Thursday, October 29, 2009

Are we Victorian?

When morals campaigner Hetty Johnston hauled Bill Henson before the courts for taking non-sexual photographs of a topless adolescent, we had some enthusiastic debates on the subject at our house. A few weeks later, when we went to see an exhibition of Degas' work, there were no public objections to his depiction of a naked 14-year-old ballerina who looked much the same as the subject of Henson's photograph. The latest controversial artwork to draw the ire of the super-moral is a sculpture of a one-year-old boy, installed for this year's Sculpture By the Sea. A further article in today's newspaper said that "some women" whom the writer spoke to agreed that the figure should be covered up. I hope these women never have to change a baby's nappy.

I believe there is nothing necessarily sexual about nudity, no matter what the age of the person who is naked. Nudes of all ages in art imply many meanings; sometimes sexuality and pleasure, but often (as in the case of the Lost Boy sculpture) innocence and vulnerability. I think our culture is losing sight of the beauty of the human body in all of its conditions and limiting our appreciation of nudity to its sexual form. In contemporary popular media, this appreciation is more and more constrained by the tendency to fetishise nudity; with implications of bondage in restrictive lingerie and impossibly high stiletto heels; expectations of a slim body with plump breasts (mostly only attainable by synthetic means); as well as my pet hate, the banishment of pubic hair.

Yes, there are some people who look at a one-year-old and have a sexual experience. Unfortunately, this will probably happen whether the child/sculpture is wearing Speedos or not. As I argued at the time of the Bill Henson case, demanding that artists stop depicting nude children (which raises problematic issues of drawing the boundaries: What constitutes "nudity"? How old is a "child"?) is tantamount to saying that women should not be allowed to dress in certain clothes because a miniskirt is an implicit invitation to rape the wearer. The viewed is not responsible for the actions and reactions of the viewer.

I recently visited a friend of my sister, who has two gorgeous little girls. We were sitting on the front porch, when the children ran out of the house at the sound of the ice-cream van: the three-year-old was completely naked, having removed all of her clothes while playing. None of the adults or other children who were playing in the street batted an eyelid as she sucked on a rapidly melting iceblock, rivulets of red liquid cascading down her body. Later, her mother said to me, "I don't bother to argue with her. I don't see the point." Neither do I -- and it made the post-iceblock clean-up easier, for a start. It was just a perfect summer afternoon, everyone enjoying themselves, nobody passing judgement on anyone else's choices. If we have to go back to the Victorian era when even the furniture had to wear skirts in case someone accidentally got a hard-on from a glimpse of a shapely table leg, I think we will all be sorry.

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