Bursting Bill’s Bubble: The Plebs vs. The Poseurs
Curating art is a profession of exclusion rather than one of inclusion. Not that curating is a competition. No. No wait, it is. Show us ya curatorial umbrella. Not that there’s too many artists (there can never be enough artists, peaches of hope and optimism that we are) sprinkling the fairy dust of hipster gentrification everywhere we go. But there’s not enough art galleries, art shows, not enough exciting art opportunities that actually pay real cash money, to sustain all we talented artists. Nothing divides artists like competition. Competition in the art scene is like an ice addict who can’t afford rehab. It ain’t pretty and it gets edgy.
The arts industries are exemplars in the neo-lib funneling of wide girths of resources and talents, into the hands of a mighty few. Which puts a mighty pressure on the shoulders of those anointed. So mighty you could almost feel sorry for them:
And what of the vanquished? What of their stories: those who were present, who contributed, but were suppressed: the talented but disconnected, the brilliant but bypassed? For every Telford, Hume, or Watt inscribed for eternity as the discoverer of this or the inventor of that, how many more will we never know, who were just as close, no less visionary, but lacked the glint of timing, the benefactors, or the fateful stroke of fortune?
And so it is in the field of art where we are prescribed by those in power, the proletariat’s tidy cultural diet of laws from which we mustn’t err for fear of being thought the ignorant carriers of aesthetic pestilence. In a perverse and reverse alchemy, art history is written around the golden careers of certain artists who are promoted as shorthand motifs for various styles, eras, or movements, with all others edited out or retained as footnotes, orbiting dust in the dark peripheral clouds of obscurity.
Most artists can get better odds of a win from the art world by investing in a 2-dollar scratchy ticket and at least everyone already knows the Golden Casket is rigged.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iyIOl-s7JTU ABBA The Winner Takes it All (4.48mins)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-crgQGdpZR0 ABBA Take a Chance on Me (4.04mins)
Bill Henson is a mighty artist with a mighty career. Bill has been granted more important art shows than most photographers will have hot dinners. What haven’t we seen in looking at so much Bill Henson art? When is enough enough already? Is this the moment where the art that isn’t collected, exhibited and promoted, becomes more significant than what is?
Bill Henson’s packing more stake-holders than the inside of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s backpack. Art experts aplenty have worked most diligently to build up, and now defend Bill Henson’s artistic reputation and career. So does Bill’s grand vision justify all the drama? Some of the public still think not. The best thing about the public is they have a refreshing disregard for artists’ illustrious careers. The public are not invested in Bill unlike say the NGV, Australia’s largest government funded art museum. The NGV love Bill Henson. The NGV has a proven track record of loving rich, successful white men. The 1% if you like. The NGV granted Bill a great big show back in 1974, when Bill was an upstart 19-year-old wonder-kind. The NGV are in for a penny, in for a pound. They’ve (I mean we’ve) acquired a collection of 100 Bill Henson works and counting and that’s just in the NGV collection. Quite the vote of confidence, given so much of his work looks the same. But Bill Henson is a ‘genius’. Yep, Bill Henson has scaled the heights of Australian art stardom: He’s got the books, the tote bags and he’s got the Bill Henson coffee mugs with the sublime landscape on the side.
Bill’s currently showing in the NGV Photography Festival. This exhibition is highlighting the work of 4 male photographers and 1 female artist. http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/exhibition/ngv-festival-of-photography/
Show us ya gender equity NGV or we’ll dob on you to the Arts Minister. If your employer is a Government wanting to be seen as being ‘progressive’, which is how the Andrews Government wants to be seen, then anyone who’s done a double major in Politics would know the NGV should be sticking to the program. For their own sakes.
There’s nothing progressive about putting together shows that marginalize the artistic visions of female artists. Later this year, the NGV Triennial will use State coffers to present the art of a large load of men and half the amount of female artists. Following a purportedly “rigorous curatorial process” ten Australian artists have been selected to exhibit in the NGV Triennial, nine of whom are men. So it’s boring business as usual at the NGV, stalled as they are in some weird 1950s time-warp, but with Wi-Fi and a promotional budget that would make your eyes water. When the NGV gets called out for being sexist, they spin round looking for their most senior female employee to speak to the issue. BORING. Seriously. What is the problem here because clearly there is a problem.
Back to Bill. The Henson Affair (that’s shorthand for the ruckass/I mean ruckus that ensued, when some of Bill’s work got arrested for being by the Sydney cops in 2008) has got a life of it’s own. Members of the general public and Kevin Rudd, our former Dada Prime Minister, publicly questioned the value of Bill’s vision. To question Bill Henson’s art is to also challenge the systems of expertise committed to up-selling us the myth that what we see in our galleries is the very best shit out there at any give time. Which makes it all a bit more fun than what it first appears.
