An analysis of the Art Monthly Australia controversy
A personal political analysis of the Papapetrou controversy by Robert Nelson
The world debate over naked children in art that arose over Polixeni Papapetrou’s pictures in Art Monthly Australia is bigger than art and touches on civil liberties. This has been acknowledged obliquely in international media, with papers such as El Universal in Mexico expressing surprise that the debate had arisen in Australia ‘and not an ultraconservative country like Iran’ (15 July 2008). In their Australian resolution, the issues go well beyond Kevin Rudd’s paternalistic instructions to the Australia Council that artists dealing with children must now follow protocols to protect the innocence of children.
Unbeknown to many artists working only six years ago—like my wife Polixeni—the image of naked children became criminalized. We all knew that child pornography was banned but that’s very different to art: pornography is explicitly and proactively sexual, as in a definition from the Council of Europe, describing child pornography as ‘any material that visually depicts a child engaging in real or simulated sexually explicit conduct or any depiction of a child’s sexual organs for primarily sexual purposes.’ (Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse, article 20.2, 25 October 2007).
We had no idea that perceptions had moved so far beyond the law to become intolerant of all images of naked children. Nowadays you cannot collect shots of a naked child at a colour lab without fear of being reported to the Police as a paedophile. Detectives will be waiting for you. Families with naked children captured digitally live in fear of a Police audit of their hard disk. Orthodox families, once proud of their baptismal image, with the body held up after immersion in the sacred font, now feel forced to demote the picture from the mantelpiece to the archive at the back of the wardrobe, where it languishes under layers of uncertainty and worry.
All of this has occurred without good science and without the necessary debate. It has arisen in a mood of panic and has ended in a culture of repression, cultivating anxieties of the most destructive kind throughout the general community which have the paradoxical consequence of abolishing the innocence of children, for the innocence of children can no longer be recognized or celebrated for what it is. Not surprisingly, art has got itself caught up in this shift of increasingly obtuse public perception, as artists have always been schooled in more liberal ways and are, for the most part, unsympathetic to a moral order that is destined to cloak children in shame for their bodies.
The debate has even moved during the Art Monthly Papapetrou controversy. Child protection spokespeople no longer feel obliged to explain how an image is pornographic. It suffices that it show a naked child. The discourse is no longer about pornography but child exploitation. Child protection advocates have receded from the term pornography—because this might entail some demonstrations of visual intentionality—and have begun using ugly terms like ‘child exploitation image’ which exonerates the accuser from any form of proof of erotically stimulating content.
This has persistently struck me as irrational and even sly; but it is telling of the culture that now engulfs us. For me, an image of a naked child can only be exploitative if it is pornographic. It’s something in the nudity, otherwise pictures of children fully clad would also be exploitative. To become reprehensible in any sense, the nudity must be seen as sexual in adult terms, inappropriately sexualizing the child and conferring on the child an unwholesome availability to transgressive erotic engagement by an adult. The very term ‘child exploitation image’ is a way of stigmatizing the picture of a naked child without having to prove (a) that the image is pornographic and (b) that any harm can come to anyone through its publication.
The problem with child nudity
We have to ask ourselves, as if nothing had ever been said: what is the problem with child nudity? A child’s body is not intrinsically sinful. It would be a terrible adult hang-up if we considered it so, as if a sign of the Fall; and this perception ought to be dispelled for the prejudice that it is. To maintain the rage against naked children in pictures without having to prove their pornographic quality, three claims have emerged.
First, nudity in pictures strips children of their innocence and children need protection from such a violation. This was the argument by which the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd initiated the debate over Papapetrou. He stated, from within his deeply held personal beliefs, that the protection of the innocence of children should be stepped up. On one level, who can deny that children’s innocence should be protected? It’s a truism, but applied illogically to the circumstance. It seemed necessary to ask how innocence can be lost by the body being seen in a photograph, a question that I posed in The Age (8 July 08) and which Rudd didn’t answer. The Prime Minister had all the passion to make the claim but none of the patience to justify it. I argued that a loss of innocence can only occur if the consciousness of the child is corrupted, that is, if adult consciousness somehow intrudes upon and displaces the clean mind of the young one. It seemed unclear when and how this could occur in an artistic picture. No one, as far as I know, has so far helped Rudd out with this question.
Second, the image increases the risk of sexual crime against the child. I have repeatedly called for evidence of this claim and it has not, to my knowledge, been forthcoming. The overwhelming majority of sexual crimes committed against children occurs within families by people known to the family. Such horrible people already have access to the child. They have no need of artworks of that child. In the history of the world, there has never been a case of a sexual crime against children being caused by an artwork. The exposure to significant paedophilic risk is unsubstantiated and, based on the statistics, is exceedingly unlikely. If the image is a genuine artwork, it will be thoughtful—presumably a total turn-off for a paedophile—and will avoid that pure objectification which is supposed to make someone lust after a targeted individual. And even if the image is not thoroughly thoughtful, the link between literal exposure and exposure to risk is still missing. So there would be two steps that you would have to take to mount the case: (a) that a thoughtful artwork can act as a sexual stimulant and (b) that an image of any kind causes sexual crime against its subject.
