Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Art History: Contemporary: Indecency of Children in Fine Art

The following is an academic paper dealing with the subject of censorship. Due to the sensitive nature of the topic, I have omitted the images that were originally included. All images were found using Google image search despite their graphic nature.

Child Pornography is a subject that has become a serious topic of debate in the last thirty years. Before 1977 publications that would be considered pornographic today, were still legal in the United States. Even today, the laws are ever fluctuating and differ wildly internationally. While child pornography is a topic that few would openly defend, there is an ever growing need for stricter laws to quell a growing industry that forever seeks out loop holes. With the laws and definitions regarding what constitutes a lewd image getting ever tighter, there is a very real danger for valid artistic expression. What was once considered a beautiful image of innocence may now be viewed as dangerous and detrimental. Photographers have born the brunt of legal scrutiny as there is concern over the adverse effect such art may have on the
child models. Unfortunately, censorship walks a dangerous line that can step on the toes of personal freedom while trying to protect the innocent. Intent has become the deciding factor for determining whether an image is appropriate or not, but there is
still the ever present problem of deciding where the line should be drawn.

In 1977, child pornography was first made illegal in the United States through the Kildee-Murphy proposal (Wikipedea, Indecent). Currently, in the United States, when concerning child pornography, there is no difference whether the depiction is a photograph or a painting. This is a definition that has flip-flopped considerably in recent years (Laws). Recent legislation has added images that do not use children at all in the production. This is to combat the advent of virtual-pornography (Cisneros). Any image of a child (or adult that is put forth as being a minor) that is engaged in a sexually explicit act or is obscene and does not hold valid artistic or medical merit is considered to be pornography (Laws). When a picture is under question it is evaluated with six criteria:

• whether the focal point of the visual depiction is on the child's genitalia or pubic area
• whether the setting of the visual depiction is sexually suggestive, i.e., in a place or pose generally associated with sexual activity
• whether the child is depicted in an unnatural pose, or in inappropriate attire, considering the age of a child
• whether the child is fully or partially clothed, or nude
• whether the visual depiction suggests sexual coyness or a willingness to engage in sexual activity
• whether the visual depiction is intended or designed to elicit a sexual response in the viewer (Utah v. Morrison)

The criteria are necessarily loose yet comprehensive in order to throw a net over any possibly lewd imagery as needed. But who is to decide whether an image holds artistic merit? In general, it comes down to determining intent, a sort of "I'll know it when I see it" approach.

The laws in this country are maintaining a middle-ground when compared to laws worldwide. The United Kingdom, for instance, defines any indecent depiction of a child as pornography and makes no special requirement for sexual content. Nudity alone can make an image indecent (Wordnet, child). In the world of fine art this is unnecessarily restricting and works such as Bouguereau's Cupidon may never have been created if they had been subjected to such legislation. Most would consider this work to be fine art and not pornographic yet when viewed through the eye of a pedophile, this child is nude and even provocative. If one imagines this same image but with an adult subject, the position and expression can very easily appear coy and seductive rather than full of youthful innocence.

Japan did not outlaw child pornography until 1999 and still does not include anything but actual photographs in its definition. Lolicon publications, which are cartoons of prepubescent girls involved in sexually explicit acts, are perfectly legal and sold openly at newsstands there (Wikipedia, Lolicon). Lolicon and Shotacon (its male equivalent) are currently illegal in the United States but only recently so.

It is the very fact that adult sexuality attempts to approach child-like imagery that children appear sexual when that may not be the intent (Bertin). Innocence and youth have always been sexually appealing and it is therefore not surprising that this appeal has crossed over to include that which adult women are attempting to emulate. If a grown woman dresses up in a school girl uniform to appear younger and more desirable it is not considered abhorrent but a thirteen year old girl in the same outfit has naturally what that woman is attempting to emulate. In addition to this, the idea of the forbidden fruit that is adolescent sexuality is hardly a new or unheard of theme in modern culture. The 1999 film American Beauty, which won the Oscar for Best Picture that year, dealt heavily with the idea of an adult man becoming infatuated with a young girl. It is by this argument that Cupidon's decency can be questioned. Even with this understanding, however, should a borderline image be condemned because a pedophile somewhere might see it and act on an impulse that said image helped to generate? The world would be poorer for the loss of these images.

