Censorship, nudity and childhood innocence: from Henson to Yore

Issue #06: Body in the Raw. Nudity Today.

Life intrudes upon the fantasy of the innocent child. Childhood nudity comes to be associated not with innocence, but its betrayal.

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Recent years have witnessed a number of controversies in Australian art that circulate around childhood nudity. Outrage over Bill Henson’s exhibition was the top news story of 2008, and there has since been acute sensitivity about artists’ use of images of children. Most recently, 2013 saw five pieces excluded from Tyza Stewart’s Sydney exhibition after the gallery received legal advice. In Victoria, police confiscated works by Paul Yore because they contained images of children.1 While the capacity to access and distribute pornography over the Internet is ever increasing, it is curious that anxiety about the protection of children should focus on artworks that are exhibited in public galleries, and not for the purpose of titillation. Children have been depicted nude throughout history, most notably for religious representation but also for humorous purpose (e.g. Manneken Pisin Brussels). So why this heightened attention to children’s bodies and their meaning, and why now?

Two attitudes are revealed through this anxiety about children’s nudity in art, but a third is also implicit within it. Firstly, nudity is attributed only a sexual meaning. Secondly, it highlights a cultural investment in childhood innocence, maintained through an effort to keep children rigorously separate from adult concerns (of which sexuality is particularly emblematic). The fact that art is now the focus of this nervousness signals a third anxiety regarding the purpose of art, in particular art’s power to question and shift cultural values and ‘community standards.’

Childhood nudity comes to be associated not with nudity, but its betrayal

A consideration of the timing and context of the Henson controversy elucidates how that exhibition came to furnish the occasion for a perfect storm. Two years earlier, the representation of children’s bodies in the media – and particularly girls bodies – had become a focal point of concern with the publication of Corporate Paedophilia, the Australia Institute sponsored paper on the sexualisation of girls.2 It articulated an anxiety that corporations profit from the objectification of children in advertising, placing them in “adult contexts” and rendering them as objects of adult desire. It recruited feelings of unease many share, namely that there is no longer cultural space for children to be innocent of adult modes of enjoyment and experience. Corporate Paedophiliahas been widely criticised as poorly researched and as stretching the limits of what is considered an “adult context.”3 It nonetheless catalysed a movement of soul searching about the meaning of childhood and the exploitation of children.

Bill Henson’s tribulations emerged directly out of this rhetorical context, so a discussion that had pertained to ‘low’ culture (advertising) was transposed onto the reception of ‘high’ culture (art). Henson’s art was thus reduced to a commercial enterprise. But moreover, that the ‘offending material’ in the Henson case was classified as art rather than emerging from the pages of an advertising brochure added to his accusers’ righteous indignation. It was felt that a tolerance for child pornography issued from the highest echelons of culture, rather than only its crudest, most commercial levels. Art’s cultural standing renewed momentum behind arguments for new laws regulating images of children.

In America, unease about juvenile nudity has converged on artists whose subjects are their own children, such as photographer Sally Mann (as well as more ‘ordinary’ parents like Cynthia Stewart, prosecuted for producing child pornography after photographing her eight-year-old in the bath).4 Like Henson, Mann’s photographs reveal private, ambiguous moments in the children’s lives, in which they negotiate their burgeoning identity and experience their own bodies in enjoyment, and sometimes pain. Conservative citizens’ groups picketed bookshops across America that stocked Mann’s book, Immediate Family, citing their deep discomfort with the photographs.5 The outspoken Christian broadcaster, Pat Robertson, likened Mann to a pimp, stating, “selling photographs of children in their nakedness for profit is an exploitation of the parental role.”6

Childhood nudity, or rather a particular variety of nudity – unadorned by the fig leaf of sentimentality that we find, for instance, in Anne Geddes – comes thus to be associated not with innocence, but its betrayal.7 A subtle and ever-shifting lexicon must be manipulated to demonstrate the ‘innocent’ child, as a fetish through which sex, gender, race and class are rendered invisible. Childhood innocence designates a purity through which adults who celebrate it can ignore the ambiguity and compromise that soil everyday desire. The innocent child must be protected from adult things, kept otherworldly, so as not to reflect back the messy contingency and pain of life. The nudity of these children threatens because it defies that lexicon through which innocence is produced, opening instead to questions of the child’s desire, blurring once clear distinctions between adult and child.

Life intrudes upon the fantasy of the innocent child. A Parliamentary Library briefing commissioned in the wake of the Henson affair highlights the difficulty of defining child pornography, and the diverse and at times conflicting aims that inform its legislation. Definitions of ‘pornography’ and of ‘child’ vary widely between jurisdictions. Jurisdictions also vary in the concerns they privilege in framing and deciding what child pornography perpetrates. In America, the wrong is literally represented in the image, which evidences the abuse it depicts. Its circulation then implicates consumers in that original crime. In the U.K. and Australia, the wrong is defined more nebulously according to ‘decency’ or ‘community standards.’ The wrong refers not simply to an action performed on a child for which the photograph constitutes evidence. The subject needn’t even be a child; it may be a youthful-looking consenting adult or virtual, drawn from the imagination. There is then scope for legal argument that harm is located in the eye of the beholder – in how the viewer interprets the image – and not necessarily in the body of a child. Here the principle that child pornography is not a victimless crime begins to attenuate.

