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The ethics of 'kidsploitation'


Art Mothly cover (cropped) Children's rights are never simple and always subject to impassioned debate. We have just had such a debate about artistic integrity, and whether populist reactions to nude photographs of children are simply prurience or prudishness disguising the horned censor.

The editor of Arts Monthly has just hanged himself in an extension of that debate, using his own perceived artistic licence.

Of course, art has its special place and must be free. Ads, on the other hand, which involve not art but money and status, should not. Children shouldn't pay for either place.

The owners of the NSW gallery hosting the Bill Henson exhibition last month were either looking for publicity or, more likely, naïve, by placing these images not only on the exhibition invitation, but online as well. This took Henson's photographs out of (artistic) context and put them before people they might well disturb and provoke.

No one wants to go back to the bad old days of discretionary censorship by prudish police. Yet that is how the original argument ran: is it art, or is it obscene, and if so should someone be prosecuted? The natural reaction is no, and as a result nobody conceptualised this as a child protection issue. But beneath the rhetoric of artistic integrity and presumed wowserim, that's what it was.

Despite the dropping of the investigation, the arts community's umbrella body voluntarily undertook to develop its own protocols for artists' use and representation of immature child models — that is, of children who are probably unable to make consistently reliable decisions to protect themselves from exploitation.

This fluctuating competency is the only modern reason for lifting the age of consent to sexual relations from the Common Law age of ten to 16, while the age of full adult competence remains 18. Modern children may be more knowing but yet unwise, which is why our law makes youth a reason for both extra protection and more adult responsibility in dependency relationships. Parents continue to be foolish, sometimes, too.

Once police decided that the Henson photographs were not 'obscene', this issue of child protection still breathed within a small party of co-authors of a letter, of which I was one, who maintained that the real issue was not pornography or paedophilia, but the lack of ethical integrity in exploiting children for adult purposes.

Then the editor of Arts Monthly shot down the arts community's smart and timely move to self-regulate. Last week his magazine decided to poke the beehive by featuring on its front cover a nude photo of an artfully posed six-year-old girl, accompanied by a poorly-written essay 'against censorship' inside the magazine.

When the public and child protection activists swarmed back into the air, the child herself, now 11, was paraded in front of reporters, there to protest on behalf of the editor's political campaign, that she had not been abused. If not by the photo, or by its decontextualised exposure, then surely by her being put in that position.

We have to do more than posture. Ethics is a process, not a position taken in the 'art/freedom of expression versus pornography' court battles of the sixties. Do Henson and Art Monthly's tactless editor seriously expect that the argument that there is no ethical issue affecting art — no issue about the exploitation of artists' models, particularly those who are required to shed their anonymity along with their clothes — to be taken seriously?

These objects of artistic attention are not objects, lumps of wood, nor passive participants. A model contributes to the artist's work. There are relationships to be considered. Where the model is a child, she is or he is legally and morally vulnerable, which imposes a far greater moral obligation on the stronger person in the relationship.

Parents are expected to put best interests first. Artists, on their own argument, put the art first.

There are no rules about how children are informed or assent let alone consent to their use now or in the future in artistic works. There is quite frankly no real possibility that a child of six could know how their image taken by mummy might in future be used to tantalise, politicise, tease or simply titillate others in years to come.

It is any adult's responsibility to protect, without conflict of interest, the rights of a child. Parents have the first privilege to protect their best interests, including the right to protect their child from exploitation. That does not relieve artists and the child's community from responding if the parent gets it wrong.

Though society may well value art for art's sake, works of art, publicly exhibited and offered for sale, have become articles of trade. They are compromised. The market has no morality.

If, as the absurdist playwright Jean Anouilh said, art's purpose was to give life a shape, then unless we find a way to address our ethical responsibilities perhaps the various kinds of trade in sexualised children and their images will be the enduring legacy of this 21st century.

Moira RaynerMoira Rayner is a barrister and writer. She is a former Equal Opportunity and HREOC Commissioner. She is principal of Moira Rayner and Associates.

Topic tags: Moira Rayner, billhenson, hetty johnson, O’Riordan, art monthly, nude six-year-old, child pornography



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Existing comments

I could not agree more. Thank you for a beautifully written piece that places the debate in the correct context.

