, I was once a teenage model'

‘Take my portrait Bill, I was once a teenage model’

'To Nat, I will think about what you have said, love Bill

To Nat, I will think about what you have said. Love, Bill

That's a wrap

That’s a wrap

Another teenage girl, framed, hanging on the gallery wall

Another teenage girl, framed, hanging on the gallery wall

Porn or Not? Controversy sells

Porn or Not? Controversy sells

how high must we jump?

‘How high must we jump?’

Tennis anyone?

A spot of Tennis anyone?

Kristy Lee Denovan -Principal- Melbourne Ballet Company, using her cultural capital in an ad for Melbourne's new fashion flagship and dining destination.

Kristy Lee Denovan (Principal Melbourne Ballet Company) using her cultural capital, in an ad for Melbourne’s new fashion flagship and dining destination

Ballet Land represents patriarchy

Ballet land represents patriarchy

'Bill Henson captures the delicacy, magnetism and celestial nature of the ballerinas, that is both bewitching and disturbing

‘Bill Henson captures the delicacy, magnetism and celestial nature of the ballerinas, that is both bewitching and disturbing’

Me, performing Little Bo Peep

Me, performing Little Bo Peep


Maxine interprets the New Vision

Maxine interprets the New Vision


Ryan Gander Degas intervention 1


Ryan Gander Degas intervention 3


Ryan Gander Degas intervention 2









Getting out of sport

Hard being a teenage girl