Sunday, July 06, 2008

Nude kiddie art critics miss the point

A new furore has erupted over art that uses nude children as the subject. It all began when police confiscated the kiddie porn art produced by Bill Henson. Protesting in favour of freedom of expression, magazine Art Monthly Australia has published a cover of a nude six year old girl (and other nudes kids inside, with supporting articles). The focus of the "debate" is child porn vs art/freedom of expression, as can be seen in this article and most of the comments. For example:
What is this magazine trying to prove? Showing young children naked is 'art'? I would like them to explain the artistic attributes this is displaying. People are being charged having these kinds of pictures on their computers, yet with the word art put next to it its [sic] completely fine. Why does a child need to be naked in the first place? This artist is just trying to get some attention because of the recent media coverage of Bill Henson. If these kinds of photos are being published on [sic] this magazine i [sic] don't want tax payers [sic] money promoting kiddie porn. Posted by: Matthew of Oak Flats 3:55am today
If the issue were this simple I'd be on the side of the artists. First of all, despite my strike through above, the images are obviously not sexual. It's hard to see how it is pornography ("sexually explicit ...material whose primary purpose is to cause sexual arousal") unless all nude images are now considered pornography. Moreover, freedom of expression is one of the cornerstones of democracy, even if the particular expression is crap. As Voltaire is said to have said:
I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
And from the same website I will ironically quote Noam Chomsky:
If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all.
One of the few occasion I agree with Noam. I agree with freedom of expression for people I despise. As such, I'm bound to believe in Noam's right to freedom of expression, as I am for all artists. (I don't despise all artists of course... this guy's okay.)

But what about using minors, who don't necessarily know what is best for them, as nude models? This question doesn't even enter the thoughts of the editor of Art Monthly. Do artists have ethics committees that look at the value of what is being done vs the potential harm to the subject? You need such approval to do science on children - something that usually has a tangible benefit. Is a six year old able to give informed consent for such work? No. Her parents do on her behalf. And again, with science, before it gets to the stage parents can consent on a child's behalf, the protocols of the study have been scrutinised by an ethics committee.

It seems parents can inflict nude modelling on their children without such forethought. No doubt the parent of the nude six year old girl would say, "I didn't coerce her, she wanted to do it". Given mum was the artist, it's not going to be obvious direct coercion. It would be subtle and unconscious, but coercion nonetheless.

For the sake of argument, I'll assume the girl really did want to do it. Let's say she wandered into the studio one day and said, "Mummy, I want you to paint me in the nude". So what? It still doesn't make it right. Here's the thing about a six year old girl, she doesn't always know what's best for herself. Hence compulsory education, hence the struggle getting her to eat all her vegetables, hence the battle to get her to brush her teeth... you get the point.

Adults, especially parents, need to make decisions in the best interests of children. This is easier said than done. This rule of thumb can be applied to help. Is undertaking the activity under consideration of obvious benefit? For example, is it reasonable to immunise children? Yes. There is overwhelming evidence it works and as such adults in possession of all the facts advocate immunisation. Is it okay to convince your six year old, nude modelling is okay? No. There is no tangible evidence nude modelling is beneficial (I admit this is an assumption), besides making a career out of it (but I don't think it's reasonable to lock a six year old into any career).

Another rule of thumb is, would a reasonable person in possession of all the facts (observable, evidence based consequences) undertake the activity under consideration? Again, is it reasonable to immunise children? Yes. Adults in possession of all the facts tend to advocate immunisation. Is it okay to convince your six year old nude modelling if okay? No. Most adults in possession of the facts do not nude model.

I'm happy for adults to not get themselves immunised. They can model in the nude if they wish. What I'm not happy about is adults assuming the default position is they can inflict their own beliefs on children, do whatever they want with their children, unless someone can show it's bad. The default should be to stick with social norms unless you can show the social norms are bad, or what you want to do (that goes against the social norms) is of benefit. I.e., the Burden of Proof is on those breaking away from the social norms. If you are right, this should be a relatively easy argument to win (that doesn't mean it's easy to change people's minds however). The change in the use of male pronouns in the English language is a case in point.

I'll end this post with this rhetorical question: cui bono? It's clearly not the six year old girl. It's her mother who initially took advantage of her in the name of her art. It's Art Monthly Australia's editor, who has continued to take advantage of the girl under a misguided defence of freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is not the same a freedom to take advantage of children.