When Pornography is Pornography and Not Fine Art

When Pornography is Pornography and Not Fine Art

censored.jpgMost of you will be aware of the controversy surrounding the Nan Goldin photograph ‘Klara and Edda Belly-Dancing’ which is owned by Elton John and was recently removed from an exhibition by police after complaints were made regarding the sexual nature of the photograph which features two young girls one of whom is sitting down with her legs wide apart. After much deliberation Britain’s Crown Prosecution decided that the photograph was not indecent and that there would be no charges which seems to be a result of an investigation into the same photo in 2001 by the CPS which also found the photograph to be not indecent. I find it rather unbelievable that this particular photo could be considered not indecent considering that the definition of indecency is to “offend against generally accepted standards of propriety (conformity to established standards of good or proper behavior or manners) or good taste” which is exactly what this photo does.

Regardless of whether it was produced for the purposes of fine art or not, the reason that images containing naked pictures of children are illegal remains the same regardless of the context of the image. The fact is that just because the photo was produced as fine art doesn’t mean that it won’t be used for more sinister purposes and as such it should not be made available to the general public. I am well aware that Nan Goldin had a rather traumatic childhood but that doesn’t automatically give her the right to put other children in potentially compromising and dangerous situations. The children in the photo would not have any awareness of their inclusion in the photo or understanding of the associated issues and controversy and are therefore not able to determine whether or not they wanted to be in the photo. Because the children are not able to make a rational and informed decision regarding their inclusion in a photo that the artist had to have known would be controversial, this image should never have been made accessible to the public

I am all for artistic freedom but there has to be a point where common sense and morality come into play. Nan Goldin’s photographs benefit nobody else other than herself so if she was really producing this work for the purposes of self improvement and self expression then she would not be selling the photographs or using the controversy to further her career.

The controversy and associated media attention may have increased the value Nan Goldin’s work but at what price. At the end of the day the focus should really be on the moral and ethical issues not the artistic and legal aspects.

**Nicholas Forrest is an art market analyst, art critic and journalist based in Sydney, Australia. He is the founder of http://www.artmarketblog.com, writes the art column for the magazine Antiques and Collectibles for Pleasure and Profit and contributes to many other publications.

31 Responses

  1. Agree with you 100%! You said it best:

    “I am well aware that Nan Goldin had a rather traumatic childhood but that doesn’t automatically give her the right to put other children in potentially compromising and dangerous situations.”

    It is really unfortunate that those children were essentially forced into this position.

  2. we all know you are also aware of the controversy surround the recent and ongoing war in saatchi online, how about you cover this nick

    http://cyberstalkingvictim.blogspot.com or are you not man enough

  3. Hi Adam,

    Thanks for your support of my views. I hope that other people take notice and make a stand against this blatant exploitation of innocent children.

    Nicholas Forrest

  4. Well I don’t agree with you. I guess there is
    a difference between european continenal thinking
    and puritan religious based anglo-saxon view. If anyone is
    aroused by two naked children playing there for
    sure is something wrong with him! But I am sure
    majority just seems it as a picture of two children playing together.
    Every “non-english speaking country” resident see similar things on beach every year
    as a majority of kids bath naked and I don’t remember
    any single case of taking naked pictures around my area.

    Also if a parent
    is taking pictures of his naked children there is nothing
    illegal. It is illegal to take pictures of children
    for sexual purposes. But if you are not extremely cautious
    your photo from the beach can easily obtain naked children
    playing in the sand. You can’t say that this people are sexual
    predators or something. Just because
    some very small percentage of people are pedophiles and aroused by naked
    children that doesn’t mean that majority is and sees children in a
    exploitable way.

  5. Skip,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree that only a small percentage of people would see the photo as something other than fine art bus as far as I am concerned if this photo puts even just one child in danger then it should not be displayed.

    Nicholas Forrest

  6. Wow. I thought it would be easy for me to comment on this topic but it is not – I couldn´t remember the photo well and had to look it up.

    Although it could represent an innocent childsplay, I have yet to see a Belly Dancer do limbo dancing (which is what the younger (?) child is doing (I believe) and in doing so making an obvious display of her genitalia.

    I think there may be two points to consider here:
    1. As Nicholas says, these children are not aware of the situation they are in when that photo was taken. they do not know that it will do the rounds on the internet and will surely become part of the jpgs on a pedophiles PC. For that reason I believe it should not have been taken or at the very least distributed.

    2. However it was taken and distributed. Can it be viewed, as art? In my mind, in todays world it can. Not particularly the type of art I would go and see and given the nature of the artists past is it the type of art that society should allow to be shown.

