Child protection or populist politics: Changes to legislation in the wake of the Bill Henson incident.

Ms Linda Wilken1
1Sydney Institute of Criminology, Sydney Law School, University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia

In May 2008, Australian artist Bill Henson attempted to and eventually did exhibit a series of photographs, which included images of a naked young girl. One image in particular, nude, untitled 2008, created controversy beyond the art world. Police removed the works from public view and the then Prime Minister called the photographs “revolting”. Henson’s art was labelled as child pornography. This incident had a bearing on the NSW Government Justice Department, Child Pornography Working Party Report, 10 January 2010, which resulted in changes to legislation in the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW).

In July 2008, Art Monthly Australia published on the magazine’s cover, artist Polixeni Papapetrou’s nude photograph of her 5-year-old daughter Olympia in a deliberate effort to reignite the controversy over the Bill Henson incident. This time the Federal Government asked the Australia Council for the Arts to draw up a set of protocols on the representation of children in art.

Representation of children and young people in art has a long history in modernism, postmodernism and contemporary art, not to mention antiquity, and legal and artistic takes have varied substantially. However, the Henson incident sits at a time of unprecedented awareness of child abuse issues in Australia and amid calls for greater child protection.

This presentation will analyse legislative changes in the wake of the Bill Henson incident and reflect on the impact of these changes.


Linda Wilken is undertaking an interdisciplinary PhD in criminology, art and law at Sydney Law School, University of Sydney, under the supervision of Professor Murray Lee, Professor of Criminology. Her research supervisory team includes Professor Thomas Crofts, Professor of Criminal Law, and Dr Carolyn McKay, Lecturer in Law, Deputy Director, Sydney Institute of Criminology, University of Sydney Law School. Linda holds a Master of Fine Arts and Bachelor Visual Arts Honours 1st class, SCA, Sydney University. Her research area includes visual criminology, censorship in contemporary art, and the relationship between art, legislation and legal intervention. Linda is a member of Sydney Institute of Criminology.


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