Child pornography and the artist…the new puritanism

The New South Wales government is considering laws that could severely inhibit and restrict artists working with children. Story here.

Surely laws already exist covering the production of child pornography? To give  government and/or police the right to be the arbiter of artistic standards is an act of repression that defies common sense and would undoubtedly ensure severe restrictions on freedom of expression.

The story in the Sydney Morning Herald quotes NSW Council for Civil Liberties president Cameron Murphy, who said that removing the artistic merit defence would infringe on genuine artistic endeavour. Mr Murphy said: ”The problem is getting sensible policy in this area, which is compounded by people becoming emotional to the point of being irrational.”

A lot of the hysteria over the photography of Bill Henson derives from the very ignorance of the kind of people who would be making judgement on the work of similar artists. Are they aware that Edward Weston’s lovingly explicit nude photographs of his son Neil are available in any bookstore in Australia that stocks good photography books? You can view these pictures here, (WARNING: they are of male child nudity).

Weston’s work has always had a sensual quality about it but pornography is in the eye/mind of the beholder. There is a specific instance I know of where a woman cancelled her subscription to a British fine art photography magazine because in her view they had published pornography. This picture was also by Edward Weston. This was the photograph:

Nautilus Shell 1927 by Edward Weston

Weston himself, in his published journals, mentions that people’s response to this picture often referred to its sexual nature, yet he has stated that at the time of making the picture sex was the furthest thing from his mind. Even if there is some subliminal Freudian connection, the reality is that this is a photograph of a sea-shell…and nothing more. Any other interpretation is purely in the mind of the veiwer. (As an aside: In 1968 I talked with his son Cole about buying a print of this picture. He wanted $US60. Cole told me he was coming to London and would bring with him a print. He never turned up. I wish I had pursued it further. A vintage print of this photograph sold at auction for $US1,105,000 in 2007).

Could you too fall victim to the new puritanism? It’s possible. About eight years ago I took this photograph of my daughter in the bath. She was about four years old at the time. It hangs framed in our hall:

Cassie bathing

Parental love, her innocent poise and the ethereal beauty of her long hair drifting around her in the bath water, were what moved me. It was a moment I treasure and a picture that I think transcends the mundanity of the family snapshot. I am certain that in that instant my motivation was no different from that of Weston when he photographed his son.

I think we need to beware this dangerous retrogade slide into artistic repression. Governments should never be taken at their word.

May I remind you of the words of Hermann Goering, “…it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.” Substitute “artists” for “pacifists”. The meaning is the same…

“We should remember that an important index of social freedom, in earlier times or in repressive regimes elsewhere in the world, is how artists and art are treated by the state.”

Actor Cate Blanchett, Nobel prize winning author Jan Coetzee, Museum of Contemporary Art director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor and eminent Tasmanian economist Saul Eslake  in a letter to the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Minister for the Arts, Peter Garrett, May 2008.

In his essay “On Indignation” published By Melbourne University Press 2008, that wonderfully lucid Australian author, Don Watson wrote:

“…if some decent people get indignant about pictures of naked children in works of art while others just as decent don’t, is that because the second group are less decent in the matter of  children or because the first group are? Are the second lot simply insensible to the moral danger the first lot see, or are the first lot compensating for disturbing feelings the pictures disturb in them?

I would number myself among those people who don’t feel indignant about it, while conceding that they are not in every case morally vigilant or as strict with themselves as they should be. They do not feel themselves threatened by pictures of naked children, they do not feel their children are threatened  by them and, perhaps because a bit of nakedness really never hurt anybody, they do not feel that the child in the photograph is threatened. It might be for these reasons that the matter does not spark indignation; it might be because they feel indignant about too much else, or because stupidity or cultural theory have left them without the capacity to feel indignant about anything; or it might be that they have an aversion to particular kinds of moral indignation–especially the kind which cannot co-exist with ambiguity; a sense of humour, or any other sense that might grant us tolerance and self-awareness. There is always a sense with the morally indignant that their real aim is to console themselves.”

Don Watson, On Indignation MUP 2008.


Filed under art, Australian, Opinion, Photographer, Photographers' rights, Photography, portraits, Rob Walls

11 responses to “Child pornography and the artist…the new puritanism

  1. Theo. Bennett

    Surely this is too important an issue to simply accept regardless
    of implied consequence?

    Does not Freedom of Speech, Freedom of the Press – two of the
    basic principles of our democracy – deserve real and widespread
    community debate?

    Dare we again leave it all to the Godwin Gretchs and Family Firsts and
    the Pauline Hansens and those who just “don’t like it”?

    Does the issue not deserve something better?

    Can we not seek proper definitions of all the emotive terms that are
    being bandied among the hysteria?

