Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Nude Family: What is Child Pornography and what is Art?



Sexual performance and sexual conduct by children is something that is both harmful and offensive in regards to child pornography. However, in the form of art, can child nudity be acceptable? The case of Sally Mann, an American photographer, came under public and critical pressure when she published a book entitled Immediate Family. The book depicted her three children, all under the age of 10, in everyday life. It followed them through playful, depressing, and sleeping habits. However, why it was so controversial was that Mann photographed her children nude and many people found this form of art as child pornography. The question arises then: are her photos of her family child pornography?

I personally do not consider Sally Mann's photographs of her children to be child pornography. They are the expression of an artist and a mother. As she puts it when she responds to critics, "natural in the eyes of a mother." This is a great quote that puts a line between pornography and art. If we examine other forms of art and child pornography, we could look at film. In many films, there is a "portrayal" of underage nudity. In 1998, with Titanic, Kate Winslet plays a 17 year old who appears naked on screen. Although, Kate Winslet was over age, her character was underage, which panders the idea of child pornography. Also in the 1990’s film Kids, there are actual underage actors engaging in sexual activity. Though, it is not seen, it is highly implied. So, a big question could be what is it about child pornography in art that offends or harms us?

John Stuart Mill's philosophy on harm and offense can apply to the topic of child pornography. Mills' harm principle says that an individual is free to act on their own will (taking nude photos of their children) as long as it does not harm others. Are the photos harming others? I can see them as offending, but not harming. Joel Feinberg and his offense principle tell people that offensive material in books can be easily avoidable. I find that due to the fact that under parental permission, the pictures do not harm those involved and cannot take such a drastic claim as "being harmful" to others. On the basis of offense, a much lesser charge, I find that there can be offense, but that it is also avoidable.

In the case of Osborne v. Ohio, the topic of child nudity was being tested. The state of Ohio defined child nudity as "graphic focus on the minor's genitals," and many pictures in Sally Mann's book there are pictures of her children naked, but I do not find there to be graphic focus in any of the photos. Photos such as this, I find are more art than offensive. Also, the Ohio law prohibits showing a minor in a state of nudity permissible with the minor's parents have consented with such photographs. In this case, Mann photographed her own children for the purpose of art.

I do not think I would change Ohio’s law and its definition because I already find it too broad. The law stated that nudity is defined as “lewd exhibition of nudity” and I do not find any of the photographs as lewd and also do not believe the art as a whole depicts focus on a minor’s genitals in a lewd (crude and offensive in a sexual way) or offensive way. I consider pictures that display children being portrayed in a sexual way as in engaging in sexual activity or implied sexual activity as lewd and offensive. However, we must also consider the children themselves. In this case, as their mother was taking the pictures I do not see the pictures causing harm to them either.

There is also the issue of if the book should be taken as a whole or parts. Art must be taken as a whole and not divided or torn apart into pieces. If we were to take this photograph and chop it down to only focus on the genitals, it would not be fair because art must be seen as a whole. The historic art piece of Michelangelo’s David, seen below, and countless Greek and Roman art depict children in the nude and sexual activity. In an example of an hour long movie that depicted lewd and graphic display of child genitals as in my definition of lewd, it shall not be protected. What taking art as a whole protects is meant by context of what is being displayed and the situation. I think Mann, as an artist, was displaying the role of a photographer and a mother.


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