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 It has succeeded, bringing calls for the magazine's public funding to be withdrawn and for new protocols on the portrayal of children in art.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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor