Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Children, Art and Pornography


The Melbourne Age newspaper reported today on a renewed brouhaha over the depiction of naked children in art. This follows the prosecution of photographer Bill Henson for allegedly producing kiddie porn recently (he was acquitted).

This issue always makes me angry, and for a variety of reasons. First and foremost is because there are people taking positions that have nothing to do with the issue and everything to do with ego. The second is that the media always add hype and hysteria, and sell more of their product because of it. They profit from child pornography because of the way they report it. The first sentence of the article includes: “latest furore”, “naked children” and “pitted Prime Minister .. against one of Australia's leading art critics”. The Age is a relatively sober newspaper. Other papers will be far more inflammatory.

This particular fuss is over the July issue of Art Monthly Australia, a publicly subsidised journal of almost complete insignificance outside it’s tiny readership. On the cover is a detail from 2003 photo-work depicting 6-year old Olympia Nelson, nude, on a painted backdrop. The work is titled “Olympia as Lewis Carroll’s Beatrice Hatch before White Cliffs”. It was produced by Polixeni Papapetrou, the child’s mother. Her father is the Age’s own art critic Monash University Associate Professor Robert Nelson. The child, now 11, poses often for her mother and (apparently) says this work is one of her favourites.

A number of points need to be made here:

The picture on the cover is NOT a work of art. It is a detail from an artwork, deliberately taken out of it’s original context to make a strident political point. It is polemic, not art. In this it deliberately seeks to exploit both the image and the child to push a political barrow for the industry that's the major source of income for BOTH of the child’s parents.

The original artwork is a collage that deliberately mixes photo-realism (the picture of Olympia) with relatively primitive painting of a background that is clearly NOT real. It takes a real child, posed artificially in a manner typical of adult models, and projects her into a fantasy world, specifically referring to that of Lewis Carroll. Thus it invites the viewer to manipulate the image in terms of their own fantasies of childhood, innocence, false-innocence because of the pose, and the ambiguous nature of the sexuality of children. This last point is a not-so-subtle subtext of many of Carroll’s works, a fact known and debated for decades.

In the Age article Nelson says "Olympia thinks it's ridiculous that the Prime Minister is talking about it, and even my nine-year-old son said: 'Don't people understand that photography is acting?"'

To quote from children in this debate is morally and intellectually bankrupt. But if even the child can see that photography of this sort isn’t realism, but acting, can there be any doubt that it invites the viewer to engage in fantasies with the images?

So we have: Invitation to fantasy, blurring of distinctions between fantasy and reality, image manipulation in the mind’s eye of the beholder, innocence and false innocence, precocious sexuality and ambiguous poses.

Paedophiles will masturbate over the pictures of children in children’s clothing catalogues, the stuff from K-Mart or Woolworth’s that comes unasked for thorough your mailbox. Can anyone honestly believe that they wont masturbate over this? Have Papapetrou and Nelson considered that this might be the case? Do they have an opinion on the fact that their daughter is now known by name to people who will masturbate to orgasm over these naked pictures of her? Do they think that the art-world they inhabit is free from paedophiles?

Nelson also says "This was a photo taken not by a middle-aged man but the mother of the child. It seemed quite a responsible thing to do." Most paedophiles are parents. ‘Middle-aged man as child molester’ is itself a fantasy, comforting no doubt to those who think in those terms, but so far from reality as to be utterly absurd.

There are other nude photographs of 6-year old Olympia in the magazine. One of her reclining with her arms behind her head, her legs drawn up and crossed at the knees. (I’ve seen the blurred images of them on TV news). Her gaze is frank, direct, confident. While it may be entirely healthy for a 6-year old to be confident of her own body, and to be capable of a frank, open gaze to her mother when nude, it is entirely another thing to photograph that and publish it.

The child’s honesty before the camera, and her willingness to pose in ways that ape adult behaviour and even adult sexuality CANNOT be divorced from the fact that she is doing this with her mother. What she does with her mother is entirely different from what is appropriate or safe in public. And publishing these photographs DOES divorce them from the ‘mother and child’ context. It gives the adult anonymous viewer absolute discretion to decide on their meaning, and to select the emotions and intent in Olympia’s mind as she gazes up at them.

The photograph may be entirely artistic in intent, and may in fact have artistic merit, but that does not mean it can’t be pornographic at the same time. The erotic art of Ancient Greece and Rome, and the blatantly sexual art of some Hindu temples springs to mind without much effort. To deny this, as an artist or as an art critic, is either blatantly stupid or intellectually dishonest.

Meaning is context and perspective. To put a child’s openness with a parent into an artistic context changes it’s meaning. To publish it in a magazine to make a political statement changes it’s meaning again, and puts into the internet ether where meaning is entirely the prerogative of the disembodied voyeur. Olympia is now 11 years old, but her naked 6 year-old self is now alive in the ether, alone and unaccompanied by her parents, their intentions and their meanings.


It's not a bad thing to take a picture of your child without clothing. Most parents have done so since the camera was first invented. I have an old black and white photo, taken by my mother. It shows my father at 25, holding up a naked infant (me), silhouetted by the sun coming through the curtains. His face is filled with joy and tenderness and love. I look like a stereotypical cherub, chubby, gurgling, smiling, white hair shot through with sunlight. It’s an image I treasure now, though when I was younger it embarrassed me.

I have a photograph of my youngest daughter too. It shows her sitting, from behind, at about six-months, wearing just a nappy. Her golden hair swirls around her head, resting on the folded tops of her pixyish ears. Her shoulders are rounded as she leans forward, playing with her toes. It may not be high art, but again, I treasure it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. And I wouldn’t publish it, in any form, ever.

The hysteria over child-pornography should not prevent or inhibit parents, uncles, aunts, and grandparents in delighting over pictures of innocent children, un-self-consciously nude. But to imagine that the world and his camera see things the same way we do is na├»ve at best, and unsafe at any speed. Paedophilia isn’t something that was invented with the camera. It’s been around since the beginnings of humanity. Where there is sexuality there is aberrant sexuality. Pornography has been around since humans first learned to draw and paint and tell stories. Only the technology has changed.

It’s the duty of every parent to protect their child from harm, from within the family and without. The world of digital cameras and online global access has freed paedophiles from printing photographs the old-fashioned (and public) way, just as it has enabled us all to send candid snaps to each other via phone and login point. The duty of parents to protect their children has become harder, that’s all.

If we deceive ourselves by hanging on to private distinctions about art and politics in the face of public access we only harm ourselves and our own children. Your own illusions are far more dangerous to you than me. And my children will never be used as props in public debate.


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