There is also the question of the difference between paint and film. Would Cupidon have the same meaning if it was a photograph rather than a painting, but otherwise exactly the same? With the use of paint, an image gains some opacity that a photograph does not contain. As a viewer of a painting, you know that you are not looking at a real child and possibly not even a painting of a real child as it is, in most cases, unknown whether the artist used a live model. Even if you are not consciously thinking about this difference when you view the picture, subconsciously you are making a decision whether the image is acceptable or not in part based on this very difference. Gauguin created the Spirit of the Dead is Watching while married to a pre-adolescent in Tahiti. It is evident in the positioning of the figure that it is meant to be subservient if not openly erotic, and the proportions are indicative of a girl nearing puberty. Despite the knowledge that this work was likely to have been created using a live model, and one that was in a sexual relationship with a much older man, it still holds a different level of impact than that of a photograph. For years it was perfectly acceptable for children to be exposed to violence in cartoons because of this same effect. Watching a cartoon cat getting hit by a sledge hammer is funny; watching a film of a cat getting hit by a sledge hammer is horrifying.

Lucian Freud is a contemporary painter that is known to work exclusively from live models. In his painting, Large Interior, Paddington, the subject looks distraught and uncomfortable in her nudity. Considering that Freud intentionally portrayed his subjects emotionally rather than realistically, it is difficult to determine whether this child actually felt anxiety over the conditions she was being subjected to but it is likely that if this painting had been created today rather than the late 60's, it would likely have received negative attention (Hughes).

Many contemporary photographers have been investigated for their use of nude children in their work. Jock Sturges and Sally Mann are two examples, though there are many others. Jock Sturges uses nude children as models and claims to do so in an effort to portray innocence, not sexuality. His subjects are primarily photographed at clothing optional beaches and resorts with the permission of their parents. Sally Mann, another photographer working with children, uses her own children as models and also claims to be depicting innocence rather than eroticism. Both artists have been investigated in regard to the appropriateness of their work and both have been cleared of guilt (Wahmond).

The United States Supreme Court has deemed it unconstitutional to ban an image based solely on the possible interpretation by a person of lewd intent (Rossen). One cannot condemn an image for possibly contributing to the possible abuse of a child at a possible future time by an imaginary criminal. Besides, by that argument, who are we to say that these images aren't preventing a would-be criminal from acting out impulses, perhaps the images are enough to quell the desire to act on a desire to sexually abuse children (Bertin). After this consideration, all that is left is to determine whether there is a danger to the child that has been photographed. If a child has not been posed in a way that is lewd or graphic then it can be truly accepted that the image is made innocently and not intended to elicit a sexual reaction and therefore legal. Conversely, even a picture of a clothed child that is posed in a lewd manner intended to be arousing should be considered pornographic and indecent apart from the presence of nudity.

Even if you take the nudity out of the equation there are still grey areas that come down to intent. Child-supermodel sites are easy to find and are often full of erotically posed preteens. Is an erotically posed child with clothes on better or worse than an innocently posed nude child? Sparkle is a child model whose site has a members-only area with promises of more evocative images than the comparatively innocent picture like the one shown here. Sparkle's site is also the launching pad for other similar sites which contain girls as young as five in positions that leave no room for doubt as to their intent. Though the primary question would be whether these children are being abused, even if they are not they are producing images that are aimed to appeal to the lewd eye of deviants and spawn the debate regarding whether they may somehow encourage pedophiles to abuse other children. This is the same controversy that we see regarding violence in video games. Does the media encourage the action or does the sick mind seek out the media?

To take it a step further, what if we take the child out of the equation? The concern here is not over the banning of sexually explicit photographs or videos but about fine art and virtual art that does not harm children mentally or physically as well as what the definition of "sexually explicit" really is. Computer generated child pornography, like Lolicon, depicts children in sexually compromising positions but does not use children in the production process (Cisneros). If someone creates an image of a child that is either sexually explicit but does not use a real child as a model, or is of a child but is not intended to be sexual, the line of censorship is very hard to define. The whole reason that these laws are in place is to protect children. If child pornography becomes victimless, there may cease to be a reason for it to be illegal. It is frightening that there is even a market for this and it is unfortunate that this far end of the spectrum is causing other pieces with obvious artistic merit to be scrutinized. This is where giving censorship free reign can turn into something very dangerous. Today it may be Lolicon and virtual pornography; tomorrow it may be Cupidon or even other unrelated personal freedoms that we are setting precedent for in the future.

