Nudes: A Moral Argument

It would be naive of Pigtails in Paint to ignore the issue of nude or naked children since we feature them on our website and I have personally gotten a reputation of focusing on them. There are good reasons for both of these and I will discuss some in this essay. Before this site develops much further, I wanted our readers to understand a rational perspective of child nudity and why it is important for Pigtails to give it special attention.

For anyone who is interested, my three favorite young girl images are not nudes: 1) Nature’s Beauty by Steve Hanks (a painting), 2) Mischievous Mouse by Lladró (a figurine) and 3) Soap Bubbles by Peter Dominic (a photograph). I waited for those to be posted before publishing this article.

Because of rampant misunderstandings, I must resort to the conventional definition of nude which to most people simply means naked. Nude properly is an artistic distinction which focuses on the naked form in a composition. There are many cases where being naked is incidental to the work or is a prerequisite to the activity being depicted—like taking a bath. For the purposes of this site, I classify a work as nude if the subject is unclothed at the waist. This can be ambiguous when the subject’s waist area is not visible, but I will endeavor to assess the artist’s intent or context of the scene in these cases.

Given our culture’s current hysteria, I have felt it necessary to compensate for the dearth of nudes in the arts and media. I want people to get a balanced perspective on the scope of art and range of viable human lifestyles. If I felt there were some genuine harm in the innocent, artistic or instructive portrayal of naked children, I would not be doing this. I have given this deep thought and am confident in my position and can refute any rational arguments offered by any detractors. Two major misconceptions fuel the most emotionally charged arguments: 1) the standards of morality are handed down by God and are accurately interpreted via holy book(s) and authorities and 2) cultures other than ours are ignorant and inferior and their manners and beliefs have no merit. Of course, moral standards form the basis of civilized laws, but when they are so constraining as to restrict the legitimate expression of our humanity, then the laws are repressive. Like most people, I endeavor to obey the law, but defenders of artistic freedom have relied too much on legal arguments and historical precedent; if substantive progress is to be made on this issue, we need to make enlightened moral arguments which can also serve as a basis for laws. Moral restrictions (backed by law or not) that unnaturally hinder a dignified human existence cannot objectively be called righteous.

There are three aspects to the impact of child nudes that need to be properly debated: beauty, intimacy and sexuality. The current debate seems to engage in a slippery slope assumption—technically a logical fallacy—that beauty leads inevitably to sex. The imperative of reproduction does make sexual behavior one of the most potent human forces, but it is a mistake to think that beauty and intimacy serve only one function.

Beauty is a two-way street. First, there is the object itself that has some characteristic(s) considered beautiful, and then there are the people who find these things beautiful. Appreciating beauty is pleasurable, as it is associated with survival or reproductive value, and the benefits get reinforced through the evolutionary process. As social mammals, mechanisms are in place that motivate us to protect our young. Human babies and other animal young are cute and compel adults around them to treat them gently. Since human beings are not born completely formed (altricial), there is a long period of development before all his/her capacities are in place. In time, these features fade and they begin to be treated in a more serious and rough manner.

Our instinctual behavior goes a bit haywire when we use our rational mind to contemplate the business of the beauty of youth and decrepitude of age. Many artists have even played with the juxtaposition of the two in interesting ways, and this leads to a kind of spiritual quest for the mystery of young beauty and why we must be condemned to bodies that fall apart. All arts, and especially photography, afford us the opportunity to freeze time and preserve this beauty or the memory of a beautiful moment. The very young, while still assimilating their culture, seem more like wholesome natural creatures without the taint of the political adult world, and that strikes us as appealing. Nothing is more natural and pristine than a nude, and the impact is even more heartfelt when we are privileged witnesses to these moments of idyllic humanness.

There is also the peculiar business of the different reactions of men and women. Civilization, in part, has served to detach us from our animal natures, but women, being more intimately tied to the cycle of life, cannot maintain a sterile rationality indefinitely. There are practical matters of the intimate care of children, the sick and the elderly, and the untidy facts of sex, birth, bodily fluids and personal anxieties tend to faze them less. Men who may not have grown up with sisters are more prone to be startled by the naked form of girls and women; in many cultures men and women are largely segregated. With their natural proclivity for visual fixation, men try to reconcile cultural norms with their impulses and can come to hasty and contradictory conclusions. Beauty in the form of attraction is an important part of sexuality and pair-bonding, but it should not be confused in a child’s case with the other functions it serves–namely to protect them.

Intimacy, strictly speaking, is about closeness and physical touch. The way adults respond to a child’s form is usually to touch, and that has become another strange taboo in American culture. The same slippery slope of beauty seems to have been applied here as well: that to touch someone means to show sexual interest. Most people would agree that this is patently false in the case of a mother caring for her child, Freudian theories notwithstanding. Young children require nurturing to develop properly, and that nurturance takes physical forms (caressing, petting, kissing, tickling, horse play etc.) and vocal ones (baby talk, soothing, songs, stories and compliments). This signals that the child is loved and a desirable part of the community.