    For example, perhaps we might first define “pornography”.

    What precisely do we mean?

    That is, what is the collective cognisant consciousness that recognises “pornography”?

    It’s clouded, murky.

    The present issue is an emotive, shallow, sometimes extremist and part politico-feminist led PC one that goes back to the Richard Neville days in Oz and to Aristophanes in Athens, de Sade in France, and was so supportively consolidated by the mass of Gucci suited clock collectors by former PM Paul Keating.

    I’m waiting for the fundamental revisionsts in Victoria
    to set the standard by reviving Oscar Wilde, Norman
    Lindsay, DH Lawrence, Pauline Reggae and Mme “Just Jaekin” Not to forget noted Aussie painter Charles Blackwell.

    It’s a theme being stirred by the popular and pseudo-academic sociology movements, sometimes wrongly perceived as “only” fundamentalist religious, Christian and Moslem. But the corrosive bile has been regurgitated by others you’d think less likely, such as supporters of the forthcoming Atheist congress in Melbourne.

    Have these “movements” along with the trendy anti-art covens replaced the Annie Bessant and Bishop Leadbetter cult of Theosophy and occultism of a century ago. The spiritualist and séance movement that helped elevate Hitler’s ‘Thud’ Reich, and the omnipresent, German and Japanese notion of racial supremacy and world domination?

    We know what an efficient witch-hunt, book burning, censorship that cultural cannibal coalition was… And remains still on analysis.

    Is the bottom line, to coin something anal, that ‘pornography’, whatever it’s definition might be whatever is a political forum electoral power base vote-winner, according to the current popular Oz Media base baron and velvet-arsed “socialist” school of social hypocrisy?

    An enlightened observer from, say Uppsala or Amsterdam might reasonably expect that a “Liberal” Part would support freedom of speech and the Press in Australia.

    How wrong would they be?

    Our Lib-CP Coalesce Opposition has so far been anything but “liberal”, while the ALP has become since Curtin’s era a progressively situational and opportunistic union
    management jobs for the union management establishment of literal Balmain bovver boys and Glebe Point Road trendies from ‘Bad Manors’.

    As for the ALP… What’s the diff?

    It would seem that our moral philosophy and ethical standards have slipped darkly back in Oz to the lower levels of Mammon based value judgments based solely on acquired wealth. It matters not how that wealth was acquired. Only that there are apparent and visible signs of wealth.

    And so, money is power.

    Even in the ALP.

    What would John O’Brien and Henry Lawson have said?

    And how then would Jack London have written about us this new Century had he again paid visit?

    Does the electorate in Oz show it’s shallowness when it levitates our current Prime Monster and his Mrs Prime Monster in public and media perception by the criteria of diplomatic babble and double-speak ambiguity, and money wealth?

    Pick up a copy of the once good and honest Oz
    Women’s Weekly from any supermarket mag stand and see.
    Watch the mindless tabloid TV “current affairs” theatre nightly for autistic attention span proof.

    Look at the advertisement and corporate media statements placings against sub-editorial design for further evidence.

    But wait, there’s more.

    Former and earnest leaders of integrity like John Curtin, in their pre WW2 days had implied in a post Lasseter-CAGE era when Labour was under scrutiny that “war” was an example of social pornography. Curtin, although
    a man who respected the fine side of Japanese culture, and who had close friendship with a few intelligent Japanese, Curtin had been appalled both as a pacifist and a chronicler, that Japan would commit genocide
    in such evil and vast proportion while on its march to world domination through Korea and China.

    Yet when Ming had lost the pig iron plot, Curtin took up the Theodore Roosevelt big stick and led a dinkum defence of Oz. Something some Anglophiles still bristle over.

    Not people like the late John Mortimer of the Old Bailey, of course.

    Now surely it would be a boon if a born-again Mortimer and a Geoffrey Robinson were to emerge with a Lazarus Lennie Lower, a dinkum Henry Lawson, a Robert Mapplethorpe, alongside a campaigning up-the-silent-fart-church nose Lindsay family?

    Or has the die been cast? Do we just lie down, laissez-faire, and give in?

    I mean, was Bleating Keating right and so very prescient when he gave so much of our tax payer dollars to the continuing Wimmins and gay rights groups that
    are now ironically endorsing censorship, a return to the dark days of Oz, while waging war on so-called “pornography” in art?

    Mindless social pressure minority groups, along with the trendy cash-based New Age Christians and the crazed fundamentalist stone-everyone Moslems want blanket censorship, to be judged, it seems, in situ by the local plods, so that their notion of “pornography” can be banned for its perceived-within their narrow viewpoint “obscenity”.

    They base their “argument” on a premise that “pornography – art pornography? – is having a corrupting impact, a corrosion of “traditional family values”.