While journalist Miranda Devine and child abuse campaigner Hetty Johnson argued along these lines that Henson’s photograph helped foster a paedophile-friendly environment, ultimately cooler heads prevailed. With regard to a blog ‘reporting’ the image, the Classification Board concluded that the “nudity is very mild in viewing impact and justified by context,” and classified the ‘content’ as PG. At least legally, then, the hot air was expelled from this issue.

Yet, as the Henson case bore out, anxiety about children’s nudity signifies a deeper apprehension about the ‘eye of the beholder’ and the degradation of community standards. What unsettles is the sexualisation of culture more generally, and the spectre of the paedophile both heralds and ironically produces the capacity for normal adults to view children sexually.

Legalistic responses to Tyza Stewart and Paul Yore took place in the shadow of Henson; each uses images of children, which is why lawyers and police withheld or seized those works. Most perplexing about these cases is that while each dealt with conceptions of childhood, neither represented a child being sexually abused or offered a child’s body up for viewers’ gratification. Rather, in the case of Stewart, the art negotiated the meaning of the artists own gender identity, representing his childhood self. Yore, far from instigating a form of sexualisation, took as his subject matter the sexualisation of childhood in consumer/celebrity culture itself, so that examples of this trend (such as Justin Bieber) serve only as ironic citations of a phenomenon he critiques. Stewart’s work deals with his transformation from femaleborn child to male-identified adult, and was deemed pornographic because, in depicting this experience, Stewart draws self-portraits of his young ‘female’ self with adult male bodies. While, Stewart, through his art making, can be seen retroactively to offer support and protection to his confused and isolated childhood self, the state’s object of protection is a more rarefied childhood innocence, ‘unadulterated’ by considerations of sexuality. The ‘obscenity’ pertains to queasiness about associating childhood with sexuality. At stake is a conception of childhood preserved from ‘adulthood’ (for which sexuality is a metonym). What Stewart has to say about sex and gender identity, however transgressive, is not forbidden as such, but because it takes the form of this deeper transgression against childhood innocence. Likewise, Yore superimposes Justin Bieber’s adolescent face on pastiche images of acts of urination and masturbation. This is not realist art, nor would it be prohibited were it not for this association with childhood. They clearly invite the viewer to reflect on contemporary culture’s co-option of childhood in the name of consumption. They clearly do not invite the reader to enjoy the image sexually, as it would were it pornographic.

When art represents children in a manner that disrupts social expectations, artistic practice brings to crisis the meaning of childhood, creating an opportunity for discussion about how we understand art andchildhood. The community’s response thus far, however, has been to construe all depictions of child nudity as pornography. This produces a chilling effect, leading galleries preemptively to censor exhibitions to avoid being shut down or raided by police. The desire to legislate art has replaced a conversation about what is at stake in the artistic depiction of children: childhood innocence, and the social norms that it regulates.

  1. Yore’s work was subsequently removed from the Sydney Art Fair, also following legal advice
  2. Emma Rush and Andrea La Nauze, Corporate Paedophilia: Sexualisation of children in Australia, Discussion Paper Number 90, October 2006, The Australia Institute: https://www.tai.org.au/file.php?file=DP90.pdf, last accessed 24 January 2014
  3. See especially R. Danielle Egan and Gail Hawkes, “Girls, Sexuality and the Strange Carnalities of Advertisements: Deconstructing the Discourse of Corporate Paedophilia,” Australian Feminist Studies, Special Issue ‘The Child,’ Barbara Baird Ed. Vol. 23 No. 57, September 2008; See also Media International
    Australia, Special Issue ‘Children, Young People, Sexuality and the Media,’ Kath Albury and Catharine Lumby Eds No. 136, May 2010.
  4. Lynn Powell, Framing Innocence: A Mother’s Photographs, a Prosecutor’s Zeal, and a Small Town’s Response, The New Press, 2010
  5. Barnes & Noble were investigated in twenty states. A Grand Jury in Alabama indicted Barnes & Noble under a “harmful-to-minors” law for selling Immediate Family, as well as another book by Jock Sturges. The bookstore reached a settlement whereby books were shrink wrapped and placed on shelves that were not easily accessible. See http://www.thefileroom.org/documents/dyn/DisplayCase.cfm/id/350, last accessed 24 January 2014
  6. Steven Cantor Blood Ties: The Life and Work of Sally Mann, Stick Figure Productions, 1993.
  7. Steven Angelides has written a subtle and provocative piece on the Henson case. In it, he reflects on the model in that photograph as an ‘Eve’ figure, who embodies the shame of having only just realized her nakedness, and he relates this to the situation of the adolescent. It is that shame, and commentators refusal to contemplate it as the child’s- instead deflecting it as something the child herself cannot realize- that animated the Henson debate, according to Angelides. See “What’s Behind Child Sex Panics: The Bill Henson Scandal,” LAMBDA NORDICA Sweden, Issue 2 2011: 101–25, and Joanne Faulkner, “Vulnerability and the Passing of Childhood in Bill Henson: Innocence in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Parrhesia: a journal of critical philosophy, vol.11 2011: 44–55.