When we see children on TV, in theatre, dance and film, any given child would be subject to the same exploitative exposure, because (while not exactly nude) the child is nearly always projected as lovely and cute in its body as well as mind, inviting quite as much undesirable attention by perverts who could arrive to watch the child by the advertising associated with the event. So unlikely is a crime against such children that the public endorses these child spectacles with full confidence. We are all complicit in their creation as consumers of the film or theatrical production when we buy the ticket. By the criteria now applied to art, if ever you have watched a film or play or dance with an adorable child in it, you have supported child exploitation. This is self-evidently silly. Having a child seen as gorgeous in the public view involves negligible risk and zero moral problem along the lines of exploitation. And that is why you continue to buy your ticket, uninhibited by such scruples.
Third, it has been argued that other children are exposed to greater risk by virtue of one child being seen naked in an artwork. Never mind Olympia herself (Papapetrou’s model and our daughter), who may remain safe with vigilant parents minding their daughter under lock and key. It is other children in less secure environments who become subject to predators as a result of the artistic encouragement by artists like Papapetrou. I call this the induction of vulnerability argument. It basically says that if culture accepts nude pictures of children in one circumstance, kids become vulnerable in another circumstance. The suggestion is that if we allow naked child pictures to proliferate, we valorize a kind of laying bare of children’s flesh for adult delectation and hence precipitate a lustful predisposition toward children in these offenders. Again, this argument only holds if the pictures can truthfully be described as pornographic.
Leaving aside the need for that proof, there is a fault in logic. Let us also leave aside the obvious question: why would you not consider it nobler to cultivate a society where children’s nudity is seen as natural? Unless we can return to this, we promulgate adult hang-ups, project anxieties upon children and induce destructive fears into our relationship with children. We move toward an epoch in which parents now feel remiss in letting their children’s bodies be seen; and this taboo in turn encourages children to be ashamed of their bodies. And so we go headlong into a culture of shame, creating transgenerational repression of something that ought to be natural. But this may be too idealistic for the moment (artists are idealistic!) and so let us return to the logic.
The induction of vulnerability argument also comes without any evidence or good reasoning. No image has these inductive powers. An image cannot create evil lust where none existed beforehand; nor can it justify illicit lust or promote a crime against the knowledge that the crime is wrong. Even if you count the image as totally objectifying (i.e. porn rather than art) the causal link between the image and the crime lacks credibility. We have other serious crimes: for example, the rape of women. The rape of women is absolutely unacceptable. There is no degree to which we can say: raping women is more acceptable than any other crime. The offence is absolute. So do we ban pornography which objectifies women on the basis that it normalizes a rapist’s designs and assuages his guilty conscience? No, we do not, because the community does not fundamentally believe that there is a causal link between the image and the crime. And rightly so. Impugning the image on this basis presupposes a direct connexion between visual fantasy and actual felony; and this is an unfounded assumption in which nobody in our community really believes; otherwise we would criminalize adult pornography forthwith. Pornography is tolerated on a massive scale, presumably on the basis that it is more likely to help desperate men manage their lust than cause them to convert their desires into crime. We know full well that pictures don’t make rapists or paedophiles. Neither logic nor evidence has been brought to the induction of vulnerability argument. To use the appropriately Australian term, it is a furphy.
Even if one day an artwork is found among a child rapist’s possessions (among all the thousands of cases where none has been detected) the causal link in that instance still remains weak. There is no greater demonstration of agency in the picture than if, say, a gunman is found to have had violent movies in the house or an axe-murderer is known to have possessed splatter flicks. These items of artifice neither create nor justify nor normalize criminality, because bitter and twisted people do not become bitter and twisted through representations but a horrible prior cycle of abuse, humiliation and repression. The artworks or films neither provide a cue nor a justification nor a motif of escalation. You could just as easily say that the male killer committed the murder because the movies failed him; they were no longer effective in keeping the angry outlet within his fantasy. The argument that pictures of any kind—much less pictures authorized by the chastity of art—cause these enormities does not stand up to scrutiny.