Have you been watching the Defense of Bill Henson and his Work? Are those who find Bill’s vision really pervy, being persuaded they’re wrong? In truth, The Henson Affair is a very public battle against a Market correction of sorts and with Market corrections, over committed investors lose out. Investors don’t like losing.
An Analysis of the Defense of Bill Henson:
Use the Fourth Estate / Orchestrate Blanket Media Coverage: The full might of an overworked and underpaid media pack has been set to work. You can’t turn on the box or open a newspaper without seeing Bill Henson talking up his important work. Uncle Rupert’s contribution to society, is that the media are addicted to and fully reliant on, controversy. Bill’s had some controversy. Reassure everyone that: ‘Bill is a celebrated and revered talent, hence worth the money we’ve invested in it, I mean him, I mean same thing.’
Give Bill another show AKA The Double Down Bluff: Bill’s had plenty of shows already but maybe just one more and all the ethical headaches his work provokes will stop being played out nor discussed in public. The power of repetition is that if you tell people the same thing over and over again at least some suckers will believe it. Stay ‘on-script’- Bill Henson is indeed a master. Repeat.
This writing about Bill predates The Henson Affair and is ‘off-script’- Henson’s recent preoccupation with emotionally charged images of naked adolescents has probably brought his work more into public view, but they fit in perfectly well with the rest of his work. The dark moody sensuality of his pictures is appealing even when they seem to show drunkenness, degradation, and misery, and presumably that is partly his point. He could portray the same topics in far more shocking and disturbing ways, but he chooses to emphasize texture, light, and arrangement in his compositions. One might worry that he is aestheticizing and thus trivializing human suffering, or indeed he might even be accused of eroticizing unhappiness. Discuss. Or (mores to the point), Don’t Discuss.
Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous: Offer up a Rare Glimpse Inside the hallowed walls of Bill’s Compound, a large converted warehouse on top of a hill bought for a dim prior to the current housing crisis that sees increasing numbers of people left homeless. Australia’s perverse real estate obsession is leveraged as the ultimate symbol of a successful life. We public are just a bunch of sticky beaks who like nothing more than seeing inside other people’s homes. Bill’s home and studio confirm he is ‘on the money’. Call it the Bill Bubble:
‘Inside the gate to Bill’s compound a stillness falls instantly. The rest of the world- the city, Trump, Brexit, everything- fades and slips into something I now call the Bill Bubble. In the bubble, art is king. “You can listen to shock jocks screaming about today’s disaster if you want but I would rather listen to Michelangeli playing Debussy and make a pot of tea.”
‘He looks for models everywhere- at the supermarket (“they can be reading the back of a box of Coco Pops, but everything about them is going, I’m here, I’m the one”)
Bill won’t be casting for models at St Kilda Park Public Primary School anymore.
As Melissa Fyfe says: One thing worries me, I tell him, is the consent issue: can a 13-year-old, whose parents give consent, really understand the impact of modeling nude and having their nude photographs floating around later in life?
Here’s Virginia Trioli inside Bill’s bubble. I like when Virginia says: ‘Henson is unconcerned with reality.’
Have you noticed how art that denies reality is more popular than ever?
Former teenage model defends artist: Wheel out Bill’s goddaughter Alice Heyward, for her unbiased account of: ‘What it’s really like to be a Bill Henson teenage model’. Alice will speak on behalf of every model who has ever modelled for Bill ever. She will defend Bill’s honor and integrity and his misunderstood genius. Her unbiased recollections of her godfather remind us that we’re prudes and nudity always makes people feel uncomfortable. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-09/bill-henson-model-alice-heyward-defends-controversial-photograph/8338430
Class War: Link Bill Henson to established historical European Masters- Balthus, Bacon, Degas, Michelangelo, Debussy, Rembrandt, Rubens, Ribera, Nabokov et al. Hope some of their cred rubs off on Bill. Reference the high art pastimes and pleasures of the upper class – classical music, orchestras, rare book collecting, cups of tea and the tranquility afforded by large, fenced off real estate compounds. Belittle the mass media (of which Bill is simultaneously partaking) and popular culture, which is terribly common and never teaches us anything. The message is: ‘If you were richer you’d have better taste in culture’. http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/a-gathering-sense-of-shock-bill-hensons-unique-take-on-the-ngvs-degas-show-20160609-gpfxeg.html
‘The Poseurs versus the Plebs’ (David Penberthy) AKA ‘The Elites vs. The Basket of Deplorables’ (see also ‘Class War’ above):
The Elites and the Poseurs all love Bill. The work is beyond the intellectual understanding of the Plebs or the Basket of Deplorables. Poor things. We didn’t get taught proper. Where critics see Bill’s work as: ‘dark, bruised, soft porn starring beautiful youth on the cusp of adulthood for rich collectors,’ that’s wrong. Bill’s work is really about how life has the potential to go wrong. Morgi calls Bill Henson’s work White Australia Gothic in the imperialist tradition, but I had to tell him to be quiet because he’s one of the plebs. Then he said Bill’s work is a cold sore, it erupts to the surface given the right conditions. Just like White Australia.