Winsome Thomas | 10 July 2008  

Thanks Moira for a sensible wake up call on this issue. There is a very good lead letter in this morning's Sydney Morning Herald by Melinda Tankard Reist situating the cover of Art Monthly in the context of the magazine's content. The letter is aptly titled "You say dignity, I say torture porn - and ne'er the twain shall meet"

Frank Brennan SJ | 10 July 2008  

Thanks for this perspective Moira.

Ian Grice | 10 July 2008  

Thank you, Moira, for addressing the ethics of the situation in a reasoned way. I dread to think how the child might react as an adult when she realises she was 'used' as a child.
When the parents do get it wrong as you say it is for the rest of the community to say so.

Heather Weedon | 10 July 2008  

Finally the most important issue is addressed, that of the need to protect a child whether six or 13 years old from a situation they cannot possibly understand all the ramifications of, thereby making them unable to give informed consent. Thank you Moira Rayner.

Phiz Cogswell | 10 July 2008  

Thank you for this article, which clarifies an important debate, and re-contextualises the hoo-haa we have recently been subjected to. Pornography is not really the issue here - it's ethics and parental responsibility for acting in 'the best interests of the child'. Watching the 11 year old say it was all fine, was painful, really. Thank you Moira...

Katherine Rechtman | 10 July 2008  

Moira, you make the most cogent argument about this issue I have read. I am doing my Phd on the European avant-garde and understand in that context the motivation for the unfortunate exploitation of this child by the Art Monthly editors.

The image, like Henson’s, is not pornographic. It is about causing shock and soliciting indignation from an obliging public, with the intention of promoting a niche product and expanding its market. We buy the magazine but the victim pays for it.

The avant-garde used shock tactics and cried freedom from academic censure, but what they actually wanted was to have their 'non-artistic' gestures established as art by the establishment itself. They soon understood the value of provoking the academy.

They know their Marx. They understood that monetary value is arbitrary and accrues to objects around which an aura can be created. Art is the perfect commodity! The 'value' of the art object is not naturally associated with an inherent quality as Kant hoped, but due to the attention generated by the object's surrounding aura, in this case scandal.

The cost of the avant-garde assault was little more than an inflated price for an ordinary object clothed in an auratic mantle of scandal. The cost of ignoring the ethical questions involved in the commercial exploitation of children is, I think, much greater.

Thanks for your measured, thoughtful contribution to the debate.

david akenson | 10 July 2008  

We are getting back to the notion of "Corporate Paedaphilia" first raised by Dr Clive Hamilton. Artists are becoming the scapegoats in a revival of prudery. The media and advertisers are exploiting the body as a sex object in order to sell products. Christians should emphasise the body as the "Temple of the Holy Spirit" to be respected.

John Ozanne | 10 July 2008  

If one accepts Moira Rayner's argument, no child should be allowed to enter paid employment of any kind, since an employer almost always puts their enterprise's interests above that of their employees, child or adult.

I touch on the question of employment, and by extension the whole realm of commercial enterprise, because I think children, and adults too, are far more seriously exploited in this area of social life than they are by being photographed naked for artistic purposes, even where the artistic aim is to shock.

Nudity is not wrong, not evil, not corrupting, not sinful. And utilising the participation of other people for purposes other than the furtherance of those people's own interests is not in itself exploitation.

It becomes exploitation only if the interests and welfare of those people are not also taken into account, and if they in fact suffer in some way because of the use that is made of them.

This debate about nude art pictures of children distracts from the real problem: the exploitative sexualisation of children for purposes of commercial profit. These people don't strip children, they clothe them, actually and metaphorically, in the trappings of a brutalising, superficial and premature adulthood.

Jeffrey Klooger | 10 July 2008  

Moira Rayner's good article is somewhat spoilt by the editors' unfortunate heading. I even hesitate to write the word "kidsploitation' which is a misuse of language.

When we should be building up the status of young people, calling them "kids" demeans them. They are not young goats. And, even if we do set an age limit to what has been called the age of minority, we still have to deal with the fact that there are many mature minors.

This is well recognised by medical doctors and by researchers and members of Human Research Ethics Committees.
Assessment of children's competence to consent is often guided by the House of Lords decision known as Gillick, which was delivered in 1985. This decision held that children who are under 16 years old but have the intelligence and understanding to be competent to give consent, for example to a particular treatment, may give that consent themselves.

The parental right to consent on behalf of the child ceases when the young person has sufficient intellectual and emotional maturity to be Gillick competent.