The question of rights
Without the righteous being able to demonstrate a link between pictures and ill-consequence, parents can still be accused of exploiting their child by photographing them naked and exhibiting the image. Even though the picture might be rated as benign (which was often conceded with Polixeni’s Olympia as Beatrice Hatch by White Cliffs, the image on the cover of Art Monthly) the accusation has been maintained that the use of the child for this artistic purpose is still intrinsically unfair to the child because the child is not in a position to decide the issue with the necessary cognitive maturity. Much has been debated on the question of rights. This issue was raised by Kevin Rudd who immediately said that a child at six, eight or ten could not be presumed to have the ability to evaluate the consequences. So the debate was bound to take that direction. Who decides that a picture with a naked child can be made and published? How is consent constituted between parents and kids? Who considers all of the moral consequences and who does the risk evaluation? Who, if anyone, mediates?
The argument has been put that a child’s rights must not be subsumed by the guardian. Given that a child cannot evaluate all the issues, it is immoral—so we hear—for the parent to presume to decide on the child’s behalf. There has been a suggestion that it is necessary to wait till age 18 for the child, by then an adult, to give permission to publish the image. The child cannot decide for herself or himself because a child cannot be informed of all consequences.
This argument continues: therefore, either a third party must intercede—a body of unknown shape and size, an authority, an ethical rule, perhaps the new Australia Council protocols, something super-parental with the power of legalizing—or we need blanket prevention. Some have taken this argument to the extreme: we need total undiscriminating censorship, a totalitarian ban on naked children in art and presumably beyond art as well, wherever an image can be seen by a third party.
How necessary is it to repeal the sacrosanct rights of parents in judging what is best for their children? The only way of answering this is to compare the risks involved with those in other areas of life where parents subject their children to certain risks.
In turn, to scrutinize the parental economy of risk, we need to understand the concept of risk, which is more or less quantifiable according to the OHS culture that we now know in every workplace throughout the developed world. Risk is computed as the severity of any possible damage multiplied by the likelihood of the event occurring. We judge, for example, that driving a car or riding a bike is an acceptable risk. We say this even though the possible damage is extremely severe. You can be killed. There is proof, because lots of people get killed on the roads each week. But given the number of total motor journeys, it isn’t very likely that you’ll have a serious accident on any given day. So you declare the risk worth taking and drive (with children in the cabin) or ride the bike every day.
The incitement to paedophiles (or perhaps loss of privacy, if that is the problem) caused by nude children in an artwork can therefore be compared with other risks. It should be compared with sport, for example; because though seen as a kind of archetype of health and youth, implanted in us as wholesome from early education, sport is in fact the source of permanent injury, where people wreck their knees, break necks and spines and encounter other corporal disasters that cripple them for life. Every weekend yields a fresh harvest in our hospitals. Notwithstanding, children in our community face immense pressure—not just from parents but also teachers and junior associations—to entertain the sporting spirit in a fierce degree, to strive to win with all energy, to take on feverish enthusiasm, overcome all fear of risk, and trounce the opposition. I am personally relieved that our boy Solomon has rejected football for this reason, because I feel sure that one day he would return home via the surgery, as I once did in competition sport, with a permanent disability.
So as not to be too culturally elitist in targeting sport, consider ballet. This beautiful and understandable artistic enthusiasm is also incubated under massive parental pressure and manipulation: ‘you’re so pretty in your tutu’, girls are assured. They are indoctrinated by their parents, with the typical blend of hope, ambition and vanity that all parents project on their kids. The parent is hugely gratified to see a daughter move gracefully on the stage to public applause. Yet this same reward may also yield anorexia and arthritis, well known risks to any psychiatrist or even any soul with balletic experience.
The physical and psychological damage to the child in these instances is not just likely but widespread. In any given street, every family is likely to be affected, because the massive societal endorsement makes sport unavoidable and artistic activities like ballet compellingly attractive. So on a social level, these activities are a much greater worry, because the serious damage that they cause is constant and ubiquitous.
Parents make decisions on their children’s behalf, either by forcing them, brow-beating them, shaming them, or (we hope) by lovely encouragement, sweet blandishments and benign imploring. Yet the result is the same: we expose them to risk. So why not institute some super-parental discouragement? Why not invoke anti-football protocols and demand identification for when it is ethically appropriate for children to be allowed to participate in these tangibly damaging activities? The only reason we do not think this way in relation to sport—but do when it comes to nudity in art—is just that sport is common, usual, accepted. It is valorized by custom and, because it is mainstream, it is unchallenged. Parents absolutely enjoy the right to decide and bring on these risks for their children.
The reason nudity in art is singled out among all these parental prerogatives is that it’s unusual: it’s a minority activity. The majority regularizes. The risk to kids is accepted if institutionalized and maintained by custom. Art is ratbag and deviant because individual. It is based on individual choice rather than convention in a way that makes the responsibilities more conspicuous. It seems easier to accuse the parental influence of being irresponsible, even though it exposes children to much lower levels of risk than socially normalized leisure activities. While other forms of risk-taking are programmed in conformity to expectations, art is not. So it is mercilessly targeted.
