A naked return for puritanism

A row in Australia over an art magazine cover shows that our leaders are less at ease with child nudity than the prudish Victorians were.

Barbara Hewson

Topics Culture

Kevin Rudd, Australia’s prime minister, has started yet another row over nudity in art by protesting about the July cover of Art Monthly Australia (AMA). The cover photograph was taken by Melbourne photographer Polixeni Papapetrou in 2003, and it shows her daughter Olympia at the age of six, seated nude on a seaweed-covered rock on a beach, against a painted backdrop of white cliffs. The July AMA issue also contains two other pictures of nude children.

Rudd complained: ‘Frankly, I can’t stand this stuff.’ (1) The leader of Australia’s opposition Liberal Party, Brendan Nelson, was also outraged, calling Papapetrou’s photo ‘indefensible’ and a ‘two-fingered salute to the rest of society’. Olympia, now 11, has rushed to her mother’s defence. She appeared at a press conference with her father, the art critic Robert Nelson, and told reporters that she is proud of the cover picture. ‘I love the photo so much. It is one of my favourites’, she told reporters. ‘I think that the picture my mum took of me had nothing to do with being abused and I think nudity can be a part of art.’ (2)

The cover of July’s
Art Monthly Australia

Carroll’s picture of Beatrice Hatch

Indeed, it’s hard to see what all the fuss is about. AMA’s cover is an obvious reworking of Lewis Carroll’s 1873 photograph of Beatrice Hatch, aged seven (3). Carroll’s photograph also shows a nude girl sitting on a seaweed-covered rock, with white cliffs in the background. The backdrop is hand-painted on glass. Carroll’s photo is taken sideways on, while Olympia is photographed looking directly at the camera, but otherwise the poses are similar.

Beatrice Hatch was a daughter of Edwin Hatch, a theologian who was then vice-principal of St Mary Hall, Oxford, and later university reader in Ecclesiastical history. The Hatches allowed Carroll to take a number of nude shots of their young daughters. It’s ironic that, in twenty-first century Australia, similar photos cause a national controversy, with some censorial puritans campaigning for them to be made illegal.

The AMA cover is in response to an earlier controversy about childhood and nudity. In May this year, the police raided the Roslyn Oxley9 gallery in Sydney and confiscated photographs of nude teenagers by Bill Henson, only hours before the opening of an exhibition. Henson is a leading Australian photographer, whose work features in collections throughout the country and who has had great acclaim internationally.

Rudd condemned Henson’s photos, too and called them ‘revolting’. He said: ‘I am passionate about children having innocence in their childhood.’ (4) Hetty Johnston, founder of the Australian child protection pressure group Bravehearts, called for Henson and the Roslyn Oxley9 gallery to be prosecuted.

After a brief, but intense period of public controversy, during which the Roslyn Oxley9 gallery received firebomb threats, the Sydney authorities decided that there were no grounds to prosecute either Henson or the gallery. However, by then, presumably on a precautionary basis, the Roslyn Oxley9 gallery itself had pulled two of Henson’s photographs from its website, Untitled #8 and Untitled #39. There is nothing offensive about these particular images, and their abrupt removal from public view illustrates the chilling effect of moral panics about art, nudity and the young on artistic freedom and free speech. They lead to more and more shrill protests and to self-censorship in order to avoid controversy.

It is remarkable that the gallery had held a similar show of Henson’s work in 2006, which is still available to view on the gallery’s website. This again featured some pictures of nude young models, shot in a moody light, but apparently no one was sufficiently affronted to complain to the authorities on that occasion.

Now, Hetty Johnston has said that the nude photographs in the current issue of AMA amount to the ‘sexual exploitation of children’. She has called for new laws to make it illegal to take a photo of a naked child for exhibition, sale or publication. Puritanism is on the march here. And as Oscar Wilde observed: ‘Puritanism is never so offensive and destructive as when it deals with art matters.’ Defending the magazine’s cover, AMA editor Maurice O’Riordan said that he intended to ‘restore some dignity to the debate … and validate nudity and childhood as subjects for art’ (5).

A blanket ban on photographs of naked children will not stop child abuse, and the notion that merely photographing a naked child or teenager is tantamount to child abuse is difficult to take seriously. The assumption that any photograph of a naked child is pornographic is simply ridiculous. Article 20.2 of the Council of Europe’s recent Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (25 October 2007), for example, gives a much more restrictive definition: ‘The term “child pornography” shall mean any material that visually depicts a child engaging in real or simulated sexual explicit conduct or any depiction of a child’s sexual organs for primarily sexual purposes.’

Is Johnston suggesting that parents should not be able to take nude photos of their own children? No one would condone a parent who permitted pornographic pictures to be taken of their child, or allowed them to be put into public circulation, but underlying Johnston’s proposal is a profound mistrust of all adults, as well as the corrosive idea that nudity is inherently corrupting.

If all photos of nude children were to be banned, then logically there is no reason why photographs of Donatello’s David should not also be banned, along with Lewis Carroll’s photos of nude children, much of Wilhelm von Gloeden’s oeuvre, and any reproduction of Bronzino’s Allegory of Venus with Cupid, to name but a few.

Indeed, applying Johnston’s baleful logic, just about every image in Western medieval and Renaissance art showing the naked infant Jesus, putti or Cupid would similarly need to be banned to protect us from our baser impulses. This new Puritanism would seem to be heading in the direction of a regressive anti-aesthetic, which dictates that any reproduction of the naked human form is unacceptable.

Barbara Hewson is a barrister at Hardwicke Building in London.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild outlined how a photograph of 15-year-old Disney star Miley Cyrus’ back caused a global storm of controversy. Previously, she argued that censoring photos of children is damaging to artistic licence. Brendan O’Neill said a Sensitivity Stasi is eroding artistic freedom. Josie Appleton said paedophile panics blurred our view of Betsy Schneider’s photos at a London exhibition on childhood. Or read more at spiked issue Arts and entertainment.

(1) Australian PM in new nude art row, BBC News, 7 July 2008

(2) Australian PM in new nude art row, BBC News, 7 July 2008

(3) Indeed, it is part of a series of pictures inspired by Lewis Carroll. See the Johnston Gallery website

(4) Blanchett steps into nude art row, BBC News, 28 May 2008

(5) Rudd v art critic over child nudity, The Age, 7 July 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture


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