An autobiographical note…

by bjmuirhead

It is true enough that each of us sees the world from our own particular viewpoints. None the less, our opinions and beliefs usually are a reflection and slight modification of commonly held cultural beliefs Whether these belong to minority or majority groupings of public opinion arises from our response to the world on the basis of upbringing, experience, and so on. This much is obvious to all of us, and when faced with someone who holds an entirely different set of beliefs, we easily fall back on the well known phrase It’s just my opinion, whether or not we have put a lot of thought into the area.

Most of us do not think about how public opinion affects other beliefs and areas into which we don’t put a lot of thought, areas into which we don’t out a lot of thought, areas in which we hold beliefs we cannot justify or explain because we have uncritically taken on publicly affirmed narratives and beliefs.

The nude body in art was just one such area for me. My background, upbringing and experiences led me to believe that nudes, like all art, both entertain and provide insight into humanity, and I have held nudes in high esteem for most of my life. There was a period, however, in the late 1980s, when radical feminist thought convinced me that the nude in all of its forms was pornographic and morally impermissible. I drew the line, however, when I read that even a head and shoulders portrait of a woman was pornographic by virtue of the patriarchy.i This proposal took an extreme view too far, and led to my re-evaluation and eventual rejection of much feminist thought, especially that dealing with the nude and pornography.

During this period I had little or no opinion about naked children in art—a nude was a nude, well or poorly done, and the age of the subject was not a consideration. This didn’t change until the furore over Bill Henson’s work. My instant reaction was I’m sorry, this ain’t pornography, and What’s this nonsense about paedophilia?

The work presented on this blog has been my response to the fabulously incoherent public debate about Henson’s work and paedophilia, extended to include Jock Sturges, Sally Mann, and others whom I became aware of as a result of research.

The result of my research was twofold. Firstly I developed a coherent overall view on the nature of the nude and why I believe it is an important focus in art. Secondly, I learnt a lot about paedophilia, an area to which I had given no particular attention at all previously, but which was necessary if I was to make sense of the claims made about Henson and the others.

Prior to this research into paedophilia, I had a perfectly “normal” unthinking and uninformed hatred and moral horror of any and all sexual contact between adults and children; but this belief was not extended to art.

I did not and still do not believe that a nude is primarily sexual, and I saw no reason to believe that an artist who painted, sculpted or photographed images of naked children were paedophiles. (Perhaps if I found my own work sexual, perhaps if I wandered around with an erection, camera in hand, I would have made this link. However, a naked body in front of my camera never gave me erections or the desire to fuck; even when the model was someone I was sexually involved with the process was not sexual unless we were, in fact, fucking and fulfilling the urge to keep a record of what we were doing. This, however, was a very rare event.)

For me, the research into paedophilia has been illuminating and a little distressing, almost Nietzschean as I have stepped “into the filthy waters…of truth”, especially the truth that adult-child sexual encounters are not all, automatically traumatic and dangerous. Even Susan Clancy,ii who is totally against all paedosexual encounters, admits that most such encounters are not traumatic in and of themselves.

Apart from the shattering of my previous uninformed prejudiced beliefs, there also has been the reaction of (non-academically inclined) people around me. When answering questions about what I was researching by presenting and discussing the results of other people’s research and what it may mean, horror overtakes their faces. Some physically step back and immediately reject the research findings without considering them, without wanting to hear them. Similarly, when shown photographs by Henson or Mann, the majority reaction has been one of horror with the occasional comment to the effect That’s so bad…

Perhaps if I was at a university, instead of living in an area recognised as the most conservative in Australia, or if I was less honest in reporting the results of my research, the people around me would provide a different reaction. As it is, I no longer answer questions about what I am doing, for fear of the unthinking hatred of paedophilia which I once shared and which continues to provide me with difficulty—it would be so much easier to ignore the research and return to an unthinking rejection of what I have learnt. There are, you see, emotional and intellectual recesses within me which reject the results of my research. But…

I continue to think carefully, deeply, and somewhat slowly about these issues, one unwanted side effect of which is that I have not been out with a camera as much as I want. In fact, I have barely picked a camera up for the last six months. This shall change over the next six minths, or so I plan, even as I begin to rewrite and rethink all of my notes on the nude in art. A big task, but one well worth doing.


i I think this was in Susan Griffin’s work, though it could well have been Andrea Dworkin, with whose ideas I had a minor infatuation which, thankfully, passed quickly.

ii Susan A Clancy, The Trauma Myth: The truth about the sexual abuse of children—and its aftermath, (Basic Books, New York, 2009)