Through all of this, we are witnessing the great discourse against difference playing itself out in the realm of art. You might cast a glance at the vocabulary used by the psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg speaking out against our daughter Olympia when he called her ‘mouthy’. The implication behind this gratuitous insult is that she mustn’t stand out. We are irresponsible parents if we let our children be identified in any way as different, because this will lead to bullying at school. Instead of helping to bring dignity to difference, Carr-Gregg finds difference a liability which is dangerous to let out. Let us leave aside the hypocrisy of a psychologist so piously looking after children against bullying while at the same time fomenting strife for Olympia with an abusive intervention in the media which may as well be designed to shame her with the quality of difference.
Because our antagonists have produced no good arguments, I have tried to develop some for them to explain their rancour in my own mind.
Perhaps a more benign interpretation of the hatred of parental prerogative in art matters—but not in conformist matters like sport and traditional ballet—would be the sentiment associated with the possible damage. Maybe the community feels more strongly about risks to children through artistic nudity just because it seems to involve crime? The worst outcome is not an ‘innocently’ broken spine but a heinous deed perpetrated upon a child by human will. The fact that the possible damage is criminal obscures from public consciousness that risk is risk and damage is damage, irrespective of the source of the harm and whether or not it involves volition. To focus on a danger just because there is a criminal narrative within it creates an irrational promotion of the danger in public consciousness. Subjecting a child to risk seems okay if the risk can be seen as ‘natural’—as if there is anything natural about football or ballet!—but it inspires horror when the risk has a human element of malevolence and perversion. The criminality entails a cocktail of emotion and blame that are not taken care of through apparently guilt-free terms like ‘accident’. The scene is set for emotion to prevail over reason.
The scale of unscientific desperation
In fact, risk is risk and the currency is not altered by the source of the danger. We must disentangle the issues analytically at every stage and the community deserves its experts to keep them separate. Our authorities and leaders need greater scrupulosity in their arguments, people like Kevin Rudd, the leader of the opposition Brendan Nelson, state premiers Morris Iemma and John Bracks, senior lawyers Moira Rainer and David Galbally, child psychologists and journalists, all variously accusing good parents of dereliction and child abuse, even in letting Olympia speak to the cameras.
When Polixeni constructed her photographs in 2003, she was busy not just with the artistic work but also concerned herself as a scholar with the proprieties of photographing children. Her investigation—formalized in a PhD at Monash University—took her both to the analysis and historical interpretation of the photography and writing of Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, as well as the tradition of female photographers whose subject matter has been their own children.
Sadly, the best international mother-artists have encountered the worst and most embittered reactions, from Sally Mann and Nan Goldin to Tierney Gearson and Betsy Schneider. These women have all been vilified for their work. In 2007, Polixeni had the opportunity to meet personally with Connie Petrillo in Perth, whom the WA Police had prosecuted ten years ago for photographing her boys naked. Though acquitted by the jury, the process left Petrillo traumatized. There has never been an apology emanating from the Police or the State for their false accusations and bullying. This I call an injustice against motherhood. The ferocity with which the warm artistic inquiry of mother-artists has been attacked is a blot on civil society.
Polixeni has shown due diligence as an intellectual, a mother and an artist in investigating the moral, historical, psychological and legal issues that touch on her work. In the campaign against her, we have witnessed (a) a total absence of evidence being adduced and (b) psychological brutality against her and Olympia, as if neither child protection advocate, legal counsel, clinician nor art critic has ever heard of defamation. Art critic? Yes, John McDonald was not ashamed to represent our family on the ABC as calculating ‘attention-seekers’, feeling ‘persecution envy’ when the Henson affair was current and bringing ourselves—as inferior artists—into the media limelight. He expressed glee that now we’re really getting it. ‘This is a stage family pushing a daughter out there. Watching stuff happening to Henson, asking, “Why him and not us?” Well they've got it now.’ (PM, 10 July 2008)
Bah, artists should be inured to malice. It is curious for me to front up at our primary school and greet all the other parents and their children, knowing that I stand accused of being a child abuser and a derelict father who has willfully abandoned the paternal duty to protect his girl, a dad who has effectively sold his daughter into visual prostitution.
Fortunately, contact with our wonderful school community has revealed to me that parents do not share the views of so many critics in the media. In response to Janet Albrechtsen, who fulminated that we dismally shirked our heavy responsibility as parents and ‘failed to understand that adults are the grown-ups’, one of the school mothers said: ‘well, she—as a grown-up—forgot her manners.’ In their zeal to be seen as upholders of moral standards and best parental practice, our critics have failed to remember what they were taught at school and university, that they need evidence to back up their claims, not to mention any politeness of avoiding an attack ad hominem.