The ‘I’m quite comfortable that my pictures disturb some people’ defense AKA ‘I’m OK you’re not OK’: Imbued with a latent, defiant contempt for the repressed plebs who just don’t get it. A favoured retaliation strategy of art students everywhere, the ‘I don’t care that you hate my art’ defense never gets old. Most artists grow out of this one.
The ‘I’m an important critic, I won a Pulitzer so I know what’s good art defense’: The author, a celebrated writer, tells stories about himself because really, what else is there. See it’s all in the eye of the beholder. The author reassures the reader that Bill’s work means a lot to him so that’s all sorted then. Also, ‘All great art walks a tightrope’ fools.
Also, ALWAYS talk about the Scandal, because maybe that’s really the most interesting thing about Bill Henson. Label criticism hysteria, hence critics hysterical but deny the gendered history of these words.
Nine years after the Henson affair, an acrid odour still lingers in the air, and, although the hysteria has subsided, Henson’s name will always, you feel, be associated in some people’s minds with creepy weird shit. https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2017/april/1490965200/sebastian-smee/art-walks-tightrope (Hi Morry xxx)
Put Bill up on Stage and give the man a microphone: From beneath a spotlight Bill sits, talking into the phallus of life, usually to another important man. Bill ruminates on the importance of retaining beauty within contemporary society. Beauty can save humanity. Repeat.
Is the problem, that Bill Henson makes provocative images but doesn’t address the changing circumstances within society, that sees many people wanting to protect kids more than ever? Especially kids in the nude looking a bit bruised.
‘One can reframe the issue by asking what kind of voyeurism we are being implicated in when looking through Henson’s pictures. In Untitled 1983/84, we see young women crying, lying naked, dirty and bleeding, and one young face with staring open eyes that suggests death. One beautiful picture shows a young person getting ready to shoot up drugs. All these are interspersed with images of formal beauty from high art.’ http://mhn.centersite.org/books/books.php?type=de&id=2782
A Proposal for Bill Henson: All this thinking about Bill Henson has ended in an idea for an exciting new art. I propose Bill Henson succumb to the majesty of my creative vision by agreeing to model for a portrait, a nude portrait for me. Bill’s nudity will represent the sunset of existence. Our model/artist collaboration will be a pictorial confrontation of the existential crisis that is life and death. Also, in the interests of gender equity, what is good for we gooses should be equally good for you ganders. Carol Jerrems springs to mind here too. Why not exhibit Carol’s work alongside Bill and really get the party started.
My nude portrait of Bill Henson is conceptual art of the highest order. Even if the nude portrait is never realized, the art exists anyway. I conceived of it in words because words are cheap. They’re what I can afford. Like most artists out here we’ve got no money to produce high-end art commodities to sell. Which could be just as well, art commodities are so very problematic, so easy to buy and to sell. Or to not buy and sell. Bill Henson you’ve always had loads of buyers, now you’re defending what’s already been sold. So my work will be about all that. Your art is about that too now, though having watched and read all your press I reckon it’s a better tactic to be more straight-up about it. Add some offense to your defense by modeling for me. Then we’ll get me the right dealer, then we’ll get every curator, director and publicist in the kingdom on side. It’s a goddamned minefield out here Bill, you’re not the only one jumping round trying not to get blown up.
Art is an expensive game.
By playing with me you’ll have a better chance of staying on top. That’s the joke of it. David Bowie always knew when to go out and find Iggy Pop to play with. I’ll be your Iggy. David needed Iggy. You probably won’t agree to nude model for me. In my experience successful men don’t like being told what to do (though some really really like it too much). Successful men want everything to continue as it has been. But we’re past that point now. We’re at the point of no return. The best defensive strategy is the courage to attack yourself. That’s from a book I read on Marketing Warfare. I’ll lend it to you when you come over and take your daks off for me.
What of the vanquished we must ask? What of their stories: those who were present, who contributed, but were suppressed: the talented but disconnected, the brilliant but bypassed? I’m sick to death of all these greedy masters.
We would like to advise NGV visitors that here’s another Bill Henson Show
Big work fills a big gallery
High-art? You bet
The world through Bill’s eyes: more faces, more bodies, more landscapes
Light at the end of Bill’s Tunnel
An Explainer: Beauty, Classicism, its all here people and it’s all OK, OK?
In for a penny, in for a pound
White Australia Gothic in the Imperial tradition
Bill’s on the same floor as lots of other old shit
Morgi and Maxie think it’s funny
Let’s dob: Is marginalising art made by women progressive Arts Minister?