Art market: Girl Power?

Art works, largely by women, of little girls in provocative, sexualised poses, have caused protest, outrage - and ever-increasing sales. John Windsor explores their motives
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IS IT OR isn't it? Paedophilic, that is. While more and more cases of the sexual abuse of children come to light, Lolita seduces the film censors and the market for visual art showing little girls gets bigger every day.

There is even a magazine, Alice (subtitled "juvenilia, parental imbalance, angry candy, tot psychotics, bad toys"), whose founders collaborated this year with an exhibition of child-centred art in Manchester and a two-day conference called "Spoilt Children", at the ICA in London. "Spoilt Children" featured a picture of the murdered American child beauty queen, Little Miss Colorado JonBenet Ramsey, on its invitations. A psychologist, a lawyer and a former head of Scotland Yard's paedophile unit were among the conference speakers - an indication of the moral turmoil that the budding genre has provoked.

The fact that almost all "child-art" artists are women (all nine at the "Alice" exhibition at the Cornerhouse arts centre in Manchester, for instance) and the fact that most buyers of child-art are also women, only adds to the confusion.

As does its apparent respectability. While furtive men emerge from Soho dives with child- porn videos stuffed under their macs, well-heeled women are buying oil paintings and photographs of precocious, pre-pubescent girls from posh galleries in London's Cork Street or New York's Prince Street.

The few men that have toyed with the genre have attracted the most blistering accusations of child-pornography - notably the American Larry Clark, whose street-teen film Kids opened with a gratuitous scene of defloration by a teenage "Virgin Surgeon", who boasts of his taste for "little baby girls". Photographic stills from the film are currently on sale at the Luhring Augustine gallery in New York at $25,000 for a portfolio of 15 prints.

Women artists are just as capable as male ones of producing shocking images of sexualised children. One of New Yorker Lisa Yuskavage's paintings is of a naked, mop-haired child without body hair and with limpet lips like those of inflatable women, standing legs akimbo, genitalia exposed.

But, as with other female makers of child-art, there is more to this than commercial eroticism. There is an underlying anger in Yuskavage's work. Her doll-like mop-top and her sugar-sweet paintings of young girls with exaggerated anatomies are an attempt to capture male fantasies of the exploitation of women and throw them back in men's faces. The message is: "We know you see us as childlike sex-objects: aren't you ashamed?"

Tracey Moffatt's photograph Useless of 1974, which was exhibited at "Alice", shows a large- bosomed teenage girl washing a car, and is another through-the-looking- glass bite back at men. Its subtitle is "Her father's nickname for her was 'useless'" - which tempts the jibe from leery males: "Except for washing cars and sex."

In the present culture of fear, any pictures of pre-pubescent children risk being denounced as "paedophilic", whether or not the artist has deliberately eroticised them. And there is a double- take here that women artists have been quick to exploit.

The 30-year-old South African Nicky Hoberman's paintings of her neighbours' daughters, aged from five to seven - which Charles Saatchi exhibited in a solo show at the Entwistle gallery in London last month - present kitschy, pouting little girls in gobstopper colours surrounded by pets - pussies, doggies, bunnies. There is an adult knowingness about these children; they undoubtedly seem erotic to some people - a sufficient number to have given her work the "paedophile" label.

What are her little girls doing? Hoberman invites them to dress up in her studio, supplying the clothes and make-up, and photographs them. The result is that they show off outrageously to the camera, using body-language to attract attention - an arm on a hip, an open-mouthed pout, or that corny peek-a-boo cradling of head on elbow familiar to readers of Fifties glamour magazines. "Girls are more manipulative than boys," she says.

Hoberman paints them from above, their faces distorted as if they are striving to grow out of invisible restraints. Though far from adolescence, they appear as budding adults, and this, more than any attempt by the artist to titillate, is what disturbs.

Is this what today's children are like? They behave spontaneously enough in the studio - but are their alluring poses naturally childish or learned? In an environment in which the media bombard them with images of adult sexuality, have they inadvertently adopted adult sexual gestures? Psychologists, no doubt, have an opinion. But it is art, not science, that best explores the subject.

Wherever there is ambiguity, artists pile in. It is their duty to interpret and enlighten. The basic ambiguity of paedophilia - between the pre- and post-pubertal states - is their legitimate territory.

One ambiguous element that the "paedophilic" artists, but not the social scientists, have focussed on, is the element of play. Hoberman's children are at play. Most Western adults have forgotten how to play. It is the one thing that children can do which they cannot. For adults, the last vestige of play lies in sexual activity, and some of them are not much good at that, either. For an artist to turn the tables by apparently endowing children with sexuality is to show them usurping the one thing that adults can do but which children cannot. For normal adults, such images inspire envy and fear; they are as disturbing to them as the thought of paedophiles who, paradoxically, are unable to experience sexual arousal except with playful children. Paedophilic art, you might say, has opened the can of grubs that is Western sexuality: it makes paedophiles of everybody. Proof of this lies in the readiness of adults to condemn as "paedophilic" child-art that does not seek primarily to arouse.