    I think that depends on the society. It is a very fine line that is being created here between art, pedophilia and pornography and it is not the artists that is walking that line but society.

  7. Thanks for the comment colombianart. I agree that this artwork can be viewed as art but i do not think that it should be viewed as art.

    Nicholas Forrest

  8. I certainly think artists acting in good faith should be excepted from these kinds of witch hunts. In fact, it can be argued that even if an artist is trying to offend that it is their right to due so. Just as the kings of old needed their jesters to tell them the truth so does our society need its artists.

    Back to the matter of Ms Goldin’s photograph, the Prosecutor for the Crown deemed this not a pornographic depiction and I think that should suffice.

  9. thanks for the comment sculptor. I agree with you in theory but in reality the prosecutor of the crown should not be the one to make this sort of decision.

  10. I have a photograph of myself and a family member when were very young, having come across a bra of my nanas, unaware of what this garment was or how it was to be worn, we put it on the cups encasing our bottoms, laughing at this and looking at ourselves in the mirror, we were captured in this moment of innocence by a photograph. This photograph was later hung in a friends underwear shop, a cute innocent snapshot I think. Does this according to some regard as being child porn? Or indecent? Ridiculous I think, why must we think like this in present day society? It is completely unnecessary, and rather disheartening that people do read this kind of undertone of such works. I have recently been looking at the controversy surrounding the work of Sally Mann and I must express my dismay over such controversy. Mann has produced some beautiful photographs; of her own children, there’s nothing sinister about them. I think that people of today take things way too far, ease up a little people I think when real child porn is on display it will be clearly obvious to all, unlike the case of Sally Mann and this Nan Goldin picture. I could go on forever on this topic, and am in the process of writing a dissertation piece for my final year on innocence in relation/regards to art. So if anybody does have recommendations for areas of research/reading I would be grateful.
    i would like to add here that where I do believe that this topic was a farce I do question where we draw the line? As pointed out by somebody in one blog, people could take photographs with malicious intent and try to justify or pass them off as being art, especially after the ruling in this case and others like it. It is a difficult subject really as there are so many angles at which to approach such an issue from.

  11. having read the comments here it is really annoying me that the responses are mainly from men, adam , nick; do you have children of your own? Or have you had relations who have children or ever spent any time with children? this is what they do, they play, they happily walk/dance/play around naked!it is an innocent act of children, this is what they do and have been doing, and will continue to do for years and years! to say they were forced into this position is quite silly, they clearly werent. Blatent exploitation of children?! talk of going overboard! Dont you think your words would be better spent on real cases of child exploitation? This is a snapshot, as are most of Nan Goldins photographs, nick, as someone who I’d presume had knowledge of such artist and her work I am suprised you have taken this stance.
    Im sorry I just had to post again to express my thpughts, as my 1st post was completed before I had read what others had posted.

  12. Dear Katie,

    Thanks for the post, I appreciate your point of view. My final word on this topic is that regardless of anything the fact is that there are people out there who take advantage of children and abuse children so anything that encourages or arouses this interest and potentially puts children in danger should not be allowed. case closed

    Nicholas Forrest

  13. I fianly viewed the photo in question, tough it is not a great photo , it still shows her style of art. nan golden had a strange way about her photos but that one photo didnt seem as pornography to me . you tee photos taken from national geo mag all the time with nude children from africa, and around but no one ever called ther shots of african girls porn. is it only pornography to people if it is only of white kids . nude is nude in my book . but were is the line and why is it ok for some to publish and others not. Hmmmm

  14. Yeah right ! Let’s prohibit the writings of le Marquis de Sade, Lewis Caroll, Vladimir Nabokov, Georges Bataille, etc. and let’s hide from the public eyes all the greek statues and indians statues that represent naked children, let’s stop the diffusion of erotic japaneses mangas, which feature almost only very young girls in pornographic situations, let’s close our eyes… on this awfully sexual world !!! Oh, and by the way, when next time you go to some people’s house or to the beach and see naked children, please remember to call the police !

    Look, I am really very sorry to be so aggressive, but sincerely how many naked little girls are there, legs wide open or not, in artworks all over the world, in different times, cultures and civilisations ?

    What hurts or disturbs people when they look at this picture is that they can see themselves as potential predators. While it represents the beauty and innocence of childhood, it isn’t pornographic, on the contrary.

    What is truly obscene is the way at which someone looks at it. But you can’t prevent people from having bad thoughts by prohibiting the exhibition of images !!!

