Perhaps you remember when, two months ago, Australian police shut down an exhibit of artist Bill Henson's work - some of which included photographs topless adolescent girls - claiming the work "lacked artistic merit." As Prime Minister Kevin Rudd put it: "Whatever the artistic view of the merits of that sort of stuff - frankly I don't think there are any - just allow kids to be kids." This month, in response to the controversy, Art Monthly Australia published this picture* of then-6-year-old Olympia Nelson, taken by her mother Polixeni Papapetrou, and yesterday, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd erupted, calling it "disgusting," claiming that it is sexualizing children and exploitative because you can see her nipple. Oh, Christ.
Look, yes, you can see her nipple, yes, she's naked. Is every naked child now a fucking sex symbol because there are a small minority of sick, sick people in the world who view children as objects of sexual gratification? Is telling Olympia (who's now eleven and thinks that Rudd's an offensive jerk) that she's disgusting the right message to send a child (or a nation of children)? Is nudity always sexual? Do we start covering toddlers on the beach, or can we wait until they can talk even if they don't yet have secondary sex characteristics? Are you going to go arrest my parents for the pictures of me in the bathtub?
Of course, this isn't the first time this set of issues has reared its ugly head in the art world. More than a decade ago in the U.S., Jock Sturges had his negatives and camera equipment confiscated by the FBI on the "suspicion" that his art was child pornography (the grand jury threw the charges out), and then Sally Mann's photographs of her children caused quite an uncomfortable stir for her use of nudity (though, as their mother, she never faced any charges). Each time, the photographer was considered wrong or immoral and the kids were, more or less, told that they should be covered up and ashamed of their bodies which were, apparently, sexual only by virtue of their nudity. I guess we haven't really grown up all that much.
People the world over have body issues, and sexual issues and there are indeed sick people in the world who would probably think this was stroke material. I don't think that any of those things are helped by telling children that their bits are "naughty" or best kept out of the light of day — they'll have their entire adolescence to think that (and, for many of them, the entirety of their lives). Is it the best art photograph I've ever seen? No. Do I get what Ms. Papapetrou is trying to do with the art, besides show her daughter as she sees her, as a beautiful and natural creature? Yes, I do, and I think it's interesting. I also think it's sick that Rudd would call it sexualized and disgusting. I see nothing sexual about this picture: a 6-year-old's nipples aren't sexual, and her posture isn't sexual and I am strongly resisting the urge to question the motivations — political or otherwise — of a man who would look at this and see sex.
*(I think it smartly references the Birth of Venus (though the background is painted as a scene from Lewis Carroll), and plays off the idea of a painted background and live model as well the cheeze of childhood portraits and the unselfconscious nudity of a young child without descending into camp.)