    Sure, some of us more rational might posture and pout and protest anecdotal evidence to the contrary. But anecdotal evidence just doesn’t stack up.

    Those thinking journalists still able to work for a living in Oz must be aware of this.

    And yet, as that exemplary journo Dr Paul Kelly has pointed out, we need dinkum Public Policy analysis, and this is not something taught at our college of knowledge journalism degree courses, not is it encouraged by the mass mainstream media.

    There’s hope fir a better understanding by our foggy politicians and legislators with the establishment of the Public Policy unit at the Australian Catholic University’s Signa Dou campus, following that detailed report by the Jesuit and lawyer, Prof Frank Brennan.

    Of course, this blog is a platform of free speech.

    And this is a good thing.

    Rob Walls is to be commended for having established his blog.

    But the Internet alone is not the entire answer.

    The ‘Net is, as always, unaccountable and has served elsewhere, in other blogs, more than any other medium to fuel the fundamentalist flames with disinformation and unqualified mistruth.

    Is it the fault of Feminism that we appear to be rushing back to the Dark Ages with this unwise move toward censorship.

    Not really.

    Although the Feminist movement itself must in part bear part of the responsibility.

    We laid down, accepted, encouraged the Feminist movement in the 80s as a temporary affirmative action leg-up.

    It wasn’t, and it isn’t.

    Temporary, that is.

    That fast-track expedient has been part of the root cause of the problem we now have of untenable State interference in the right of free speech and literary learning and artistic expression.

    The Feminist lobby was essentially a good thing. It was part of the Affirmative Action that opened civilised light on the old shady prejudices and gave proper freedoms to more Australians.

    Yet, there are those within the same groups who are now acting so socially destructive, while continuing to give mere but very expensive lip-service to gratify part of the female vote force and its sometimes insipidly obsequious pale male metrosexual mates

    It’s a debate that feminist groups promoted by taxpayer funded offices and subsidised professional workers have devalued layers of our university undergrad courses, the national broadcaster, our universities, the bureaucracy, and for a time a branch of the Defence Forces.

    Uttering such a blasphemy will doubtless provoke cries of “Shame!” and “Misogynist!” from some.

    Yet, not by the eminent psych and social commentator Dr
    who has included a devaluation of Australian manhood generally within the family sphere, in turn degrading family values in Australia in real terms.

    It’s another irony that the feminist groups have now joined forces with what surely should have been their traditional enemies, the Lib-Nat and ALP ultra conservatives as they aggressively pursue this action against legitimate art, inclusive with all “pornography” because it “may cause harm” to women and children?

    There’s no argument that could justify anything that may harm or does harm anyone, no matter what gender or age.

    Yet can it be logically argued that a “may” is a “does”, that a
    possible is a positive? Classical Socratic and Loyolan argument would prove that an “ought” or a “should” or a “might” can never be an “is”.

    But of course society at the time so aggressively reacted to logic it could not, would not, understand that it destroyed Socrates and tried to silence Pierre Teillhard.

    Yet, nowhere have I read, found, heard, on analysis any examination and conclusion about “immorality” of “obscenity” according to sexually explicit content.

    And would not this be quintessentially the heart of the current issue?

    We’ve yet to hear from Abbot and Hunt, but so far it’s an added irony that the Conservative Libs seem to have turned about face and allied themselves with the Feminist and Fringe Rights movements, both of which are calling for

    On their own terms, of course.

    What now can we expect from the Sydney Gar and Lesbian Mardi Gras organisers ? Or the trendy World Atheist Congress in Melbourne next March?

    Or is it all just a blatant, mindless “no brainer”, simple matter of “blame all the academics”, “blame all the artists”, “blame all the professional photographers and journalists”, “blame all the Christians”…? Feed them to the lions?



    For the sake of our culture, our society, our democratic progression, our future, our morality, our children, let us first debate this issue openly and honestly with intellectual fortitude and articulate reason.

    – Theo. Bennett

  2. Rob

    Beautiful photograph of your daughter! I don’t know what we do about that other stuff…..In NSW the Talk Jocks still rule. Probably to do with an historical convict attachment to having morals and ethics imposed from a higher authority!

    • Thank you David…you could be right…though I don’t think morals and ethics were a pre-occupation of the convict class…and probably only a hypocritical concern to their rulers; a way of exercising power. That the hypocrisy still rules surprises me. All one can do is challenge it whenever it raises its head.

  3. Irene Walls

    Yes its pure hypocrisy, people that object to beautiful sensuous art have dirty minds. love your daughters photo .

  4. Some people believe child nudity is pornography, so it is of utmost importance that we as a society define what pornography is.

