Child protection sacrificed in the name of 'art'

Joanna Aniel Bidar

A naked image of Hollywood actress Brooke Shields taken in 1978 when she was 10 years old was recently displayed at Tate Modern, Britain's national museum of international modern art. It sparked an impassioned debate over its artistic content and morality.

The photograph has been condemned by religious groups for its “pornographic nature”, indecency and disgrace. Outraged parents stated that their taxes were being used to fund a gallery that has reflected “perversion”, while artists sited the value of beauty in their portrayal of ‘reality’ as it stands.

No doubt what made the image provocative is its disconcerting setting: the display of innocence due to Shields young, delicate features overridden by the nature of her staged posture in an intimate bathtub, displaying sexual attitude. The photograph is perceived as an object of sexual gratification.

Michele Elliot, outspoken children’s campaigner and head of Kidscape, rigorously stated that using a picture of a naked child to bring people to an exhibition is exploitation of that child. 

Elliot acknowledged that photos of children naked are beautiful when, for example, a child is playing in the garden and the parents take a photo of their child to remember that time- not for gain or publication on the internet so strangers can view it.

She said: “The parent has often seen the child naked so this is not unusual.  I am extremely sceptical about 'artists' using pictures of naked children, especially in sexual poses.  They do this to gain publicity as it displays absolutely no talent - just exploitation for their own gain without any regard to the child.”

According to Elliot, displaying Brooke’s image has a consequence on morality and society. “The consequence for society”, she said, “is to desensitise everyone to the abuse of children - those who abuse children point to these 'artistic' sexual representations as proof that children 'want sex' and are sexual.  Of course children are sexual but in their own developmental time.”

Elliot finds it scandalous that artists are forcing images of children into an adult sexual mode that is false and imposed.  She believes that a society that allows this or even condones it has lost the ability to protect its most vulnerable citizens and its moral compass.

Helen Thornham, a City University Sociology lecturer, prefers to view the whole case through a distinctive lens.  “Historically,” she said, “concepts of childhood and measurements we use to validate childhood indicate that it is much more than an age. It is an economic, social and cultural construct.”

Thornham offered a different way of understanding what child abuse is and what abuse actually means. She explained that when we look at child abuse in relation to the construction of children, we see that it concerns power relations more than anything about childhood.

“The issue is about power over another body – and whether we talk about child abuse, domestic abuse or abuse of the elderly, each time we talk about it, we construct the abused as a victim, drawing on specific ideologies to do that – gender, childhood, infirmity.”

Thornham points out that issues regarding abuse are inevitable. She said:  “The act of beating children has always been around – and I’m certainly not condoning it – but the naming of it as abuse and, more specifically ‘child abuse’ carries certain connotations  which work to evoke precisely the ideology of childhood currently on offer to us – innocence, a victim, fragile.
“It is precisely these myths – these ideologies – of childhood that much art works to critique in their evocation of a sexualised child or a child with agency per se.”

Maureen Freely, lecturer at Warwick University, compares the case now to the 70’s and said she found that attitudes to Brooke Shield’s image have not changed.

She said: “In the seventies, the poles of the argument were different.  On one side were the Mary Whitehouse people, arguing for a return to strict tradition.  On the other were those who viewed that sort of repression as dangerous to individuals, families and society.” 

“The first group was up in arms about Brooke Shield being in the film Pretty Baby, while the other side thought of it as open, honest, artistic, etc.  The language of liberation was in ascendance that blinded people to the question of exploitation.”

Many find it essential to defend freedom of expression and the necessity for public debate on what constitutes art, but to introduce a child into a culture of consumerism and public hedonism sparks a whole new discussion on what acts in a definite context breach child protection. However, artists are not above the law regarding child protection and what enables these laws to be contravened is their elusiveness.

The Obscene Publication Acts of 1959 and 1964 states: “Under the Act, it is a criminal offence to publish any article whose effect, taken as a whole, is such, in the view of the court, to tend to “deprave and corrupt” those likely to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it.”

Due to its exacerbating procedure, the process of prosecution which renders a case an ‘offence’ makes prosecution difficult to attain.

Whether the photo of Brooke shields is considered pornographic and a magnet to paedophiles is a grey area which the law does not clarify. 

Daisy Mallabar, press officer at Tate Modern, said: “The police advised that the work was ‘indecent’ under the Protection of Children Act 1978 and that they considered Tate had committed an offence under that Act. They advised that if the work was not taken down and if the catalogue was not removed from sale a prosecution would be likely.”

The public and organisations wail at a photograph and a blink away acclaimed film director Roman Polanski is facing extradition to the US for raping a minor after 32 years. The social context we live in today with the scandalous cases of child abuse raises questions on whether it is ever justifiable to take pictures of a naked child. The horrific case of paedophile nursery worker and mother of two Vanessa George, caused much public uproar.

Meanwhile artist and writer, Graham Ovenden, 67, was found with indecent pictures of children on his PC which he claimed were intended to be used for an art work.

So I ask myself, is it really necessary or morally right to display an image of a naked child, as in the case of Brooke Shields, who does not, at such a young age, possess the ability to state her opinion regarding the display of her body publically? While some choose to call it art, as a new revolution of sexual expression and emancipation, many see it as a damaging part of the culture of consumerism for capital gain.