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Olympia and Hetty

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Friday, 18 July 2008


Australia is currently beset by a moral apoplexy that takes one back to the bad old days when “dirty” literature like Lady Chatterley’s Lover failed to make it to the stands. The same could be said for films that were given the savage cut, or simply not shown at all. Such an Australia was afraid to digest images that might have released it from its self-imposed immaturity.

Why this rush of sexual accusation, this over-heated condemnatory attitude? We had Bill Henson’s photographs at a Sydney gallery (the righteous told us we are dirty to even look at them); then there was the Art Monthly Australia cover photo of Olympia Nelson, taken by her mother, Melbourne photographer Polixeni Papapetrou.

The father of the model in question, Robert Nelson, an art critic, can’t quite see what the fuss is about. Nor can his articulate daughter. “I love the photo so much. I think that the picture my mum took of me had nothing to do with being abused, and I think nudity can be a part of art.” Not so, according to those advocates who resemble the Taliban in terms of dress codes for children.

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The question to be asked is where this “sexualisation” is coming from. Certainly not from those who happily go about their business during the course of day, seeing images that could not remotely attract that description. The image of Olympia Nelson had been available for public consumption for sometime prior to this nonsense, and was shown without much fuss.

As always, the party guiltiest of smut is the party who sees it everywhere (killjoys, censors, and so forth). Bravehearts and other child protection groups portray themselves as a keen defenders of children (we are all defenders now, from the vigilantes camping in Carbrook waiting a suitable chance to lynch Dennis Ferguson, to zealous data-crunching bureaucrats), but in order to mount a suitable defence, a suitable opponent must be created. Enter the obsession with sexual innuendo, sexual imagery, the dark forces that say more about the accusers than they do about the accused.

It may not have been very bright to have put the image up in Art Monthly Australia. Editorial policy might have simply ignored the Bill Henson saga. But in another sense, the editors took a stand worth making. Art is a commitment, and art can, whatever the aesthetically inclined might say, be political. To not make the statement against this current upsurge or moral insanity would have been worse.

There is a more dire aspect to this whole episode. Hetty Johnston and her assembly of Braveheart warriors are not merely trivialising genuine abuse, they are cheapening its gravity where it matters most. This is not child protection but a fictional demonisation of a process that does not exist at the level Johnston would like us to believe. Genuine offences are somehow mixed and conflated. We are bound to regard all crimes as having a uniform taint of abuse. With such an approach, punishment lacks sense and perspective.

There is no need to go so far, as some men’s groups suggest, of seeing Johnston, as in the words of a publishing collective, “part of the greater feminist push to see men stigmatised as child abusers … and that used against them by women to retain custody in family law disputes”. But there is much to doubt in such fundamentalist crusades. Johnston herself had a child adopted out.

Her reasons, as she claims in her autobiography In the Best Interests of the Child were economic, a darker era where the “reality was cruel”. She could not “seriously consider [her] preferred option of keeping my baby”. In time, her pursuit of children’s rights resembles a public therapy session in motion, a catharsis of sorts. Artists and spectators beware.

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Support for Johnston’s stance has been forthcoming. Instead of being scotched from the start, this controversy has been fanned by the highest in Canberra. Leaders on both sides of politics are now art critics (or rather, they have decided to tell us what is, and what isn’t art). Brendon Nelson is even more zealous than his counterpart, Kevin Rudd, who is also enthusiastic in proclaiming such art as “revolting”. For Nelson, “The use and sexualisation of children in this way is indefensible, whether in the name of art, parental consent or political protest”. Such behaviour gave a “two-fingered salute to the rest of society”.

Johnston and Bravehearts are but one part of this apoplectic surge in seeing sex in everything. In this, the parents are not protectors but perpetrators. The true urge to sexualise does not reside merely in Dennis Ferguson. We are no longer confronted by the spectacle of predators in search of their child quarry, but child protection members who pontificate at will over vast spheres of society they have little understanding about. Who, then, are the real pornographers now?

One can only speculate what they will find next: a curiously inappropriate use of children with teddies on advertisements for real estate perhaps. Be wary, Mr Hooker.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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