In medical matters doctors often determine the ability of young patients to consent, an ability which grows gradually.

Gerry Costigan | 10 July 2008  

For those who don't follow art photography this series of photographs was exhibited some years ago in Sydney at the Australian Centre of Photography without censorial comment. The series does, of course, reference closely Lewis Carroll's photographs of children.

Those who espouse the belief that Carroll/Dodgson was not suspect point out that the Victorians in general had elevated ideas of childish innocence and its portrayal in art.

I don't imagine that Ms Papapetrou set out to exploit her daughter for reasons of profit, I'd like to believe that she was exploring the (excuse the phrase) "postmodernist" aspects of photography.

The American photographer, Sally Mann weathered a similar storm some years ago, the theme of the attack being her portrayal of "her own kids!"

That said, as a photographer I wouldn't even consider photographing kids of any sort - with or without their or their parents' permission - let's have a new invisible generation, I say.

Ross | 10 July 2008  

Thank you Moira, for clarifying an issue which should never emerged if parents, and those in loco parentis struggled with for years. I am a black hearted Presbyterean, cum Methodist, but also an ex-teacher. From a family of teachers I was brought up to respect and help the child to grow, enter the world and seek succour; from parents, teachers and their church. The last two can be varied according to your preferences.

Manipulation of children, in sport, in 'art & music', in politics and most disgusting of all, in supporting the prejudices of their family or the social group is an anathema.

John William McQualter | 11 July 2008  

On the mark wise and much needed insight, in a world where careful thought, and the guts to express it, are undervalued and ignored. Keep speaking up, persons who care will pass it on. Thank you!

Mary Coleman | 11 July 2008  

A well written response to an emotive issue. Anything to do with children raises hackles and so it should as we have a duty of care towards them. Children can be exploited to fulfill a parent's need or point of view. The young 'beauty' queens in USA spring to mind. I am revolted by little girls with heavy make-up, in miniature adult clothes parading themselves. All in the name of money or trophies.

As one writer pointed out, nudity is not the issue, but when private photos of your naked children enter the public arena, it undermines their dignity.

Adults can make a more conscious decision about displaying their naked body, usually in a sexual context. In young people, it can smack of exhibitionism or can be deemed cool. Very young children, however, have no understanding how a naked body can inflame the wrong sort of minds. Therein lies the problem.

Mary Crawford | 11 July 2008  

Moira I agree that the trotting out of the 11 year old to defend not her parents indeed but her own assessmment of the issue - "and I've thought that for a long time" she said, the little moppet - was an unforgivable toss ... but I have to challenge the axiomatic "Of course art has its special place and must be free".

Free to do what? Offend? Incite? So much that is cheap, obscene, gimmicky, cynical, commercial and just plain talentless (and yes since talent exists talentless does also) is defended by the label of art: trying to discern what isn't is like shovelling smoke. It is a self-indulgent defence and one is not only unable to penetrate it one is very quickly sneered at by the arts community-to the extent that it exists.

I don't call for cenorship, I simply observe that arts insiders are unwilling and unsuited to identifying poseurs and impostors in their midst ... and there are a few in there. Value judgements are of course just so pre-post-modern.

Andrew Coorey | 11 July 2008  

Thanks, Moira. I wonder what legal recourse a child-model may have in the future for, for instance, loss of employment, loss of income, loss of good name because they are refused employment or promotion or have been defamed for having been photographed/painted naked? Whom do they sue? The "artist", their parents, the almost-employer?

More importantly, who makes amends for the shame, the embarrassment, the anger, the sense of betrayal which may be experienced in adult life by a child whose image was so used in childhood by adults? Who heals the child now grown?

Lois Walker | 18 July 2008  

Another great piece on a complex and inflamed issue. Yet again Moira the voice of reason. A legal piece on the Rights of the Child could almost follow on as one of the prior comments suggests.

Nick Ramage | 20 August 2008  

As a grandfather of 10 children I would defend any one of them to the death to save them from any such crime or behaviour related to peadophilia and these comments are prompted in the light of a tv programme I watched yesterday. Apparently some of the 100s of thousands of eec laws about to be imposed on us includes the legal right of any child to have sex with anyone of any age. So this law will be used by adults to obtain permission for any behaviour with a child providing that child agrees. Please tell me its not true.........

John VAN Buiten | 11 January 2010  

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