Sequel: Art Monthly Australia July 2008


I apologise in advance to Kevin Rudd, Brendan Nelson, and any others who may find the image above or any others on this page “revolting”…


artmonthlySee 10. But is it art? Responses to the Bill Henson controversy of 2008

Significant update 10 July

ABC News tonight carries a report Dad’s sexuality essay renews children-in-art concerns.

There is renewed controversy about the naked little girl depicted on the cover of Art Monthly because of an essay her father wrote about the sexuality of children.

Art critic Robert Nelson has been widely criticised for allowing a picture of his naked six-year-old daughter Olympia to be published on the magazine cover.

Olympia Nelson is now 11 and says she is proud of the photos.

An article in the Herald Sun has revealed the essay Mr Nelson wrote, which is featured on his wife’s website.

It reads: “The sensuality of children is integral to parental fondness.”

He wrote centuries of suppression have discouraged what he calls “the sensual delight of children and the enjoyment of their own bodies”.

“Undoubtedly a part of this taboo was the fear of the child’s latent sexuality and its potential for exciting inappropriate and sinful desire,” he wrote.

He also describes photographs taken by his wife of their two-year-old daughter: “In the suite of nude photographs, Olympia is seen with a dummy … The dummy, itself, is ambiguous; for while it vouches for the child’s infancy … it also evokes the perversity of pleasure-sucking, tellingly, then, the outward sign of innocence is potentially the most diabolically sexual.”

But Mr Nelson says those comments in the essay were not intended to be controversial. “That was written in a completely different discourse … this sort of stuff is very context dependent,” he said. “That argument was raised in the context concerned with Freudian theory.”

Parental responsibility

Moira Rayer, a barrister and vice president of Defence for Children International, says Mr Nelson appears to have forgotten his first responsibility is to his daughter’s best interests…

The essay in question is here:

In the suite of nude photographs, Olympia is seen with a dummy or pacifier. It is a necessary token of her age; otherwise, the spectator could assume that the model is a pre-pubescent Balthusian nymphet. Yet the dummy, itself, is ambiguous; for while it vouches for the child’s infancy (and by implication non-genital sexuality or confinement to an oral phase) it also evokes the perversity of pleasure-sucking, i.e. a sucking for non-nutritious purposes, apparently serving a hedonistic function unrelated to nourishment. Tellingly, then, the outward sign of innocence is potentially the most diabolically sexual.

The works challenge the taboos against the recognition of child sensuality; but they are not a form of erotica. The photographs are stylistically chaste and unromanticized. They document the display in its communicative integrity and invite the instantaneous rush of fondness for the adult-like poses in a tiny child. In the process, however, they do acknowledge that the child has access rights to an erotic language. If the photographs were conceived as erotica, this language would be stylistically induced by the photographer and imposed upon the model. The confronting aspect of this suite is that the sensual language proceeds from the child alone.

See Polixeni Papapetrou Website — and the video below.

I have emphasised part of the 2000 essay in the extract above, the concluding paragraphs, which the report fails to mention. I freely admit that I find art criticism, particularly that which accesses pomo or post-Freudian theory, virtually unreadable, in the main, so my expertise is limited. I would rather contemplate the art work itself. Naive I admit I may be, but I still find the contested image distinctly innocuous, and suspect much of what Nelson says above — and similar stuff on the Papapetrou site by critics whose names are familiar to me from other reading since the 1980s — to be somewhat in the realm of wankery or wishful thinking… But I am no expert.


The July 2008 issue of Art Monthly Australia — site linked to the screen shot above — has caused the ructions I am sure the editors intended, with its cover shot of Polixeni Papapetrou, Olympia as Lewis Carroll’s Beatrice Hatch before White Cliffs (detail), 2003. The note goes on: “This photograph is part of the artist’s Dreamchild series, 2003, which has been exhibited in Bendigo, New York, Perth, Sydney and Melbourne. Papapetrou was recently represented in the exhibition Presumed Innocence: Photographic Perspectives of Children, De Cordova Museum and Sculpture Park, Lincoln, Massachusetts, USA, 2 February to 27 April 2008.”

It’s fair to say that makes the point in miniature which the rest of the magazine proceeds to expand on, and is quite deliberately, and I would say angrily, giving the child protection lobby food for thought or, as seems more to have been the result so far, food for fight.

Polixeni Papapetrou interview. This was made before the current controversy, but not long ago. In the second half especially there are some great insights into her relationship with her own daughter, the subject of THAT photo, and into her own childhood as a Greek-Australian. Well worth taking the eight minutes to view.