    The only result of such a prohibition is that you only have tu type the picture’s title in Google (no parental filter of course) and look at it from all over the world…

  15. The sole purpose of pornography is to excite the viewer sexually.

    Do you yourself not automatically attach the sexual perspective when you call such works ‘pornographic’?

  16. what do you think of all the porno charles saatchi has on his site, like liane langs masturbation latex vagina, and Dawn Hiltons Hobby Nob swinging black rubber dildo videos. And the terrible paintings of Dawn Hilton giving birth with her 8 year old son photographed in front of them. Do you consider them to be pornographic.

  17. “Hi Adam,

    Thanks for your support of my views. I hope that other people take notice and make a stand against this blatant exploitation of innocent children.

    Nicholas Forrest

    Well Nicholas,

    Do you consider this image, shown in a series of them on http://www.saatchi-gallery.com in 2007, to be blatant exploitation of innocent children.


  18. I think it is important at this point to distinguish between pornographic images and pornographic images of children. Pornographic images of adults are fine but pornographic images of children are definitely not

  19. I know this is an old topic, but the issue is not old, it is a continually irritated raw sore in our society today, and I feel compelled to comment.

    Nicholas, you wrote:
    “My final word on this topic is that regardless of anything the fact is that there are people out there who take advantage of children and abuse children so anything that encourages or arouses this interest and potentially puts children in danger should not be allowed. case closed”

    Do you mean that you think any image which could potentially arouse someone who likes children in a sexual way should be banned? Does this include any and all depictions of naked children? Then a sizable portion of our artistic past must be erased, if we are to meet your standard. Think of all the depictions of the infant Christ for instance, many of which show a child’s genitalia in full view, in a similar manner to the picture in question. Let’s start covering the ceilings of cathedrals because they are indecent. We must clothe all those indecent statues too… art will never be the same. Oh, that’s right, it’s been done in the past too. Some old paintings have recently had sloppily applied clothing removed as part of their restoration.

    But then…

    What if the perverts begin fixating on the faces of children? Must we bring on the Burqa for kids? Did you know that some people are stimulated by the mere silhouette or sound of a child? If we allow the perverts to dictate how we handle children and art, where will it end?

    Finally, exactly how does displaying an image like this put children in danger?

  20. This is ridiculous.

    I haven’t seen the picture in question, but I trust Elton John’s judgment in finding it to be an innocent example of children at play. I think it is you and others like you who insist on bringing the perverse into it. There is nothing perverse about nudity; the only perversity lies in the heart of the pervert. And as Ethan says, “what if the perverts begin fixating on the faces of children?”

    You see how ridiculous this line about “the perverts” is. The fact is, the vast majority of humanity are not such perverts, and we can enjoy each other at play in a perfectly harmless and loving way. I can hardly think of a parent who doesn’t have adorable pictures of their children playing naked. There is nothing “insidious” or “dangerous” about this, and to suggest that there is makes me weep for humanity.

    Ethan has already said it better than I, but I had to weigh in as well. I think you have issues, my good man.

  21. Wow, people get fairly heated about this subject. I didn’t take the Nan Goldin photo too seriously when I first saw it, but I see Nicholas’s point. I can think of a dozen more controversial and explicit works by lesser known artists, but I think that’s the most poignant part of this argument. I think once the artist achieves a certain level of fame, and the work is selling at retail spaces and becomes more of a public commodity, aspects change about the ramifications of what the artist does. I do not want to endorse censorship at all. I am a parent and do not know any other parent who does not have naked photos of their own children playing or bathing. We do not sell them though, and are careful as to who we allow to see them, if at all. Unless of course you want to embarrass them when they finally start dating and bring the boyfriend or girlfriend over. But I digress. What it comes down to is that artists must realize that there are plenty of idiots(and perverts) out there who will misinterpret the work. Most artists will try to produce anything that provokes even a minute reaction from the public. But artists are not released from responsibility once the work leaves the studio. Exploration and experimentation are extremely important, but so is quality and consistency of concept. It’s too bad that this photo of Nan’s caused such a blush, because she has such better works that I am sure she would wish to be known for. I doubt such a fuss would have been made if the artist were not “known”. It reminds me of the Mapplethorpe, Seranno, and Helms debacle. I don’t want to get into how much of a complete neanderthal that Helms was, or is, but the fact is that both artists had to realize that what works they would allow into the public circulation would have larger meaning than when they were unknown. Now I, and every other individual artist in America can not apply for an NEA grant. I’m sure the artist’s had no idea that their works would cause such an uproar, let alone end their funding. But think what might have happened if they waited to release the controversial works when their public sponsorship ended. I think Nicholas is looking at this through the lens of art history, and understands the roles of artists and their patrons, and their critics. Once a work is sold, and real money changes hands for it, the artist is not absolved of responsibility. Misinterpretation is a reality that most artist do not want to deal with.