But never mind such subtleties of civility and etiquette! The zeal over this matter caused one commentator to come perilously close to fabricating evidence against us. Andrew Bolt asked me a question in The Herald-Sun: did Olympia ‘consent as a toddler to being photographed and exhibited sucking on a dummy as if she were dreaming of sex?’ In a letter on Bolt’s blog at breakfast time on the same day as his column appeared (11 June 2008), I pointed out that this question implicitly described a picture which Bolt had never seen. I asked Bolt: had he ever seen any of the Pacifier images? Monica Attard later asked him the same question and he replied that he had seen a picture of Olympia with her grandmother’s jewelry. Well, this is not a Pacifier image. Bolt, not normally a shy man, did not answer the question with a simple ‘yes’, so I think the implication is clear.
Unless I have misunderstood, Bolt was detected fabricating a picture in his own mind—one that he hadn’t yet seen but in which he already imagined the model ‘dreaming of sex’—to project his own fantasy upon it, thus condemning the work and its interpreter. Bolt cannot tell us that he has seen the work, yet wreaked opprobrium upon it and its creator. Even if it’s just an implication, it seems as if Bolt misled the public, concocting false shadows in order to discredit Polixeni and me. Such zeal to denounce us as filth-mongers (‘deeply, deeply disturbing’ as Bolt said), even if it means risking a kind of journalistic fraud, is deplorable. In order to frame Polixeni and me as pornographers, the scrupulosity that honours the truth—like evidence and logic—can be sacrificed.
Making a political point
During the Papapetrou controversy, I was repeatedly asked why we had used (or abused) our daughter in order to make a political point, first in creating a nude picture and allowing it to be published and second in encouraging her to speak on our behalf. For many commentators, this was proof of child exploitation. It was never credited as Olympia speaking on her own behalf. Unlike Henson, the argument went, the decision to publish the image was not made innocently, unaware of the sensitivities and inflammatory consequences of a naked child being seen in an image at this time. It was a shameless exercise to gain attention, a stunt, for which we exploited our daughter.
It is difficult to explain the problems of being asked to provide an image in a magazine. As the artist, you don’t have control of the editorial content. Polixeni and I felt that the magazine was quite within its rights to provide an artistic forum to debrief over Henson and also to contemplate earlier cases of censorship in which Polixeni was involved. It seemed important to do this; and granted that the edition would scrutinize the rights and wrongs of child nudity in art, it seemed entirely fair that the editor, Maurice O’Riordan, would seek to illustrate the magazine with some balance, choosing an alternative to Henson, an Australian artist who also enjoys a strong international profile but who works with children as a female—and a mother at that—and had encountered controversy before. (Incidentally, when Kevin Rudd visited the National Art Center in Tokyo to see the show of the late Emily Kngwarreye, he may have been told that if he’d arrived only a few weeks earlier, he would have seen a large exhibition of Polixeni Papapetrou in the same gallery.) In all events, the bona fides of the Art Monthly approach to Polixeni was borne out by the content of the magazine, one article in which (by Adam Geczy) was in fact quite critical of the Hensonesque approach.
In a way, though all of this is true, I was surprised that the media seemed to need these defences. The work was made in 2003 and earlier, when there was no talk of provocation. The spirit of all of Polixeni’s works is non-combative and non-provocative. But even if the editor of the magazine, Maurice O’Riordan, phrased the purpose of the edition as a protest—which in fact he did not—it would not have changed the image nor Polixeni’s reasons for allowing it to be published. As a work of art, it has been produced in good faith to entertain the higher powers of the mind, with the conviction of the artist that it is wholesome and worth seeing. In the artist’s estimation, either the image is worth seeing or not; and this was an image in which the artist had excellent faith. It had already received huge endorsement locally and interstate; it was published in broadsheets; cards for Citibank reproduced it; and, in all of this, the picture had caused no controversy locally or internationally.
The idea that the magazine was motivated by a political purpose and therefore Olympia’s contribution constituted a form of exploitation to make a political point makes no sense. The only reason that you would make an artwork is to have it seen. If it was worth seeing in 2003, then it is worth seeing now as well. We are not about to concede that the times have temporarily made it inappropriate. There was never going to be a time in the future in which the work would be more or less acceptable according to child protection pressure groups. If anything, their influence is rising, owing to the support that they get from the Commonwealth and the media. There is no prospect of a more diplomatic moment. An editor wanted to publish it in a serious context. As there is nothing wrong with the image, there was also no reason to refuse publication. All the talk about exploitation to make a political point is a red herring. It all presupposes that there is something wrong with the image. But if you begin with the premise that there is nothing wrong with the image, then there is no exploitation in displaying the work at any time.
