The other day, my 12-year-old daughter went on a bike ride down the river towpath, wearing a smock top, shorts and canvas shoes. A man she described as "old", so probably over 30, pulled "horrible" expressions and asked for her mobile phone number. His friend rebuked him: "What are you doing? She is just a little girl." The unintentional sexuality of the young is a disturbing notion. It has an effect on some people and not others but everyone is aware of its existence.
The controversy over a photograph of two naked girls which was seized by police before it could be exhibited at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art near Gateshead has divided people predictably. The sophisticated – often childless – art libertarians are scornful of PC Plod, unable to appreciate the globally celebrated work of Nan Goldin. That is what comes of showing in the provinces. Next time let's just stick to New York, shall we? The champions of the photograph, called "Klara and Edda Belly Dancing", complain about the small and dirty mind of the gallery staff member who tipped off the police.
Context is everything. This is a work of art which has been shown round the world and auctioned twice at Sotheby's. It is not something that Chris Langham could download from the internet. The fault lies not in the subject but in the beholder. The critics of the photograph also have a familiar argument. A spokeswoman for an anti-pornography lobby group says, with self-righteous banality, that if a photograph of a child makes you uncomfortable then it is probably child abuse.
The family fundamentalists point out that the artist, Nan Goldin, has led a Tin Pan Alley existence of drugs and drink and that many of her best friends died of Aids. Furthermore, the photograph, which forms part of a work provocatively titled The Devil's Playground, has been bought by the homosexual Elton John. In other words, the protection of children is not uppermost in anyone's mind.
I don't buy either of these arguments. Nan Goldin is a stunningly talented artist and I do not doubt the artistic integrity of her pictures. She is also a woman with a troubled history and this disturbed quality is evident in her work. Her sister committed suicide when Nan was 14 and soon after Nan left home to live with foster families. As an adult she was attracted to the unconventional and the marginalised, specialising in photographing transvestites. She declares that photography is a kind of therapy for her. "Every time I go through something scary or traumatic I survive by taking pictures."
She has also spoken of her interest in sexuality as a form of self-revelation. Her pictures are not accidental and innocent photographs of children at play, which pervy-minded officials misread. They are a fearless revelation of the partly conscious sexual nature of children. They are children literally stripped naked. The photographs certainly make one feel uncomfortable but that is because of artistic honesty rather than child abuse.
The case of Nan Goldin is quite unlike that of her fellow American photographer Tierney Gearon, whose portraits of children were similarly seized by police from the Saatchi Gallery in 2001 before being cleared and returned. Gearon said at the time that her images had "wholesome innocent intentions". She should know, since she was the children's mother. Gearon was understandably distressed at the implication she was mother/pornographer and said that the seeds of doubt had "poisoned" her work.
Gearon is a fashion photographer and former model and her photographs could easily have appeared in the living section of American Vogue. Her portraits have a beautiful, relaxed, Hamptons feel – carefree mother, laughing blond children, little boys having a wee. It is a posh liberal David and Sam Cameron approach to life as opposed to a buttoned-up, angry, suspicious fully clothed Norman Tebbit point of view.
Similarly, there was a cultural clash when the enlightened liberal writer Zoë Heller took her young son to the zoo in New York's Central Park and let him wander naked because it was hot and he was so adorable. She could not understand the glares of disapproval from stuffy matrons. Likewise, Julia Somerville became a cause célèbre in metropolitan media circles after the person who processed her private photographs reported her to the police for taking pictures of her daughter in the bath.
Goldin's photographs of animated naked children awash with golden colour are compelling and one has to ask why. Much of the power lies in the intimacy. She has spoken of the "aesthetic of the snapshot", wanting to capture private rather than public moments. She seeks "raw life and death". This quality in her work also makes us feel that the dramas are none of our business. Perhaps Somerville's photographic technician felt instinctively that he should not be looking at these pictures and so came to the conclusion recommended by the anti-pornography lobby that this was child abuse.
He was right to feel uneasy about the intimacy and wrong to call it child abuse. He sensed something about the nature of childish sexuality which he was not equipped to interpret. The hard questions about humanity are best left to great artists. Goldin has more in common with the South African painter Marlene Dumas than the pretty, contented Tierney Gearon. Dumas's range of subjects include hanged girls and pictures of female masturbation. Her portrait The Cover Up, displayed at the Saatchi Gallery, is profoundly disturbing. A child pulls its clothes over its head showing its pants. The gallery notes on the painting described the image as "corruption of innocence". "It immediately gives way to dark thoughts about sexuality and exploitation. The controversy isn't in the images Dumas paints but in the way they're subverted by an implied knowingness, a blatant confrontation with a natural reality and it discomforts."
It is significant that child portraiture, which was a feature of the 18th century, has disappeared. Children are no longer seen as our proud legacies but as separate creatures who inspire fear. We are afraid of loss of innocence. We see over and over again the video shot of Madeleine McCann soft, innocent, sensual, sucking at her lip and inviting... what?
The greatest book ever written about fear for/of children is The Turn of the Screw. The theme, realised by artists such as Nan Goldin, is innocence and corruption and the line between. Is the threat to children that we see in her photographs simply our own neurosis or is it real? Can the Child Protection Act stop children from becoming sexualised? Can we save them from others and from themselves?
I see my daughter stretched out, laughing, childishly narcissistic and I see threats everywhere. I dread the expression in the faces of children who are sexualised too young – a dull knowingness. Goldin's children do not have that expression. They are not corrupted but they teeter on it. Artistically, of course, "Klara and Edda Belly Dancing" should be returned to the Baltic Centre. Morally, we should beware.Reuse content