  22. Please stop being so concerned with what a pervert will do with the image. A pervert will be aroused by underwear ads, horses, shoes, anything at all can arouse someone with deviant tendencies. Let’s concern ourselves with the children in the picture. How were they harmed? Well…. they obviously weren’t. How will they be harmed by a pedophile in Idaho becoming aroused – well they still won’t. The only harm will come from the society that tells them that they’re sexual when they’re not. The harm comes from the police questioning them to see if they were harmed. The harm comes from YOU programming society to believe that there’s a pervert around every street corner.

  23. […] Grey V on When Pornography is Pornograph…Rich Coda on Urgent Spencer Finch Buy Alert…Otto Rapp on Urgent Spencer Finch Buy […]

  24. I do agree with you Greg but this case can’t be ignored. If there was a way to debate the issue without involving the adolescent subjects of his photos then that would be great but this is not the case. It’s not about whether a pedophile in another country becoming arroused has any impact on anyone it is about the fact that there shoudn’t be such material available in the first place.

  25. I like the way you have held your ground on the child protection issue from the start, Nicholas.

    It was Clive Hamilton who remarked that there has been a peculiar assumption made by a defensive arts community that “moral sensibility is always rooted in aesthetic ignorance”.

    Clearly you have put that assumption to the test.

    Perhaps you may be interested in my comments on another site.


    Best wishes,


  26. I don’t see anything wrong with the picture…but what is artistic about it??

    I think it would be a little strange if people who don’t know the children choose to have this photo on their wall or in their photo collection. Why? Because it’s a photo of two children playing and it belongs in a family photo album. It is not art.

  27. I am a student studies in to sencership gone to far ! Need to ask you about sexualisation of children -Hi there I am wanting to know what your views on this about your web site!
    Rember the movie howddog with that little girl in it she was not alould to see it on the big screen becoues she was not R 18 .But was alould to act in it and get raped in it and be around the movie set wile filming.! I don’t have a shower with my freinds girl if there is any there at the public beach.shes( 9 )I will stop this when she reaches pubictiy .I have Aspergers and am veary onest about everthing .I have got in and not understand about the numerous things that are tabo but the lady I lived with had talked to her dorter and me together .one night there was a storm and I was baby siting the girl tryed to sleep in my bed with me I lay down the rules .and dident let her mums x husbin her dad was a crazy man and if he cor’t me in her bed with this little girl he will shot me . evething ok. I told her mother what happend !
    I have not got a prolbem with little girls two peice swimsuit.
    this lady had a prolbem with her girl walking around in her underwhere in front of her nabers boy when I was bording with them but then seid no nickers under her leotards the next day.?
    We are not alould to post pitchers of chrilden nude just in case some one might wack of to it unless that thay are national gerographic or art ? aneone can paint a nude pitcher in oil of a child and have it around Aneywhere crazy world.

    I need to open a wider view on this I.m not saying that all 3 to 11 year olds should run naked around every where but arnt we all a bit over protective?

    cheers from a man with aspergers & a student that studies

    David Greer.

  28. Softcore pornography depicts nude and semi-nude performers engaging in casual social nudity or non-graphic representations of sexual intercourse or masturbation.like sex education ats all part of life.

    Soft core is legel if you are an artist / the corts are veary blind minded and just no mind at all. But the law is so out dated.Child soft core cloathed models do reduice the risk of rape.Men youse the pitchers as a subatute hard porn or soft .lilamber preteen model was band… then back on line afte a cort herring..

  29. i agree look at my blog Bigfoot & Psychic Phenomea

  30. Yes, there is a fine gray line between legal and illegal; between art and debauchery; between taking innocent pictures of one’s own naked children, and this picture of Klara and Edda, where the incidentally or not, the viewers’ eye is drawn to a child’s genitalia that is clearly visible. That itself embodies the legal definition of child pornography in some countries! The question of whether the focus on the genitalia is for the sexual gratification of the viewers, is very subjective.

    Having said that, this “art” or whatever else you want to call it is nothing but child sexual exploitation. While it hangs in gallerias and at exhibitions, it also undoubtedly surfaces in child sexual abuse paraphernalia.

    If as a society one can argue for the aesthetics of this being art, it will not surprise me if that society will evolve to support the ludicrous legal defense for paedophilia.

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