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4d - The naked truth

NZ Herald, October 28, 2008

I've been in Australia this week where, as of today, it's proposed that artists are to lose the right to depict children as the victims of torture, cruelty or physical abuse, or depict them engaged in any kind of sexual activity.

The change has been borne from lingering public fears in the wake of the Bill Henson case.

Henson, a famous Australian photographer particularly popular with art-literate Americans, had some of his works seized from a Paddington, NSW gallery in May amid claims they were child pornography.

For those who have not seen the photos, they feature naked adolescent girls posing unprovocatively for the camera.

The photos are provocative in the sense they are arresting and strangely revealing, even in our sex-soaked culture. And some of the girls will undoubtedly become great beauties... But it seems unlikely they are, for most viewers, sexy, as they deftly depict a time in life most of us feel (and look) gawky, awkward and wholly unappealing.

Of course, genuine paedophiles might find them sexually appealing. But then paedophiles would probably find a lot of different artistic and advertising materials these days erotic, not least of all the huge amount of overly sexualised clothing and merchandise sold to kids of all ages as a matter of course.

As it turned out, Henson's photos were eventually ruled to be not pornographic.

No one was charged for displaying the images. In fact, as late as this month his works, including some of those seized in May, were on display in New York 

(where exhibition organisers wisely didn't mention that Henson had been at the centre of a child pornographic investigation).

Most visitors to the Robert Miller Gallery, where Henson's works are priced at up to A$ 31,000, declared the work beautiful, dismissing suggestions of prurience. 

It doesn't change the fact that increasingly there are those who would seek to clamp down on just about any image of a naked or scantily-clad child as pornographic.

Those very popular ads playing on kiwi televisions now, featuring two toddlers in nappies who escape the family home and make a break for the beach, are regularly the subject of indecency complaints.

Even the famous nappy ad where a baby's mother kisses her child's bottom has come under fire from so-called "decency" advocates.

It's not just ads, either. I was recently asked why I allowed my seven  month old daughter to be photographed naked in portrait shots destined for our living room wall (shots taken by my sister and brother in law, professional photographers!)

It seems to me that the world's gone a little bit crazy about naked children in art work, all the while encouraging them to wear glitter eye shadow and lipstick, mini high heels and t-shirts with the most insanely X-rated phrases possible.

In Australia, as in most other places, there are precisely zero artists arguing for the right to make child pornography. But no-one has thought to prosecute the makers of the Bratz doll line for little female replicas that look and sound like strippers (and that are brought in their thousands by young girls and their mothers).

Pretty soon it's likely that Australian artists, galleries and publications will have to sign up to protocols on the depiction of children or lose all federal arts funding.

How soon before the great masters of art have their work retrospectively censored in this way? It'll be David and the fig leaf all over again. 

Most of us want to protect children from harm and move to do so dozens of times each day.

But I would say it's less harmful to society in general to look at an exhibition of strangely doleful, naked adolescent girls than to buy a Bratz doll for your young daughter.

Let's hope New Zealand politicians don't rush to throw our art onto this particular bandwagon.

Pictured above: Michaelangelo's David - Is the famous statue in danger of becoming the art police's next victim?

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