Again, girls and women tend to be more exposed to this behavior, and they experience pleasure when interacting with children. The lack of intimate contact in our society is sometimes redirected to fawning over pets as surrogate children. Here photography is a two-edged sword, bringing beautiful intimacies to people at large but also creating the impression of violating that intimacy. In the parlance of modern civilization, these things are private, and thus there is something odd about private things being publicly accessible. Instead of thinking about this peculiarity, we condemn the mother who brings it to us. It can be hard for some mothers to fathom the severity of this reaction because, after all, it is natural for her to share these joys with others in her community, but when the only outlet is public, she is scolded by her society. An additional stigma has been attached to children pretending to behave in adult ways, but again these are natural private explorations that are a part of a child’s development. The fact that society currently pays special attention to those with sexual implications can, with ridicule, harm a child’s natural development, self-image and the innocent enjoyment of others. It is tempting to say that children should only be portrayed in ways consistent with their age, but this is too simplistic, and the fact that we get pleasure from watching children play grown-up means there is more to this phenomenon that requires serious reflection.

With regard to sexuality, only fools would fail to respect it as a powerful force in human lives and ignore its dangers when undisciplined. It should be understood that human beings are not—as if by magic—suddenly sexual beings at age 16 or 18 or 21. Like everything else, sexuality develops in stages, and the biggest problems—for those inclined to regard sexuality as a problem—have to do with adult projections and stigmatizing the naive spontaneous behaviors of our young. Pigtails in Paint for the most part will refrain from dealing with the sexual aspects of childhood simply because there is a lot of other ground to cover before such an emotionally-charged subject can be tackled intelligently.

Any attempt to abolish nudes or even child nudes would be a little like attempts in the past to ban alcohol, gambling or sausages! However, for artists there is an additional importance. Most obviously, there has been a historical need for anatomical reference to paint or sculpt realistic figures. Many artists may be content never to make use of nude forms, but those who put human beings in their work should, as an exercise, work with them a little to develop their technical skills. A more subtle reason for an artist to make at least some use of nudes is how they lend credibility to an artist’s vision. If a viewer feels the artist is consistently and deliberately avoiding a particular taboo, how can one trust the veracity of his expression? One role of a proper artist is to challenge his society’s notions of the world. Sometimes that means they engage in dark imagery that makes us uncomfortable, especially sexual or violent themes. Most of us have strong instincts to protect children, but it is important to remember that even young children can understand the idea of acting as make-believe and can participate in the spirit of fun even while not understanding it on an adult level. If an artist has done some good work with nudes, we can be sure that he has gained the confidence of his subjects to the degree that he can express real artistic freedom.

One may ask, if my arguments are so strong, why are we in this predicament? It is a challenge to get most people to analyze rationally the sacred principles of their own culture. One must sometimes question these things to get to the heart of matters—in this case why nudity has found itself at a moral crossroads. Jewish, Christian and Islamic beliefs all stem from a moral system which developed the idea of God against Nature. Most notably with the teachings of Zoroaster, the notion of putting oneself in accord with nature as part of one’s spiritual path was superseded by one that put religion in charge of the ethical domain where some things were good and some evil. As such, a person’s duty was to strive for the good, and that paved the way for religious authorities to place judgments on what aspects of nature should be embraced and which ones resisted. These were at least partly arbitrary and served some societal purpose at one time but inevitably got concretized into dogma. The argument that God likes or dislikes any particular sexual or private practice is absurd, and it seems to me sacrilegious for human beings to presume to understand His creation and then use that simplistic understanding to condemn others.

I can only hope that human beings will come to their senses in my lifetime, and this site is venturing some first steps: to make the images of nude girl children more commonplace and include them as legitimate expressions of human experience. One prescription is an idea I got from a documentary about the hateful treatment of homosexuals by their own families. In a few cases the families began to have second thoughts about their attitudes and realized that homosexuals can be perfectly decent people. The filmmakers made the interesting observation that once someone got to personally know three homosexuals, a kind of critical mass was reached and they changed their minds about them. I believe this is probably the case for many people who were raised with narrow preconceptions. If they could be made to know three decent naturists or homosexuals or black people or handicapped people or atheists or anarchists, the mystique would be lifted and everyone could get on with normal dignified lives. I like to call this principle the “Three Occurrence Rule.” When a nude photograph is processed or exhibited and the authorities are called, they tend not to be well-versed in the legal standards, and a percentage of innocent artists or mothers are put through a painful court process. My recommendation for police and prosecutors alike is to familiarize themselves with three good books on photographic nudes. After that, it is easier to distinguish legitimate art and documentation from gratuitous titillation. At present I would suggest: 1) one of Jock Sturges’ books, 2) Sally Mann’s Immediate Family and 3) Frank Cordelle’s Bodies and Souls: The Century Project. All three contain at least some child nudes and yet have different artistic inspirations behind them.

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