In his novel, The Family Fang, Kevin Wilson seems to have hit upon an unexplored corner of the art world. There aren't many contemporary performance art pieces that involve children. One exception, by the Toronto-based artists' workshop Mammalian Diving Reflex, is Haircuts by Children, in which 10- and 11-year-olds are given a few days' training in cutting hair and then fanned out to salons to give free cuts to anyone adventurous enough to let them. The show, which has traveled to ten cities around the world, has gathered positive reviews from critics and salon customers alike.
But throughout the ages, the use of children in art has been controversial, though the sensitive points of why have shifted over time.
From Shakespeare to Dakota Fanning
The use of child actors has stirred passions since at least Elizabethan times, when "boy players" filled the roles of boy and girl children and adult women. These actors were boys, usually between the ages of 8 and 12, who were trained in music, Latin, grammar, logic, and rhetoric, as well as acting. In Shakespeare's day, there were two troupes composed entirely of boy players who posed formidable competition to the adult troupes. This rivalry even made it into the pages of Hamlet, when Rosencrantz tells the prince that the players coming to Elsinore have recently lost favor to:
...an eyrie of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question and are most tyrannically clapp'd for't.
At that time, Puritan preachers inveighed against boy players, claiming they excited homosexual desire when dressed as women and made to play opposite men. According to Bruce R. Smith's Twelfth Night: Texts and Contexts, in 1583 Puritan polemicist Philip Stubbes protested that the use of boy players condoned "such wanton gestures... such kissing and bussing" that "every mate sorts to his mate... and in their secret conclaves (covertly) they play the sodomites, or worse."
Four hundred years later, the controversy over child actors has changed very little. For example, in 2007 when she was twelve years old, Dakota Fanning starred in Hounddog as Lewellen, a pre-adolescent girl whose rape by an older boy is depicted onscreen. The firestorm started the day that filming wrapped. As columnist Meghan O'Rourke pointed out in Slate Magazine, "Protesters of the film may be genuinely concerned that acting out a rape scene in a film is traumatic to Fanning. But what some are presumably also anxious about is that watching Dakota in a rape scene is traumatic to them... Taking on this character is a violation of the subtle enactment of anxieties about survival and innocence that had formerly gone - quite pleasingly - unstated."
From Lewis Carroll to Brooke Shields
Another hotspot for children in art is photography, and here the contours of controversy have shifted in time with our morphing perceptions of children's innocence.
In the 1860s, Lady Clementina Hawarden, began photographing her ten children, often in erotically charged poses but always clothed. Her work was quietly well-received, but she died suddenly in her forties, and the photographs were not rediscovered until the 1930s. Her friend and admirer, Lewis Carroll, was much better known for his photographs of nude adolescent girls, which, contrary to popular myth, were not particularly controversial in his day. In fact, in the Victorian era, nudes of children were not perceived as sexual in content, and many photographers, including Julia Margaret Cameron and Oscar Rejlander, made them.
By 1992, when Sally Mann published Immediate Family - a collection of photographs of her three children, all of them under the age of ten and frequently nude - the ensuing reaction was so intense that critics around the world called for her censure and prosecution for violating child pornography laws. The art world, however, lauded her work for its depiction of the darker sides of childhood, and Time named her America's Best Photographer in 2001.
Yet the nervousness around children's unclothed bodies in photography continues. In 2009, the Tate Modern in London exhibited Richard Prince's "Spiritual America," in which the artist reframed and displayed a 1983 publicity shot (which he did not take) of the ten-year-old Brooke Shields nude, oiled, and heavily made up. Despite the fact that Price's piece was meant precisely to comment on the exploitation of children's bodies in the entertainment complex (and the fact that it was exhibited in its own room behind a sign warning that the work was "challenging"), the Tate pulled the picture from the exhibition after police visited in order to see if it violated Britain's Obscene Publications Act.
In the video below, you can view photographs from Sally Mann's Immediate Family and decide where you stand in the controversy over nude children in photography.
This article was originally published in August 2011, and has been updated for the
April 2012 paperback release.
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