Essay:Child Pornography In Art Galleries

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by Summerdays

Note: Introductory paragraph of the second section of this essay on "The Eva Ionesco Situation" was provided by the editor, as were the excerpts from a post by Lateralus that directly follow it -- User:Dissident

Note: this isn't a time-sensitive piece. There have been multiple controversies in recent years over artistic photos of minors (whether children or adolescents), nude and/or arguably eroticized, being shown in and sometimes pulled from art galleries after receiving a controversial reception. Now, almost without exception, every discussion I've read on this topic (whether related to specific cases, or the phenomenon in general) tends to miss some of the most important points in the debate, usually due to having to tiptoe around the issue of minor sexuality, or (more often) to outright avoid failing to condemn it. Therefore, I'd like to take a brief moment to touch on these important points, in the hope of bringing some reason and truth to this most emotionally charged subject.

1) Is the photo art or pornography?

This is, without qualification, an irrelevant question. Firstly, it is inane, cowardly, dishonest, and intellectually short-sighted to say that a piece of work cannot be art because a) the context is sexualized, or b) the piece was created under unethical conditions. Your personal moral standards are not sufficient to exclude sexuality from the jurisdiction of artistic expression and representation (I don't care how strong your feelings of offense and sexual inadequacy are). And even were it true, ethically, that a piece 'shouldn't have been made', or that its creation or existence harms others in some way - no matter how despicable and deplorable a piece might be; none of this precludes it from being a piece of art. Even were it something as unambiguous as an artist going out and filming himself murdering people in cold blood - the argument over whether or not this should occur is entirely separate from the discussion of whether or not those films constitute art.

Regarding pornography, there may be substantive legal issues involved, but these are exclusively arbitrary. What is wrong with pornography, whether minors are involved or not? The issue that ought to concern us is whether people are being harmed. If you think all minors are intrinsically harmed by participation in pornographic (or erotic, or even non-erotic) works, this still does not change the question. Whether it is pornography (by your or anyone else's subjective standards) is irrelevant. The pertinent question is this: is anybody (particularly the model/minor involved) being harmed? I don't care how much you hate pedophiles and are offended by any form of expression that might give off the slightest hint of condoning or celebrating the erotic appeal of underage youths (or, god forbid, prepubescent children), but the bottom line is: it doesn't matter whether you like it or not. Either somebody's being hurt or they're not. And if they're not, then please refrain from causing them hurt by opening your foul mouth. If you haven't got anything nice to say, then kindly shut it, please.

2) Should this photo be displayed?

This is a question worthy of consideration, yet it is entirely detached from the question of whether or not you like the photo, and your opinion about whether or not it should be displayed. When a photo is created, publication rights are usually reserved by the photographer and the model. Specifics may vary. But never have I witnessed a modeling contract where determination for publication was reserved by random members of the anonymous public audience. Does the photographer want the photo published? (Usually this is the case when it's being attempted to be published.) Does the model want the photo published? This is especially important in cases where minors are involved - I don't care what the law (or parent) says for the child, what ought to be of concern is what the child's actual wishes are. The only other consideration involved with publication of the photo is whether the venue agreeing to publish it also wants to publish it (which is assumed if there are negotiations in progress). An art gallery obviously has power of decision over what they want to display in their halls. At no point is this a question of whether an image ought to be censored/destroyed by the government and/or an irate public. Which brings me to my third and final point.

3) Should the decision reached in this situation bear on other similar situations?

No! This is an individual situation involving an individual photograph shown in a specific art gallery by an individual artist, featuring an individual model. Conclusions cannot automatically be generalized to other situations that may or may not be similar to this one. Whether this particular photo is displayed or not (and whether it rightly ought to be displayed or not, in any given person's opinion), has no bearing whatsoever on the issue of whether images like this one, should or should not, generally speaking, without consideration of individual specifics, be created or displayed. We can discuss the conditions under which certain images may or may not be ethically created and/or displayed, but at no point can you make a generalization based on superficial content of the image, such as to say that no images of naked children should ever be taken or shown in an art gallery. You could perhaps say that no images that sadistically harm children ought to be created (working on the basic premise that the practice of - presumably non-consensual - sadism is a violation of social ethics), and you might suggest that all naked photos of children satisfy that condition, however it is up to you to provide empirical scientific proof of your claim - or, barring that, proof that an individual child in question has been unambiguously harmed - before you go attacking anyone who disagrees with you and thinks that maybe more images of naked children in the public consciousness might promote healthier sexuality overall, and happier, more fulfilling lives for all of us - children included.


In the course of an interview for L'express while promoting the 2011 semi-autobiographical film she directed, My Little Princess, former nude child model and actress from the 1970s, Eva Ionesco, severely admonished her now 80-year-old mother and former manager, Irina, for putting her in situations that Eva described as abusive and "trashy" in the course of her modeling career. In response to this on the GirlChat forum, regular media columnist Lateralus displayed much sympathy for Eva as a result of her mother allegedly pushing her into a career she didn't want, but nevertheless lamented the situation as being unfortunate for the future of art involving the expression of youthful beauty: "This will only reinforce the existing paradigm."

He further said: "But there is another dimension as well: what I gather from all of this is a story of maternal neglect and Irina's lack of any real love for her daughter, which I think completely tainted the process."

And: "Contrast Eva's bitter experiences with those of the models of Jock Sturges and Sally Mann and you have a completely different take. For one thing, these photographers and the children they photographed--even when they were their own--always worked collaboratively. The kids' opinions mattered, and still do. Also, there is something much more holistic about the imagery of Sturges as opposed to the Ionesco photos, which are obviously contrived and say much more about the mother than they do her subject, who is little more than a living doll for her mother's photographic experimentation."

That is exactly what I am afraid of. People have a tendency to cherry pick examples to back up their position while ignoring those that contradict their views. I believe this is called confirmation bias. So they'll hold up Eva's story (and others like it) as evidence that art depicting children is abusive, while conveniently ignoring cases like Sturges' ethical treatment of his models.

That Eva feels this way is unfortunate, and I am very sad to hear it. But as I pointed out above, whether or not these particular photos were exploitative has no direct bearing on other photos in other cases, nor does it prove on the whole that photos like these cannot be produced ethically. I just hope people will remember that and not put on their blinders, thinking every case must necessarily be like this one.

As Lateralus said, the thoughts and feelings of the child(ren) involved are paramount. And these include both their interest in the project before and during its production, as well as their developing attitudes about it afterward. Unfortunately, the current social climate that indiscriminately condemns expression of this sort makes it rather difficult for someone to have a positive attitude about involvement in such a project, without also holding a decidedly adversarial attitude towards mainstream culture.

I would caution the public not to exacerbate the problem by feeding their own beliefs that the subject of the pictures was the cause of distress, when the more important issue is the conditions under which those pictures were taken. And as far as the subject of the pictures is relevant (and it certainly is), condemning such forms of expression only increases the stigma those involved with them have to face - whether they were involved with their consent or without it.

The lesson I would emphasize here is not the importance of ethical practice - because in my mind, that should already go without saying - but rather a warning that anecdote should not dictate sweeping policy.