Those that would accept the infringement on their personal rights in exchange for a more conservative stance on child pornography may be giving up more than they know. Since before recorded history, man has connected nudity with sexuality and because of this, found reason to condemn it. Americans may be appalled by the practice in some countries of keeping their women covered from head to toe but this is simply the opposite end of the spectrum from what we have become accustomed to here in the States. The battle over pornography, regardless of age, has been raging for centuries. Although it is unclear who was responsible, (the Dan Brown Theory being popular but unsupported), it is a fact that Vatican art was castrated en masse at some point after the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Michael Angelo's figures were defaced, their genitals covered over with fig leafs. The statuary throughout the city were quite literally castrated with hammer and chisel then repaired with plaster leaves. The probable reasoning was that the nude statues and paintings may have inspired lewd thoughts among the otherwise pious clergy and were therefore defaced. It would appear that at one time this iconoclasm was acceptable, at least for long enough for the deed to be done; all in the name of saving adults from the crudeness of their own thoughts. Let's just hope that no one decides to save us from any more masterpieces. This is merely another example of censorship at its worst and something that we ought to be aware of as a possible outcome to the baby steps we are taking in that direction.

We must be given the right to chose without overshadowing that choice with fear. The laws surrounding child pornography should be restricted to photographs or images of children that are lewd in nature and intent whether clothed or not that used a child in the production of that image. All other images, as repulsive as they may be to some of us, are not harmful to children and therefore the censorship of these images is an infringement on the rights of artists and patrons. This avenue of censorship goes down a dangerous path that can only lead to inhibition and blatant violation of our rights. Art must have boundaries to its definition and it is often difficult to name where these boundaries belong. However, it is never appropriate to confine art due to fear, to define creative expression by turning a blind eye to that which we find distasteful.


Bertin, Joan E. "Pornography Law Goes Too Far." Los Angeles Times. 1997. "Why Defend Child Pornography." Los Angeles Times. 1998. NCAC Resources Online. http://www.ncac.org/media/19971017~USA~Pornography_Law_Goes_too_Far.cfm

"child pornography." WordNet 1.7.1. Princeton University, 2001. Answers.com 14 Dec. 2006. http://www.answers.com/topic/child-pornography-1

Cisneros, Dannielle. "Virtual Child Pornography on the Internet: a Virtual Victim." Duke Law and Tech Rev. 2002. iBrief Media and Communuications. 12 Nov 2006. http://www.law.duke.edu/journals/dltr/articles/2002dltr0019.html.

Eichenwald, Kurt. "With Child Sex Sites on the Run, Nearly Nude Photos Hit the Web." The New York Times. 2006. Lexis-Nexis. 12 Nov 2006. http://0-web.lexis-nexis.com.source.unco.edu/universe/document?_m=clfa7b7a1de54941.

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Hughes, Robert. Lucian Freud Paintings. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1987.

Hutsul, Christopher. "Child Porn Bill Disaster." Toronto Star. 2004. 9 Dec 2006. http://www.thestar.com/NASApp/cs/ContentServer?pagename=thestar/Layout/Article_Type1&c=Article&cid=1078787413058&call_pageid=968867495754&col=969483191630.

"Indecent Pseudo-Photograph of a Child." "Lolicon." "Shotacon." "Nudity in Fine Art." Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia. 2006. 10 Nov 2006. http://en.wikipedia.org.

"Laws Concerning Child Pornography." National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. 2006. Federal and State Law. 8 Nov 2006. http://www.missingkids.com/missingkids/servlet/PageServlet?LanguageCountry=en_US&PageId=1476#4.

Rossen, Benjamin and Schuijer, Jan. "The Trade in Child Pornography." IPT Journal 4.4 (1992). The Institute for Psychological Therapies. http://www.ipt-forensics.com/journal/volume4/j4_2_1.htm.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fantastic article, really well thought through, balanced and objective. I know my art history classes would have been very different if I couldn't study Caravaggio and the many, many artists who've depicted children (representing innocence, temptation, family, discovery or any number of other things).
Thanks for that, a really great read!