The law is sometimes a useful means of regulating activity, but in the area of art it has no place.

That is why calls from morality campaigners and knee-jerk legislators to ban the use of naked children in art are fundamentally flawed.

Over the weekend, the ever shrill Hetty Johnston, a morals campaigner, suggested that legislation be introduced nationally “that removes artistic merit from the child p-rnography laws”. This legislation should control “what artists can do in relation to the use of children in art.”

No doubt Ms Johnston’s call will appeal to populist politicians like Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson who are working themselves into a considerable lather over the decision by Art Monthly to place on its front cover a lovely photograph of a young n-ked child who is clearly not striking a s-xual pose.

But to legislate to criminalise the conduct of Art Monthly, or any artist, publication, gallery or even website would make the law what it is clearly not mean to be — an ass.

Let us illustrate the absurdity of Johnston’s hare-brained idea this way.

A blockbuster exhibition from a European collection is about to tour Australia’s major capital cities. This exhibition includes Caravaggio’s Amor Vincit Omnia and Cranach’s Venus — both famous 16th century works portraying n-ked teenagers. Under the Hetty Johnston law, these extraordinary works of art could not be shown in Australia. They would be classed as child p-rnography and gallery directors would be prosecuted for hanging them on their walls.

Johnston’s proposed law would require state and territory police forces to employ a morality squad. Their role would be to run around art galleries, search websites, and even private homes with warrants to remove paintings, photographs, sculptures and films which depicted n-ked children. The law would make paedophiles and child porn fet-shists out of innocent people and institutions. Judges and magistrates would be placed in the invidious position of having to enforce a law that was patently unjust.

And our courts would have to grapple with absurd definition issues like what does n-ked mean? Does it mean completely unclothed, or partly unclothed? If a child is fully dressed will we have experts telling us that because the child is pouting then this amounts to child p-rnography? What if the face of the child cannot be seen? Does this make a difference to a prosecution? The list of twists, turns and legal machinations is endless and ultimately so ridiculously complex as to render the law unworkable.

And it would not only be artists who would be affected. Film-makers would be in the gun as well. Laws that ban completely the showing of children n-ked would make criminal a perfectly innocent scene of children ripping off their clothes on a hot summer’s day and jumping into the local river — a practice that generations of Australian children have gained countless hours of pleasure from.

Johnston’s proposal is also grossly demeaning to children. She, along with the hot and bothered Rudd and Nelson, think that if a child is portrayed in art then it must be for a s-xual purpose. How said that they have such a warped view.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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