Art or abuse? Fury over image of naked girl

A magazine has reignited debate about the censorship of artworks

In itself, the picture is simple. It shows a girl of six in a demure pose, sitting on a rock with white cliffs in the background. Its impact comes from the fact she is naked and the photograph is on the cover of Australia's leading arts journal.

According to the editor of Art Monthly, its latest cover is an effort to "restore dignity" to the discourse about the artistic portrayal of children. To its critics, including the Australin Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, it is "disgusting". What it has achieved is to bring to the boil a simmering row over the difference between art and pornography in a country with a long tradition of censorship.

The debate has been close to exploding since police swooped on a Sydney gallery in May and seized photographs of naked adolescent girls taken by the acclaimed artist Bill Henson. Police quietly abandoned their inquiry a couple of weeks later, having found nothing to justify charges against Henson or the gallery, and the pictures were put back on display.

Art Monthly's cover, published this month with two further photographs of the six-year-old inside, was clearly designed to provoke. It has succeeded, bringing calls for the magazine's public funding to be withdrawn and for new protocols on the portrayal of children in art. While supporters of artistic freedom defended Art Monthly's right to publish, child protection campaigners were affronted and Mr Rudd, referring to such images, said: "I can't stand that stuff... We are talking about the innocence of little children here. A little child cannot answer for themselves about whether they wish to be depicted in this way."

But the controversy was complicated by the intervention of two unexpected players. One was Olympia Nelson, the girl in the photo, which was taken five years ago by her mother, Polixeni Papapetrou. The other was Mr Henson – or, at least, "a source close to him".

Olympia, now 11, said: "I was really, really offended by what Kevin Rudd said about this picture. It is one of my favourites – if not my favourite – photo my mum has ever taken of me."

However, Henson's associate said the artist thought the choice of cover image displayed "a lack of judgement only serving to drive deeper divisions in the community". That comment may say more about Henson's fears of being charged and pilloried as a child pornographer than about his genuine views. Nevertheless, it was grist to the mill of Hetty Johnston, a child protection activist, who said: "When [art and pornography] collide, we have to err with the children. We need to put a line in the sand – because clearly some of those in the arts world can't – and say this is a no-go zone."

But just where that line should be drawn is as unclear as ever. Liberals argue that it all hinges on context and intent – if an artist has no intention of titillating, a work is not pornographic. And there is a difference between posting nude pictures of children online and displaying them in a gallery.

But for Ms Johnston and like-minded people, all nude images of children are sexual and should be banned. To them, Olympia's protestations are irrelevant. She could not have consented to being photographed at six and, at 11, is still not mature enough to pronounce on the rights and wrongs.

Once again, the matter looks likely to end up in the hands of police, thanks to the Opposition leader Brendan Nelson, who has asked officers to investigate. He said: "These people with Art Monthly have sought to... send a two-fingered salute to the rest of the country about the controversy surrounding Bill Henson's photography. I think it is time for us to take a stand."

This is, of course, an age-old debate and one not confined to Australia. It has a long history of censorship, and those old enough to remember books banned in the Forties, Fifties and Sixties could be forgiven a shiver of déjà vu. They included James Joyce's Ulysses, James Baldwin's Another Country, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Norman Mailer's The Naked And The Dead and, naturally, D H Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover.

The visual arts, too, have come under scrutiny. In 1982, police raided the Sydney gallery of Roslyn Oxley, where Henson's show was to be held, and removed works by a Chilean-born Australian, Juan Davila. His graphic sexual images were said to offend public morals. But the then state premier, Neville Wran, rather more cool-headed than his contemporary counterparts, intervened and the works were reinstated. Police may well scratch their heads about Olympia's photo. Some observers say that only in a climate of moral hysteria could the image be deemed sexually provocative.

Martyn Jolly, head of photography at the Australian National University, defended Art Monthly, saying: "If you are editor of a magazine which is meant to be reporting on Australia on a month-to-month basis, and this has been the biggest thing in Australian art for a long time, you would be [neglecting] your duty if you didn't actually discuss the debate.

"We aren't going to let politicians, who are always wanting to jump on populist bandwagons, dictate what we can and can't show."

The Australia Council, which funds Art Monthly, defended the magazine, saying: "For many years our society has managed to differentiate between artistic creativity and the totally unacceptable sexual exploitation of children."

Artists who shocked with child images

Marcus Harvey

Harvey's portrait of the Moors murderer Myra Hindley, created from a collage of hundreds of copies of children's hand-prints, caused outrage at the Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in December 1997. Winnie Johnson, the mother of one of her victims, pleaded for the picture to be excluded. Hindley herself sent a letter from jail requesting thather portrait be removed, out of respect for the victims' families. Despite protests, the portrait remained, until protesters daubedit with eggs and ink.

Tierney Gearon

The American photographer became the centre of controversy in 2001 following complaints from the public over an exhibition at the Saatchi gallery in London. Police warned that Gearon's works, which showed her children naked, could be seized under indecency laws. There were calls from the tabloids for the exhibition to be closed. But the artist received the backing of Chris Smith, who was Culture Secretary at the time. Mr Smith condemned the police for censoring artistic freedom.

Betsy Schneider

The American photo-artist's exhibition, Inventories, found itself in a storm after opening at the Spitz Gallery in east London in 2004. The show consisted of pictures of Schneider's daughter naked taken at intervals from infancy to five years old. Hours after the show opened, it was closed amid complaints that it was pornographic. Members of the public had been seen taking their own photographs of the exhibition.

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game