Perverse perceptions

There is nothing 'sinister' or 'perverse' about the Gearon photographs at the London Saatchi Gallery. So why is it assumed that we will look at them in that way?

It is encouraging to see so many of ‘the great and the good’ lined up in support of the London Saatchi Gallery’s decision not to withdraw images of children that, according to the Crown Prosecution Service, may contravene child protection legislation.

Reports in the UK weekend newspapers that Scotland Yard’s obscene publications unit has told the gallery to remove two pictures by the US artist, Tierney Gearon, beggared belief. Moral philosopher Lady Warnock labelled Scotland Yard’s instructions ‘monstrous interference’, and condemned them as the ‘kind of act of a politically correct dictatorship’. Film producer Sir David Puttnam dismissed it as ‘utter silliness’, and Alan Yentob, the BBC’s director of drama, asked if the police did not have better things to do.

Curiously (and rather troublingly), the president of the British Board of Film Classification, Andreas Whittam Smith, broke the liberal ranks and supported the censors. Writing in the UK Daily Mail on 12 March, he opined that we should ask ourselves whether the pictures are ‘young innocents at play’, or whether they ‘hint at something far more sinister and more perverse’.

Never has there been a better illustration that perversity lies in the eye of the beholder. The images at the centre of the controversy involve two photographs, which depict Gearon’s two children, aged six and four, naked or partly naked while playing. In one the children are standing on a beach naked except for theatrical masks. In the other her son is peeing in the snow.

There is nothing ‘sinister’ or ‘perverse’ about these photographs. Rather, the opposite is the case. They remind us of how unselfconscious children are.

The police are reported to have acted under the 1978 Protection of Children Act, which makes it a criminal offence to take an indecent photograph of a child. This is the Act that, famously and ludicrously, led to police questioning newsreader Julia Somerville in 1995 over photos that she had taken of her children in the bath.

Somerville was shopped by some nasty-minded technician involved in developing her film. In the Somerville case, the UK Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) took no action. So it is notable that, in this latest case, newspaper reports suggest that the CPS and Scotland Yard are of the same mind: pictures of naked kids are obscene.

What is going on here? It seems that society’s obsession with child abuse and paedophilia is casting us all in the role of perverts. Now, when we see a picture of a naked child, we are asked not to appreciate the beauty of a child’s body, but to venture into the most depraved recesses of our imaginations to dredge up a possible obscene interpretation.

Supporting Wittham Smith, Gerald Howarth MP, chairman of a cross-party parliamentary family and child protection committee, argues that displaying these images puts children at risk ‘by sending out a message to paedophiles that it is normal to view children in this way’. It begs the question: what is ‘this way’ of viewing children? What is it that Howarth sees that could send a message to paedophiles? Is it simply that the children are showing their genitals?

Writing in the UK Independent on 11 March, Blake Morrison shrewdly observed that children without their clothes on have become ‘the great taboo of our age’. Howarth seems to imply that thoughts of sexual perversity always accompany pictures of naked children. But do they? Should they? Surely not. If so, that would make perverts of us all.

I have a vivid memory of a holiday, eight years ago in the south of France. I was lying on the sand, engrossed in a novel and dimly aware that a family, a French couple with a girl aged six or seven, had settled next to us and she was playing naked on the sand. When I looked up, I remember physically recoiling when I saw that the girl was sitting on a blanket with her legs apart while her smiling father was too engrossed in wiping sand from his daughter’s fanny to notice my reaction.

For a nanosecond I was disgusted with him for, apparently, ‘touching up’ his daughter. For a good while longer, I was disgusted with myself that the idea even entered my mind. It had clearly not crossed the father’s mind that his care for his daughter would be misread. He presumably expected to be seen as a gentle affectionate parent, not as a paedophile.

Why would anybody even think of this father in that way? Because we live in a society that instructs us to look upon all adults in the company of a naked child as perverted. That really is sick.

I hope the Saatchi Gallery continues to defy Scotland Yard, and that its supporters from the elevated ranks of art and culture continue to support it. But I hope their protest will not just object to the censorship of art, but to the culture that insists we must look at everything through the prism of perversity and abuse.


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