Tuesday, March 09, 2004


here we go again.
an exhibition of photographs by the American artist Betsy Schneider has been closed pending police investigations into complaints from members of the public that it contains obscene images of a child. (story here.)
the child in question is the artist's five-year-old daughter, whom she photographed, naked, at three periods of her life - at nine weeks, at two years, and at five years.
what a moral minefield, this business of children and innocence!
this is the question: how do I feel, as a parent, about someone acquiring pictures of my children and wanking to them?
short answer: disgust.
longer answer: provided that they never come into physical contact with my children (at which point they forfeit their balls) - disgust tinged with reluctant compassion. growing up is hard - for some people more than for others. there are a few who make a terrible mess of it, and that mess is a life sentence.
a question of my own: what is the difference between the way the moral guardian gazes upon his or her beloved's lovely body and the way that gaze is directed upon another human being?
short (sarcastic) answer: the former, safely sanctioned by law and (most probably) God, is good, whereas the latter is bad.
longer (bombastic) answer: hypocrisy being the modus vivendi of the moral guardians of this earth, the specious absolutism of the authorial voice that purports to represent goodness and decency can only ever be repudiated with an equivalent specious absolutism: the moral guardian is always - always - concealing a secret agenda predicated on guilt (at their own perceived badnesses), shame (at their perceived weakness in failing to curb those badnesses), envy (of those whom they perceive to be able to live without the burden of either guilt or shame at their obvious badnesses), and hatred (because they seem to be able to get away with it).
some bad behaviour is so bad that it needs to be stopped.
some bad behaviour is so sad that it needs to be ignored.
sad-bad doesn't necessarily lead to bad-bad, but there are times when it needs to be monitored, for everyone's sake.
so - back to the children.
all parents love their children's bodies - the sight, the smell, the touch, the taste of them - they're just the most delicious thing in the world.
question: what is the difference between the way a parent gazes upon his or her child's naked body and the way that same person gazes upon someone else's child's naked body?
short answer: sheer pride. mine are soooooooo much more beautiful!
longer answer: it depends. it always depends. if, for example, we're at the beach with some friends with kids of the same age, then that represents a safe social arena in which everyone can gaze with equal delight at each other's kids gorgeous bodies. if, on the other hand, I (a male) am having a bath in those same friends' house and their naked child (female) walks in, I need to be fairly confident that my friends are really my friends before letting her climb into the bath with me, and, actually, I'd rather someone else were there, please.
one of the things we know, we parents, that we keep secret from the rest of the world, is that kids start playing with themselves almost as soon as they are able to get a hold of the bits that feel good to play with. personally, I confess I was a bit surprised at my first experience of a boy's baby-boner, springing perkily to erection as I rubbed in the sudocrem and manoeuvred him into a new nappy, but there it is - arousal happens in the cradle (and continues, hopefully, to the grave).
question (to the moral guardians who have kids): did you choose to ignore this? did you try to discourage it? is a baby's erection 'innocent'? is this the start of badness? sorry, am I embarassing you?
I ditched my Penguin Freud a long time ago (sad old perv, really, I've come to believe - thanks for the unconscious, though), but, if I were psychoanalytically inclined, I'd lay odds that the way our parents reacted to those primitive crypto-sexual manifestations was a major - perhaps the major determinant in the subsequent formulation of our own individual sexual attitudes. I can think as shameless as I please, but my conditioning won't allow it, not really, not where it counts.
step forward (drum-roll) Fine Art.
where angels fear to tread - there needs must Art dig and delve and burrow and probe until it undermines these monumental constructions of hypocritical denial.
historically, the incorporation of children into mainstream western art images has been as avatars of innocence - from the cheeky putti of the baroque to the tender portraiture of Mary Cassat via the sugary confections of the like of Bouguereau et al.
there have been a few, bolder artists - like Caravaggio and the pre-Raphaelites - who have dared to suggest otherwise, but, by and large, child-imagery has never been much elevated beyond the kitsch.
the rise of photography - and the internet - has vastly accelerated the modification of that image (of passive innocence) into something much more complex, and considerably more disturbing. the free market of web-surfing exposed an appetite that has probably always been present, but has forever been unadmitted and inadmissible (except to the very wealthy, of course - but wasn't it ever thus?). reaction to the first surge of that fearful wave of un-dammed prurience was a moral panic-attack and desperate scrabble to screw the dam-doors back shut: a poor and hopelessly belated effort resulting only in an ongoing paranoia about images of children per se that reflects very poorly indeed on our capacity, as a society, to discriminate between what does and doesn't matter in terms of our gradually easing our collective children into their own sexual mantles.

Sally Mann - Shiva at Whistle Creek, 1992

it's hardly a surprise to discover that Betsy Schneider worked for two years as assistant to the one photographic artist who dared more than most to challenge the comfortable assumptions - Sally Mann's own conflicts with the moral guardians over the depictions of her own children's development are infamous. I happen to believe that Sally Mann is an artist whereas someone like David Hamilton is not, nor ever has been, and that Jock Sturges occupies a grey hinterland that operates by a set of rules peculiar to the fine art world, but that none of these photographers is really bad in the moral guardian sense. if someone wants to pay $2,600 for a typical Jock Sturges photograph that has been taken with the complete agreement both of the model and her parents, then where's the harm?
from the little I've seen of Schneider's work, I don't think very much of it as art; to record a child's development by taking a regular photograph in the same place over a period of time works like any time-lapse study - it's fascinating, but hardly revealing of anything more profound or interesting than that children grow. period. to prevent her from exhibiting that work, however, on the grounds that, in the fastidious phraseology of the English law she's fallen foul of, it's 'liable to deprave and corrupt', is just so not grownup as to be puerile - in the really obvious sense.

further reading:
nerve magazine interview with Sally Mann.
a magnificently sane and academically impeccable summary of this very challenging subject by Elisabeth Stoney of the University of Melbourne.
an equally important, and very helpfully annotated paper arguing that the work of Jock Sturges is a little less innocent than he protests by Ashley Whamond of the University of Newcastle.

No comments: