Sunday, October 04, 2009

Censors and Sensibility

The Times has a thoughtful article on the Brooke Shields nude photo flap in London, and how the spread of the Internet has shifted our viewpoint, making us as a society tend to view all nude images of children as sexual. Why is it perfectly acceptable for the Tate Modern gallery to display "sex and gore", but unacceptable to exhibit a photograph of a young girl standing in a bath?
“If all art is doing is being provocative, that’s not very interesting,” said Matthew Kieran, professor of philosophy and the arts at Leeds University. “There is a kind of puerile tendency in some contemporary art where being shocking for its own sake is thought of as quite valuable.”

Purpose and context are vital, he argues. It would be morally repugnant to post a picture like that of Shields on a paedophile website because the intention would be to excite sexual interest. By contrast, argues Kieran, the same image in an art gallery invites the viewer to confront and explore issues of child sexuality and morality.

“It’s the visual equivalent of the novel Lolita,” he said. “Do we think Lolita shouldn’t be read? No. Do we think it is deeply morally troubling? Yes. Why is it so good? Because it is deeply morally troubling.

“It starts to explain it and then you have a much richer understanding.” Such understanding, he says, can be beneficial in our broader approach to the problem the art addresses.

“Instead of treating these people [with paedophile tendencies] like freaks and monsters — of course they are ill and it’s morally problematic — you start approaching them as human beings.”
That's going to be hard to swallow for the general public, who have been bombarded by the 24-hour news media with horrific stories of child abductions and murders, and programs which turn the capture of online predators into fodder for commercially paid entertainment.

According to the Crimes Against Children Research Center, while arrests of online predators is increasing, especially due to law enforcement stings, the Internet does not appear to be facilitating an epidemic of sex crimes against youth, victims are adolescents rather than young children, and "there was no evidence that online predators were stalking or abducting unsuspecting victims based on information they posted at social networking sites."

The Child Molestation Research and Prevention Institute estimates that while 20% of girls and 10% of boys are sexually abused by the time they reach the age of 13, most of those will be abused by a family member or close friend, not a stranger. The institute also recognizes that 95% of the sex acts against youth are committed by people with an ongoing sex drive directed toward children.

So there is no evidence that a nude photo of a 10 year-old Brooke Shields, the sight of a toddler running nude on a beach, some family photos of naked children in the bath, or children at nudist resorts, contribute in any way to the pedophilia problem. Like airport security, which is designed more to make people feel safe rather than actually be safe, the removal of the Shields photo from the Tate is a public relations stunt to placate the masses into believing the problem of pedophilia is being properly addressed.

Making criminals out of artists, photographers and parents because of something someone else "might" do is the easy way to deal with the problem. You can't prevent rape by forcing women to wear birkas, you can't prevent shoplifting by outlawing malls, and you cannot prevent crimes against children by outlawing innocent nude photographs. Law enforcement officials and legislators are impotent to deal with the real problems, so in order to convince the public that they are doing their jobs, they tend to arrest victims, prosecute children, and pass unnecessary laws and ordinances to create a smokescreen for their own failures.

Such is the case in England, where some "horrific" recent cases of pedophilia have been in the news, and heightened public awareness of a problem in need of a solution, so authorities have gone after the Tate Modern gallery in order to put on a show for the media. Wag the dog.

Personally I find the Shields image to be discomforting, much in the same way I find these child beauty pageants to be creepy, exploitative and sexualizing. Check out the beauty pageant portfolio of photographer Colby Katz - his photographs of children being made up, dressed, spray-painted and displayed are bound to elicit a gut reaction from anyone who views them.

Sometimes we need to be confronted with the uncomfortable in order to maintain intellectual balance. Government censorship is tantamount to what happens to Alex in Anthony Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange", where his despicable criminality lands him in a scientific experiment designed to make him physically ill whenever the thought of murder or rape crosses his mind, rendering him ultimately into a human jellyfish, a piece of mechanized flesh, completely unable to function in society. Ultimately his conditioning is reversed due to political backlash, and society is forced to embrace Alex for his perversity.

Instead of dealing with the societal and cultural reasons for Alex's penchant for crime, the government opted for the easy fix, to sanitize his body and mind from the evils of society, while neglecting the fact that the evils of society were still flourishing.

Ironically, Stanley Kubrick's film of "A Clockwork Orange" was banned in Britain for 27 years because it was believed to have inspired real violence, but the truth of that claim remains unclear, and the film is now readily available in the UK.

So now it's a photograph of a nude 10 year-old girl in the bath which is endangering British Society. Perhaps the powers that be will determine that the image is not pornographic, and perhaps they will rule that it is indeed obscene. Whatever the outcome, censorship is rarely sensible.

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