Probably the best thing to do is look at the magazine for yourself and decide what you think.

Issue 211, July, 2008


Ella Dreyfus, The Ladz: Nadz and Dax, 2005, silver gelatin print. This photograph won the Olive Cotton Award for Photographic Portraiture (2005) yet as an image is similar to the artist’s … more >

02 Humbert or Humbug? ADAM GECZY

Bill Henson, Untitled, 2007/08, type C photograph, from the Untitled series, 2007/08. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

more >

03 Art and (not or) Pornography DONALD BROOK

From time to time there is a great fuss made about whether some object is a work of art or pornographic. Experts are invited to testify, and mostly ridiculed for their trouble. Witnesses with no ex… more >


04 Shashinjinsei: Nobuyoshi Araki’s photo journey MANAMI OKAZAKI

Nobuyoshi Araki, from the Sentimental Journey series, 1971, black and white photograph. Courtesy the artist. … more >

boythorn Again, the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has spoken from the hip.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says he cannot stand the photo of a young naked girl published on the cover of an art magazine.

Art Monthly Australia says it put the six-year-old naked girl on its cover to protest against the censorship of nude children in art.

Mr Rudd has told ABC1’s Insiders program that the cover goes against the interests of protecting children.

“How can anyone assume that a little child of six years old, eight, 10, 12, somehow is able to make that decision for themselves,” he said.

“I mean I don’t think I can [assume that] – that’s just my view and that’s why frankly I can’t stand this stuff.”

The New South Wales Minister for Community Services wants the magazine referred to the Australian Classification Board.

Meanwhile child abuse campaigner Hetty Johnson from Bravehearts says she is heartened by Mr Rudd’s comments.

“I think the Prime Minister has made his views on this issue very, very clear,” she said.

“I have to say, in my 11 years of campaigning on this issue I’ve never been more prouder of this country than I abartolinim in listening to what the Prime Minister has to say.

“Nor have I felt more confident around the direction in which Australia is going around the protection of children.”

I suspect in a calmer atmosphere the photo would hardly have attracted attention, and I really begin to wonder about Kevin Rudd. Still, I guess he has, we have, much weightier issues to focus on — such as the impact of climate change on the delicate ecosystem that is Australia, just for starters, and the economic consequences of the action we must take on that front.

I am against the abuse of children. There have been, and are, far more spectacular examples of such abuse in institutions such as churches, schools, and indeed families, and those ongoing in many instances. I think we would all be better off looking at them rather than worrying about such an innocuous, indeed innocent, image as that which graces the front cover of Art Monthly Australia in July 2008.


Honestly, this whole thing has become embarrassingly silly*: Photographed girl defends nude magazine cover.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has said he cannot stand the picture and Federal Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson says he will ask the Federal Police to investigate.

But Olympia Nelson has taken umbrage at those comments.

“I think that the picture my mum took of me has nothing to do with being abused,” she said.

“I’m really, really offended by what Kevin Rudd said about this picture.”

Her father, art critic Robert Nelson, says the Prime Minister’s criticism of the work is uninformed and damaging.

“I think he’s welcome to have an opinion on art – I think that’s to be encouraged,” Mr Nelson said.

“I think the problem arises when, as he did with Bill Henson, he declared that the images are revolting and linked them to the protection of children without a shred of evidence.”


linked image

* On the silliness of it all see Marcellous: You have to laugh.

10 thoughts on “Sequel: Art Monthly Australia July 2008

  1. Worth a thousand words…
    Link to interesting video about Bill Henson’s photographic work:

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  4. I have been singing this little bit of Tom Lehrer. Do you know it?

    “Old books can be indecent books,
    Though recent books are bolder.
    For filth, I’m glad to say,
    Is in the mind of the beholder.
    When correctly viewed,
    Everything is lewd.
    I could tell you things about Peter Pan
    And the Wizard of Oz – there’s a dirty old man!”

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  6. Afterthought: keep in mind it is the cover photo that has attracted the keen eyes and brains of our leading politicians, not to mention those of the indefatigible Hetty. Whether what is inside the magazine is all of the same nature as the cover photo is not really the issue. I haven’t read the magazine, and the magazine site does not give away much content, as some of you will have found. But that content is not relevant to the question “Is that cover photo pornographic or revolting?” My answer is an unambiguous “No, it is neither of those.” Nor do I consider any of the images on my page to be pornographic or revolting, including the thumbnails from the disputed magazine, though the final one here is a bit silly. Thanks Channel Nine/NineMSN for that freely available G-rated pic of Harry Potter’s alter ego.

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