Commentators of course charged us with the likelihood that one day Olympia would disavow her participation in the picture and reproach her mother either for making the picture or both parents (and herself) for consenting to have it displayed on Art Monthly. And I had to agree with these interrogators on one point. Her willingness at age five and enthusiasm at age eleven are no guarantee of her support in years to come. Certainly, she may foreswear the whole exercise and recriminate both of us for leading her into an embarrassment. This is a possibility. It is entirely up to Olympia. But there is also a much likelier possibility—based on what we know of other enlightened children of art—that she will remain delighted with the image, that it will be an object of great pride which logically accompanies her personal courage in defending it against the scorn of the Prime Minister. Like any actor in a film, the performance of Olympia in her mother’s photographs is a substantial achievement. She has had a rare artistic and educational opportunity and has been able to grow with the experiences. It is likelier that she will look fondly on the family culture that provided this privilege than despise it. But of course time will tell and we will take responsibility for it.
One possible ground for Olympia reproaching us would be along the lines of what Guy Rundle has stated, Arena Magazine, 96: children need their ‘privacy protected’ and this should ‘surmount the artist's right to free speech’. But then we have to ask: what privacy is lost, even if the images circulate unrestricted on the web? It just so happens that in none of Polixeni’s images under discussion is there any genital exposure. To be sure, in Olympia as Beatrice Hatch, anyone can see that Olympia has thighs and the contour of a rump. I would expect that when she is a lot older, Olympia will be able to reason—as she does now—that every child has these features and none should be ashamed of them
We would be worried about the likelihood of future recrimination if we felt that there was something wrong with the pictures or something of Olympia’s future privacy was at stake. But a child at five is innocent. Olympia already identifies her body in the image from 2003 as her kid body, the one that she’s already outgrown. When children grow up, their bodies change greatly and maybe we then have something to be ashamed of (or maybe not). But a picture of anyone as a weenie in no way compromises the privacy that the same person enjoys in later life. That has always been the reason we allow kids to promenade naked on the beach: they have nothing to be ashamed of. This doesn’t change just because now we have the internet. Privacy is not an issue precisely because children are innocent. The protection of privacy makes little sense unless there is a demonstrable link to a loss of innocence.
This is why artists need to make images of naked children. The mother-artists cited above, who been vilified for their work, have in many ways created the best record of child innocence that history can lay claim to. I find it sad that Rundle forecloses on their warm artistic inquiry, which has never done any harm to anyone. The innocence of children deserves to be recognized, celebrated and understood. It is a fundamental part of child identity and human experience; and it crucially involves nudity. If we ban its representation, our community plunges headlong into repression, all at the expense of curiosity and insight, and all without evidence or good grounds to impugn it.
If there was a political point in making and disseminating the image, it was only the political point that all serious art makes in its every manifestation: it is the universal right of free speech. But even this is not the reason the work was made nor the reason it was published. It was made and published because it is beautiful, evocative, resonant and totally harmless.
The industrialization of anxiety
From beginning to end, the Papapetrou controversy was very unlike the Henson affair. In Henson’s case, the saga commenced with the NSW Police seizing pictures from the gallery. The materials that the Police considered offensive were the photographs themselves, an invitation in the mail plus the publication of the photographs on the internet. The allegation was that the material is child pornography; and the main defence given was that the artist has a formidable reputation. The artist said nothing and a large body of arts figures supported Henson with arguments of dubious substance. The best that I read more or less only argued that the works deserve to sell for a steep price and that they’re very good pictures, with grand art-historical ancestry, which do not resemble porn because the models do not have a come-hither look. A come-hither look is not a prerequisite for porn, so I didn’t rate this as a particularly strong argument. Most utterances in Henson’s favour did not recognize the key theme of the public polemic, namely that the pictures stood accused not of nakedness in general but specifically the nakedness of children. Nevertheless, the case fizzled out once the Classification Board gave the pictures a G rating. Throughout the debate, the taciturn Henson remained the same charismatic ‘Dark Lord of the Camera’ as he was called in The Age in 2005.
In Papapetrou’s case, a magazine published images that she had taken in 2003 and earlier in order to ‘restore dignity to the debate’. The magazine was accused of provocation in the wake of the Henson affair and was referred to the Classification Board. Strong protestations were made by the artist and her family. As noted, the debate swung around more clearly to the theme of child exploitation and precipitated a world response.
The really big deal in the Papapetrou controversy that didn’t emerge in the Henson affair is the question of civil liberties. The terms of the Henson debate were to do with the freedom of art. The terms of the Papapetrou debate are more to do with the freedom of parents and children. At no stage did any of us in the Nelson-Papapetrou family justify what we did because art is a higher priority than the rights of children. We have never seen art as quarantining anyone from civil codes or insulating them from parental responsibilities. Art is not a screen and we have never invoked its protection for that purpose.
The main reason that my family has been vociferous against the accusations during the Papapetrou controversy is that our feelings are not just about art but parental culture in general and civil rights in particular. This is the first test-case where a robust family has been threatened with the withdrawal of their freedom to act as any family might, not just an artistic family. The freedom at issue is to photograph a child naked and to let other people see the image. In my mind, at least, this attack upon civil liberties is also an attack upon the innocence of children, because it cruels our chances as parents of recognizing and celebrating the innocence of children within families and beyond.
