Children in art ~ theatre notes

Friday, November 14, 2008

Children in art

The Australia Council yesterday released its Draft Children in Art Protocols, which will determine council funding where artists are working with children. They are available for comment and response online.

The immediate response from arts organisations is that areas of real concern are already covered by existing laws and that key recommendations are unworkable. For example, among the recommendations are that all photographs of children (who are defined as anyone under 18) - clothed or unclothed - can only be exhibited with the permission of their parents or guardians. Which will make life a little difficult for documentary makers and street photographers. Moreover, there is concern that such protocols shift the Council's role from funding body to regulator.

And don't think that these protocols only apply to photographers. They apply to all artists - as the documents says, "photography, painting, printmaking, performance, sculpture, written text, digital imagery, etc". Young adult fiction writers will, I imagine, be particularly concerned about the insistence that young people cannot be portrayed in writing in an "indecent" manner.

As always, the question is what constitutes indecency: while in law such restrictions are clearly made to forbid pornography involving children, the inclusion of this clause in an arts protocol means that it can be more widely applied to include any literary depiction of the sexuality of anyone under 18. The conflation with pornography of - say - Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, or the beautiful and sensitive books of David Almond, draws ever closer.

I keep wondering if no one remembers what it's like to be 13.

At present the protocols are disturbingly vague, which means they can be extended far beyond their original purpose. They were originally foisted on the Australia Council as a kind of deal after the fact-free shockjock hysteria that surrounded (and still surrounds) the work of Bill Henson: if you don't make them, said Garrett, Rudd will. And that will be worse. Anyone who doubts this is over can check Hetty Johnson's comments in the Australian today, where she claims that the controversy over Bill Henson's work demonstrated that "the existing legal framework is far from adequate".

In the meantime, the nightmare of compliance these protocols imply suggests that their main effect will be to make childhood a no-go area for artists. And I'm not at all sure that's a good thing, for children or for artists.


Anonymous said...

Where's Nabokov when you need him?

Alison Croggon said...

Dead, like most writers.

Actually, I wonder if living writers have begun to outnumber the celebrated dead, in the same way that soon the world's population will outnumber our deceased forebears?

Anonymous said...

This is an awful legal situation to be developing, Alison. However, from the instructions I've been given, it is already illegal to exhibit photographs of under-18 children without parental consent. This may be just my employer's self-protection, however. Certain kinds of legal atmosphere create as much prohibition as laws, as people and organisations try to minimise their liability risk.

And to think childhood didn't exist until the 19th-century...

Anonymous said...

How extraordinary! This seems to be just another indication that the decisions and opinions of people under the age of eighteen can simply be steamrolled. The ability of young people to use the arts as a forum for provocation, discussion and debate, to promote ideology or to confront issues that are pertinent specifically to them, is severely compromised by this legislation.
Where is the waters edge, when it comes to considering the advent of adulthood?

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, as people have commented, there are very clear laws in place already that protect children from exploitation. Perhaps the strangest irony is that all the things demanded here - permission from parents and guardians and the requirement to remain within the law - were properly fulfilled by Henson when he took the photos that prompted these protocols in the first place. So they effectively are telling artists to do what they - if they have any sense and any ethics - are already doing anyway.

What's insulting really is that it assumes that there's a problem, when in fact there isn't. But to admit that there isn't would involve listening to the parents and children concerned, which is something these so-called activists seem very reluctant to do. If there is a problem, and parents and children concerned make a complaint, by all means hit the perpetrators with the full force of the law. But this is much ado about nothing, with potentially serious consequences. More in the areas of self censoring and the call for time-consuming, unnecessary and even impossible compliances, I'd suspect, that in any direct censorship.

And the suggestion that it's sexually dangerous to represent or to work with young people is rather like the suggestion that women wearing immodest clothes are rotten meat attracting flies...

Anonymous said...


I am more sure than ever, in retrospect, that Henson owes us all an apology (apparently not yourself and a few acolytes). My LA friend (and he is quite some artist) assures me that he can smell self promotion even in OZ, and also that Henson knows he pushes envelopes. Now the envelope is bust, and all of us are the lesser and more bureacratic. No wonder Henson is quiet. Thanks, but no thanks, Bill, for the non mythological, intimate, close up, a-contextual portraits of early teens. Ahem. (But thanks for your blog of course Alison - we can forgive one glitch)

Alison Croggon said...

O the joys of anonymity. Anyone pretending to be me, as in a comment I just deleted, will be immediately deleted.

Geoff: I don't know how one can be self-promoting and silent at the same time. But I'll leave you to work that one out.

It's unquestionable that Henson pushes envelopes. Aren't we all in that business? Or do we stay obediently in the envelopes given us by the state, like good little pets? What is art for, then? And if we are indeed "lesser" because of the work of one artist, it's our fault, and not Henson's.

Russell Blackford said...

Sorry to have missed this when you posted it. Personally, I think this entire government can go jump. Yes, I know Howard was worse, blah, blah. But I am sick to death of Rudd - a nasty little moralistic twerp. Garrett is simply a non-entity. He was a reasonable singer, but he lacks the intellect to cope in politics; he's out of his depth and utterly useless. The sooner they sack him the better.