Actress Cate Blanchett and other prominent Australians who attended Kevin Rudd's 2020 Summit have backed controversial photographer Bill Henson, saying charging him would damage Australia's cultural reputation.
Charges are expected to be laid after police seized last week 20 Henson photographs of a naked girl and boy, believed to be aged 12 and 13, from Sydney's Roslyn Oxley9 gallery.
In an open letter issued yesterday, 43 people who were part of the creative stream at the Federal Government's 2020 Summit in April declared their support for Henson's work and warned of the effects of censorship.
The letter, whose signatories also include writer Peter Goldsworthy, playwright Michael Gow, journalist and broadcaster Marieke Hardy, film-maker Ana Kokkinos and economist Saul Eslake, said Henson was being subject to trial by media.
They called on Mr Rudd, who described the images as ''revolting'', to rethink his comments about Henson's work.
''We wish to express our dismay at the police raid on Bill Henson's recent Sydney exhibition, the allegations that he is a child pornographer and the subsequent reports that he and others may be charged with obscenity,'' the letter reads. ''The potential prosecution of one of our most respected artists is no way to build a creative Australia and does untold damage to our cultural reputation.''
The letter said debate prompted by Henson's work was welcome and important, but should not be conducted in the courts.
The signatories called on Arts Minister Peter Garrett to stand up for artists against ''a trend of encroaching censorship''; censorship of art was not the hallmark of an open democracy.
''If an example is made of Bill Henson, one of Australia's most prominent artists, it is hard to believe that those who have sought to bring these charges will stop with him,'' the letter said.
''Rather, this action will encourage a repressive climate of hysterical condemnation, backed by the threat of prosecution.''
Allegations Henson was making child pornography had done more to promote his work to possible paedophiles than any art gallery.
Many of the signatories were parents, and none endorsed child abuse. ''The work itself is not pornographic, even though it includes depictions of naked human beings,'' the letter said.
''It is more justly seen in a tradition of the nude in art that stretches back to the ancient Greeks, and which includes painters such as Caravaggio and Michelangelo.
''The intention of the art is not to titillate or to gratify perverse sexual desires, but rather to make the viewer consider the fragility, beauty, mystery and inviolability of the human body.''
The letter was issued as the police investigation into Henson's work widened.
The Newcastle Regional Art Gallery was contacted by police yesterday in relation to four Henson works, purchased in the early 1990s.
A gallery spokeswoman said detectives had wanted to confirm the ownership of the works, their titles and whether they were now on exhibition.
Three of the works were part of a travelling exhibition, Strange Cargo, which toured regional NSW between October last year and February.
''The works are not on exhibit currently and have not been for some time,'' the council spokeswoman said, adding there had been no complaints.
''We don't have any plans at the moment to show them.''
The council-run Albury Regional Art Gallery in southern NSW has removed three of Henson's photographs from show after a complaint to police. AAP