Arts: Suffer all the pretty children

When do images abuse a child? A debate at the ICA aims to find an answer.
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THE THING about taboos is not that they warn us off a topic, but that they attract us to it. They signal with bright, flashing lights that here is something we will all be fascinated by, and then - as in the "special" room in the controversial Sensations exhibition - they hide it to tantalise us. Instead of averting our eyes, we rush to see, but our looking is tempered by fear.

So it is with pictures of children, the cultural obsession of the Nineties. Isn't there something pleasurable about the shock we experience when we see those pictures of JonBenet Ramsey, a child enacting adulthood in lipstick and feathers? The fact that she was later murdered seems like a terrible judgement on those who displayed her in this way, but also on those of us who experience the power of the pictures, as well as on the child herself.

In the context of public debates around child abuse, paedophilia, violent and murderous children, and the fragile corruptibility of childhood, we approach contemporary images of children with unprecedented nervousness. There has been censorship, rushed legislation and many a cry of outrage. All of this is the territory explored by Spoilt Children, this weekend's event at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts.

"Spoiling" children is a dreadful thing to do, and there are all sorts of contradictory ways of doing it, from too much pampering to the most callous forms of abuse. Yet the worst taboo is still the involvement of children in sexual activity.

How can we reconcile the understanding that children are sexual beings - after all, Freud made this clear 100 years ago - with the recognition that children's involvement in adult sexual activity is deeply abusive? Much debate centres on the cultural efforts to resolve this paradox.

One solution has been to scrutinise and control the images themselves. James Reilly, who will be part of the ICA discussion, was one of those artists whose work was put in a separate room in the Sensations exhibition, with a warning to parents posted at the entrance. In an even stranger example, the publishers of a respectable academic journal, Continuum, hesitated to put on its cover a picture taken by an Australian photography student. The student, who had photographed her own son, had been arrested and remained on remand for more than two years.

As Professor John Hartley from Cardiff University explains, she had been "captured" by the "alarmingly wide" new censorship law in Western Australia. This only requires a person who "looks like" a child under 16 years of age to be photographed, "in a manner that is likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult", to be declared pornographic.

The boy in the picture is naked, sitting gazing at the camera, but his crotch is covered by his hand. This is a reversal of the notorious Robert Mapplethorpe photograph of "Rosie", taken in 1976, in which the child is fully dressed but inadvertently reveals her private parts, not only to a particularly sensual photographer, but to following generations who continue to gaze at his work.

The Australian student's picture made it on to the cover of the journal, but the Hayward Gallery left Rosie out of its 1996 Mapplethorpe show.

Images of children have changed over the years, and the growth of photography and commercial imagery, from the end of the 19th century, led to an explosion of pictures for popular consumption. Postcards from the Truly Scrumptious model agency, whose director Sharon Obee will also be at the ICA, are the inheritors of a long tradition.

These days, pictures are made in a context which is even more strongly market driven, and children are playing a new role as consumers. A growing awareness of children's rights is another factor which jostles for attention. It is not easy to decide whether we are seeing a new frankness or new forms of exploitation. But children grow up. Do they have rights over "their" pictures?

Alice Liddle continued to be proud of Lewis Carroll's seductive Alice in Wonderland images of her as a pre-pubescent child. Mapplethorpe's Rosie criticised the Hayward's decision to remove her picture from the walls.

The daughters of Sally Mann, who collaborated in their mother's controversial photographs, have said how pleased they were to find they were living with a genius. But such positive reactions cannot be taken for granted. In such a climate, there can be no easy answers.

`Spoilt Children' is at the ICA, The Mall, London SW1 (0171-930 3647). Tomorrow and Sunday. Patricia Holland is the author of `What Is A Child: Popular Images Of Childhood' published by Virago