Another American artist, the 29-year-old Rita Ackermann, explores the blurred boundaries be- tween adult and childish play. In her painting of a beach scene, Now I'm Gonna Take a Vacation (a phrase that is only used by adults in employment), sweet, wide-eyed children of both sexes on the verge of pubescence frolic, half-naked. A little girl wears a tiny bikini, others are topless, one stepping into the sea with a tiny breast exposed. While one girl feeds three puppies as in a sentimental Victorian painting, another films with a camcorder (an adult toy of the kind that is advertised with slogans such as "even a child can use it"). Two children are wearing fashionable sunglasses and smoking cigarettes. In the background is a car, drawn in such a way that it could be either a child's toy or Daddy's real car in the distance.

The painting is a deliberate trap - an invitation to see its eroticism as paramount. For example, is the little girl entering the water adopting a provocative glamour pose or merely shrinking from the cold water? In fact, for those with eyes to see, the painting depicts not only the physiological transition of children into adulthood, but their initiation into the material culture of adults.

Ellie Howitt's portraits of herself throwing infantile tantrums are intended to demonstrate how childish play can have a Lolita-like sexual allure. Her Pink Sorbet, which was in her sell-out degree show at the RCA, was the only one of her paintings bought by a man - and then at the behest of his girlfriend. In the painting, she has infantilised herself by using a "spoilt-child" pose seen from above, the grown-up viewpoint, with the head drawn large, as in infants. Ambiguous sexual cues include the smeared lipstick (an adult cosmetic used in a childish way) and the tight, skimpy dress. The result is jail-bait. It does seem rather unfair on men, but Howitt, 24, explains innocently: "I'm playing around, giving myself permission to behave mischievously. Most adults don't do that. The painting is about childishness, not about children." Her paintings cost pounds 500 to pounds 2,000, her drawings pounds 250, at the Paton Gallery in London.

Part of the charm of David Leland's film Wish You Were Here is that Emily Lloyd's performance, rather like Ellie Howitt's, played on the sexual ambiguities of adolescence. As a delinquent teenager in a boring seaside town, she deliberately shocks adults by exposing her knickers and bum. So do most children; it is pre-pubertal, asexual behaviour in defiance of parental admonitions that knickers and bums are rude. The irony in the film is that Lloyd's unruly character is simultaneously having her first experiences of sex. Knickers, she suddenly discovers, turn men on. Hoberman's child subjects occasionally show their knickers to her in the studio, too. She tells them not to.

Clare Strand's series of photographic portraits of 14-year-olds, Teenage Girls, was in the same degree show as Howitt's. Sexy? Yes, but a quite different quality emerged after she started to photograph her neighbours' daughters. "I was struck by their great confidence and know-how. It was two years ago, when the Spice Girls were at their height and there was an explosion of 'Girl Power'. I asked them to wear what they liked and they all chose white. They were sussed young women and I felt quite intimidated by them, especially in a group. In the photos they appear almost monumental. Sexuality was never the main point."

It's clear that some women artists manipulate sexual cues as if they were a language, involving the viewer in conversations that contain numerous levels of subtlety. The American Amy Adler takes photographs of little girls, draws them in pastel or charcoal and re-photographs them in a way that emphasises the photographer's treatment of the child as object, but at the same time distances the viewer, discouraging similar voyeurism. She used the technique on 36 photographs taken of her as a child by an older woman, that show her in stages of undress, posing with the familiar mixture of paper-doll innocence and exhibitionist bravado. It was her way of reclaiming her own image, of divesting it of prurience.

Much of women's work in the "paedophilia" field is something of a joke - a women's joke. Its apparent eroticism snares men and then throws back at them their own confused attitudes towards female pubescence, their inability to enjoy sex as play, and their fears that, as adults, they may have damaged a generation of girls by eroticising them.

In some non-Western cultures, things are different. Australian anthropologists have witnessed desert-dwelling Aborigine children occasionally playing with the erect penis of an adult like a toy. Shock, horror! to Western eyes. But the Aborigines laugh. To them, it is a joke, and the joke is basic - sexually immature children are not ready for sex. Aborigines also appreciate ambiguity, but there is no record of paedophilia in their culture.

! Larry Clark, Luhring Augustine Gallery (001 212 206 9100). Rita Ackermann, c/o Andrea Rosen Gallery (001 212 627 6000). Lisa Yuskavage, c/o Marianne Boesky Gallery (001 212 941 9888). Ellie Howitt, c/o Paton Gallery (0181 986 3409). Clare Strand (0771 535 617). Nicky Hoberman and Amy Adler, c/o Entwistle Gallery (0171 734 6440). Tracey Moffatt, c/o Victoria Miro Gallery (0171 734 5082)