    More and more ridiculous laws are being introduced that erode our liberties and that is something we should be greatly concerned about. We cannot allow this to happen as it would severely affect the freedom of future generations of Australians.

    Roel Loopers

  5. Roel, I made a comment on this blog entry which was also published over on Tasmanian Times to one commentator who took that tack, “why can’t we just let kids be kids…these sort of photos should be kept in the privacy of the family album.”

    This in part was my reply:

    ‘For me, to “let kids be kids” includes documenting every aspect of their life, as it moves me. My vocation is that of photographer (perhaps occasionally an artist…but that is for others to judge). Hiding such pictures away in an album would indicate that there is something shameful in the making of such photographs. I don’t see it that way.

    As for nude pictures of children in photo albums: there was a time when nude pictures of children in every family album was obligatory; to be dragged out when they were older, to embarrass them in front of their friends. In the present climate of puritanism, I believe these pictures are no longer being made. Even parents fear to point a camera at a naked child in case the intention is misinterpreted…’

    • Los

      Puritanism?? What planet are you living on? There is absolutely not a puritanical climate on earth these days at all! With liars tauting global warming your scientists have become prostitutes, with an illegal alien usurping our white house, your politicians and form of governance is become adulterated -bastardized to a place of CONTROL!! Control is not remotely near puritanical! That observation on your part first as an artist is skewed, flawed and from one artist to another perhaps deliberately but definitely poorly defined. While the love of a parent far exceeds a sick desire or lust toward their kids vis a vis pornographic – your compass defining morality is totally screwed up. This makes you impotent as an artist because your job is to define culture based in truth – Not lies. Should you position yourself in that arena this places you in no different a realm as either – the moral pornographer or the socialist politician
      Both are diseased and unamerican. Can you imagine this topic in the 1950’s ? No because we were great – Now? Liberals who cling to their flawed socialist ideals thinking that it will be different. Your intention is misinterpreted and that means your art has an edge that can be abused and misunderstood — therefor it is not meant for consumption of the masses. Dont show me any art that I can in turn twist and turn it against my country our core values and beliefs. Consider your children growing up in a socialist statist environment -are you going to photograph them undr those conditions ? NOT! Because you can only do so in a free nation.
      The only thing obligatory these days is to expose our failed politicians, failed and flawed socialist progressive destructive and disgusting rhetoric.
      I will not be controlled nor be defined as anything I am not – but our job as artists still exists — expose the emperor with no clothes!

      • What planet are you living on Carlos that you assume that things you don’t agree with are “Un-American”? There are others in this world than Americans you know…. and though I am an admirer of many American values, I reserve the right to disagree with the imposition of the views of the jingoistic, lunatic right wing that believes to be American is to be born to rule.

      • Los

        It doesnt seem to be me who feels “born to rule.” More accurately entitled to rule. And neither do I recall “imposing” anything upon you. I have a great Art Education and happen to agree with my mentors definitions of the role of the artist in America.
        Please, disagree with me all you like – its your right but if you have problems with American values get a one way ticket to China or other picture post card Communist nation — You seem to argue for child porn — I am a figure painter and photographer for 35 years – I know great photography when I see it. Whether young or old, fine photography has qualities that transcend lust OR opinions. So as for the planet I live on – It is earth and if you disagree with me good. I hope that you feel better. I think that I am going live in spite of that.

  6. Los

    Tell you the truth this is not all that well composed of an image regardless of the subject — IT is not pornography but the position that the author of this article takes “right wing” and “mindless” as he addresses Christians is also uninformed — Both the image of Cassie and the personal values of Christians are personal — Why the hell is Cassie on the internet? It really is not that terrific of a photo -in fact compared to most kid in the bath tub or child in the bubble bath photos this one rates a 1 on a 0 to 10 – ten being the best chart.
    Its boring. Child porno while I have never really seen any is truly a subject that you have to pay attention to — Do you want your kid raped or influenced as to not only take photos but perform sex acts as a child? If this gets you off mr Author, you best not be a parent and you are sick.
    When I am Christian or not Christian is not the issue – You do not force nor control others to do what you want knowing that your acts and conduct are illegal and unlawful. It s about legal and illegal — not about Christian or non-Christian. Your argument is weak, one sided and ridiculous — I am a artist photographer — there are things people just DO NOT DO —Due to the fact that a young person would be manipulated into the position of taking off their clothing OR also having sex which is wrong means Child porno is one of these things people just DO NOT DO. Especially artists.

  7. Carlos, your muddled rants are barely worth responding to. Nowhere did I mentioned Christians or Christianity…and if you have to ask why this picture of my daughter is there, you obviously haven’t read what I wrote…or if you have, you haven’t the intellectual capacity to understand it.

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