We can see culture within the space of a couple of years turning to deny the dignity of a child’s body (not just as representation but in reality), seeing it as a sign not of the innocence of the child but the depravity of the adult witness. It’s not a case of a couple of rotten eggs spoiling it for everyone else. It’s a problem of massive impercipience, brought on by the industrialization of anxiety.
My fear that people are losing a natural relationship to children has been graphically demonstrated through the opinion on numerous antagonistic blogs in response to the Papapetrou controversy. In many vituperative comments, Olympia has been incorrectly described as wearing make-up in the now famous Olympia as Beatrice Hatch by White Cliffs of 2003. Bloggers have repeated this erroneous claim again and again, which was also discussed on radio. In fact, Olympia was wearing no make-up and wig. Just as there is no wig, so there is no rouge on her cheeks, no eye shadow, lippy, nothing, just Olympia’s skin and hair. This is the natural colour of a five year old girl. Not only is there no make-up but there is no Photoshop either. There is no digital manipulation between the model, the negative and the print.
When the public decides that Olympia is wearing make-up, it has jumped to a conclusion that assumes, I guess, that children are as grey as we adults are. But in fact they often have a wonderful colour that we lack entirely and subsequently fudge in mature years through artificial means. To see this wonderful chromatic richness and luminosity, however, you actually have to look, rather as Polixeni looks with her Hasselblad. And here is the problem. It’s as if no one any longer looks at children. It’s as if they’re too scared to. If you get caught looking at a child, you might be considered a paedophile. So people are wary of looking at children by extension to the ban on touching them. Males, especially, are scared to make jokes with them, to develop any intimacy with them and make wriggly giggly gags that cause children to become excited and in which men, in the past, have shown winsome talent. Playing with kids always used to be one of the few behavioural options that humanized men and let them relax their rigid masculinity. And as we now know from the Papapetrou controversy, women can also be suspected of various degrees of child abuse. They too have to be guarded in their gaze to avoid suspicion as having an unhealthy or exploitative interest in children.
We are as a community losing the innocence of children, because we have already lost an assumption that our fondness for children is untainted. The incrementally regulatory environment is killing childhood innocence, not the artist who seeks to celebrate childhood innocence.
The moral panic over protecting the innocence of children against artists is a symptom of something larger, more insidious and more sinister in our culture. It is the anxiety revolution, in which a vast array of goods and services is promoted by stimulating anxiety. Anxiety is commercialized from health insurance to the marketing of private schools to schemes for monitoring adolescents in a panorama of drug and sex hazards. Check out Michael Carr-Gregg’s website for voyeuristic evidence.
In our culture, only one emotional stimulant for boosting sales is as powerful as sex and that is fear. It began with fundamentalist religion and reactionary politicians and it has spread virally throughout the fabric of institutional life. It is the most common commercial strategy, because once you have inseminated fear, you can sell security. Business was never simpler: identify risk, conflate it with great emotion and then sell solutions. Who would be without a marketing plan that does not propagate fear? The strongest purveyors of fear are the media. TV could not live a day in its competitive environment without promoting fear in the community. It thrives on predators, on cases of people not being sufficiently guarded and falling prey to villains or bad luck. There is always a coda implying that superior levels of security should have been provided. It is a mad spiral, a constantly worsening manipulation of public perception toward insecurity by the most influential channels.
So where does the irresponsibility lie? The cultivation of anxiety for commercial purposes is extremely damaging and one of the victims now is childhood innocence. It has caused childhood nudity to be criminalized. Put this together with the equally massive projection of teen sexuality upon children and you have a lot of very confused parents. Parents sense that they are out of control in this media-environment, when each weekend they can watch their tiny daughters emulating all the erotic moves on television that their pumping teenage role-models promiscuously exhibit to loud thumping music. Actually, parents often feel that they have to go along with this emulation and admire their daughters for such precocity. The sexualization of children is endemic throughout our culture (with absolutely nothing to do with art) and remains powerfully promoted by the commercial interests that shape popular culture and seduce the very young—especially girls—to gaze, act and dance with a sexual body language.
Parents are struggling to achieve a sense of control in all of this and look for the likeliest scapegoat in the vicinity. Again, the politicians and media will gladly spring to their assistance. An artist with an unpronounceable name, an outspoken daughter and a husband in a bright shirt and bowtie will certainly do. These must be the people who are wrecking child innocence. We need a law against their visual profanities. They are terrible snobbish people who thumb their nose at the law. They give, as Brendan Nelson said, the two finger salute to the nation. They are arrogant and slippery, enjoying indulgences that should now finally stop.
