Writing 140, Section #64695
Affiliation: SWMS 215 (Gender Conflict in Cultural Context)
Assignment Number 4
Art or Child Pornography?
In Sally Mann’s collection, Immediate Family, Mann photographs her three children naked throughout their childhood, growing up on their isolated ranch in Virginia. The publication of her naked children was publically and critically controversial, and sparked a debate regarding the distinction between art and child pornography. Many of Mann’s exhibits were closed, and her pictures censored as a result of this public dispute. Art historian and critic Anne Higonnet also agreed with the outrage towards the collection saying, “no subject is as publicly dangerous now as the subject of the child’s body” (Parson). Echoing Higonnet and public responses, I will argue that the boundary between art and child pornography should not be tested because a child’s naked body on display is justifiably disturbing despite the audience.
Immediate Family was an eight-year longitudinal project spanning from 1984 to 1992, depicting the growth and development of Mann’s three children in the setting of their Virginian ranch. Summarizing the intentions of her collection, Mann explains that she hoped to depict the ever-evolving stories of her children in the open and free atmosphere provided by their ranch (Foa). Her method was to stage scenarios for her children, and then photograph them candidly and without their knowledge to preserve the organic nature of the situation and of the children. Mann viewed nudity as necessary because “it captured the ‘Edenic’ quality,” a biblical allusion to the innocent and exposed world of Adam and Eve (Foa). However, Mann’s concept was not only rooted in a desire for naturalness, but also in her own experiences. When Mann was younger her father, a doctor, often photographed her naked for his medical practice. The first photos of Immediate Family are four photographs of rustic sculptures made by her father that decorated her childhood garden including “a tree trunk adorned with a carved penis” (Parson). Through this, it is apparent that Mann’s childhood was punctuated with an absurd comfort around overt sexuality. This glimpse into Mann’s childhood is what initially implicated the series as sexually explicit (Parson).
Even though Mann has surfaced what her intentions behind Immediate Family are, that shouldn’t be the only thing that she takes in to consideration. Even though it is so innocent and pure to her, she needs to be concerned about how others will interpret it once she makes it available to the public. As long as people exist in the world that will objectify and sexualize her children inappropriately, it’s unsuitable to make their nudity public, even if it wasn’t necessarily sexual to her. Upon its release in 1992, Immediate Family received a full spectrum of reviews, with critics divided on sides of intrigue and disgust. Mann had anticipated a somewhat disgusted response to her collection stating, “what adults make of the poses may be the issue,” and thus effectively blaming disgusted critics for their interpretation of her naked children as erotic, sexual, and seductive, and removing any culpability from the photos themselves (Parson). Regardless, this response led to widespread censorship of the collection both in exhibits and in print to protect both the innocence and identities of the children. The Wall Street Journal, for example, censored a photo of Mann’s 4-year old daughter, Virginia, by censoring her eyes, breasts, and genitals with black bars (Woodward). Following suit, the New York Art World Magazine removed all nude images from all promotional material for Mann’s exhibit. Both publications supposed that the inclusion of these images in their publications would seem to be implicit support for child pornography, and neither sought to taint their reputation and stir up controversy among readers and beneficiaries with these images (Parson). These