Back to art and children
And this brings me to the final sadness. The Australian community has long been suspicious of artists; but now the caricature of the irresponsible artist has acquired a new dimension, arousing not just suspicion but resentment. The new persona of the artist is someone who can use art as a loophole to break the law and obtain a dear privilege denied to everyone else. Parents in the general community no longer enjoy the privilege of photographing their kids in the nude. How come artists get to do this? What puts them above the law?
Though this is a terrible insult to artists, I actually have some sympathy for the reaction. It proves to me that parents have been diddled of something owing to them. They would dearly love to be able to photograph their children in the nude and not fear prosecution. So I completely understand their resentment over the privilege of artists, that it’s all right for some but not for us. An inalienable right has been taken away from ordinary parents. How hurtful, then, that ordinary parents are not allowed to possess a record of their children’s innocence but artists are allowed to seize this privilege! The mums and dads who work an honest living and have the fondest relationship with their kids are denied a record of enormous value to their family and their children when they grow up. Unless their parents were artists, the future men and women who are now kids will never see what they looked like lounging around in the nude as only children can (if they are still allowed). The memory of a key part of their innocence is deleted. Permanently.
We are in a most unfortunate predicament where everyone is a loser. With the incremental attack on civil rights, parents lose an inestimable treasure in the imagery of their child’s innocence. The artist earns the resentment of the general community for retaining this privilege. The child protection spokesperson is on the losing legal side and resorts to insulting a child. The politicians are caught talking about things that they know nothing about. Senior lawyers risk getting caught defaming an artistic family. The righteous journalist is caught fabricating a picture that lets him indulge his sexual fantasy and bring false witness to his adversary. Opinion writers are caught speaking with neither evidence nor science nor decorum. No one gains in this dire moral downward spiral. It has brutalized so many commentators and few have escaped with their honour intact. It wrecks the credibility of everyone who goes near it. It makes fools of the police who are ordered to prosecute and then have to return the confiscated artworks. It bludgeons the gallerists and artists who will never hear an apology over the way they are mishandled. The issues are beyond the Classification Board, whose criteria have nothing to do with the current preoccupations. The moral downward spiral sucks the Australia Council into becoming a super-parent, forced to take over relations between artist, child and parent. The Australia Council has to come up with a world-first in paternalism, imposing a kind of toddler harness on the nation’s artists, where the people who think profoundly about the issues are constrained by politicians who scarcely think about them at all. In short, there was never a cultural mess like it since the epoch of iconoclasm in Byzantium.
But while artists may suffer from a new alienation in the general community, the real victims are children, children who can no longer be gazed upon without occasioning fears of paedophilia among their onlookers. In 2000, I wrote a Freudian essay recognizing the sensuality of children which has been held up as an example of a disturbing paedophilic tendency. Amazingly, I got into trouble and had to explain myself on radio for having said, back then, that ‘the sensuality of children is integral to parental fondness’. Just what did you mean by that? I was asked, as if cuddling your own child is suspect and expressing it breaches a taboo. When the essay described the oral pleasure of infantile dummy sucking, various commentators thought that they had proof of my depravity.
Wherever artistic and academic interest is suppressed, you can be sure that the general public suffers a yet more serious eradication of consciousness. As the community is harrowed of its visible affection for children, children grow up with emotionally stunted relations with their adult families. Children are being quarantined from the recognition of their sensual pleasures; and so they, too, are denied much: emotional things that are important and integral to their development and wellbeing, things that arise from the curiosity and fond empathetic wonder of adults. We are witnessing an unprecedented alienation of childhood where it is considered shameful to wonder what makes a kid giggle, in which parental curiosity is being eliminated for fear of being condemned as paedophilic.
I remember when I was a boy how I used to smile at everyone in the street. People used to smile back and I felt that I could generate this warmth between me and others. My friendliness had my parents’ approval; they used to admire my ‘toothy grin’. That sense of being an emotional agent in the world is progressively being denied to children and for no good reason. Nowadays, hardly any male dares look at a child much less smile at one, for fear of the friendliness being misconstrued. The relationship is increasingly suspect, with an intervention emanating from state control. What we demand of the state is that it protect children from psychological and physical violation. We do not for that reason permit the state to wipe the smile from the child’s face, to wreck what innocence we have retained between adults and children and to banish the child’s body from public view. The state has no moral right to make this incursion into family life. It never had a mandate to interfere in this way. It is a new bureaucratic barbarism, in which some ambitious brave hearts and vulgarizing politicians have persuaded the world to abandon reason, art and science.
Robert Nelson, September 2008
Some paragraphs of this writing are published in Robert Nelson, ‘Rudd & Rundle: paternalism revisited, Arena Magazine, no. 97, October 2008.
Robert Nelson is Associate Dean, Monash Art & Design, and Art Critic for The Age.