There's nothing redeeming about child pornography, yet I find myself troubled by the recently introduced Bill C-20, which repeals the traditional defence of artistic merit for alleged child pornographers. Why shed a tear for artists who unwisely choose to play with explicit depictions of child sexuality? As much as art is a defining element of human culture, I can understand why most people are hesitant to grant the artist a licence to explore a cultural taboo with enormous traumatic potential.
Although I would prefer to be dead than to live in an artless world, I recognize that sometimes the artist must put aside his or her pretensions, delusions of grandeur and monomania and realize that art is not always sacred and that boundaries will be placed on some profane expression.
I don't care if you're Federico Fellini or Larry Flynt - the demands of art do not justify the exploitation and abuse of real children, despite the strength of your artistic convictions. I even worry about using children in horror movies, in vapid sitcoms and in manipulative commercials.
Lots of cute child actors sink to depths of depravity and depression once the television limelight has faded. Children struggle to gain understanding and mastery of the complex abstractions of adult life, and it has to mess with their brains to thrust these developing creatures into the bizarre illusions of our self-proclaimed artistic fantasies.
The reason why I'm concerned about Bill C-20 is because it extends the reach of the law to imaginary depictions of child sexuality. The true criminal horror of child pornography is the recruiting of the body and soul of a living child to perform in an adult's sexual fantasy. The stomach revolts and indignation explodes when one sees the confused and often tormented look of an innocent child in a sexually provocative situation.
But extending the law to cover imaginary depictions diminishes the moral force of the state's position that artistic pretensions must give way to the compelling need to protect children. In prohibiting imaginary depictions of child sexuality, the law enters into the realm of symbolic representations. In this murky world, artists do have the right to argue that their artistic pretensions can trump remote and speculative fears of harm.
When the law warns a painter that he or she is skating on thin legal ice for painting two 12-year-old children exploring their bodies at a sleepover, or when it threatens the budding novelist with legal sanction for trying to write an explicit sequel to Lolita, we are actually seeing the law bowing in fear to the unknown power of ideas and imagining.
As much as I embrace art as one of our greatest cultural achievements, I do not see as much power in it as does the law. The law sees art as a hammer, whereas I see it as a mirror. Admittedly, on rare occasions a great work of art is the hammer that provokes an immediate and tangible change in culture and behaviour, but most of the time I believe it is a magical mirror that reflects the here and now. It has little causal power. It cannot create a pedophile, though it might feed a pre-existing disposition.
Artistic merit should continue to serve as a defence of imaginary depictions of child sexuality, because there is no sense in punishing a mirror for a disturbing image. You can cover the mirror with a blanket to protect yourself from distressing imagery, but that doesn't mean that the reality being reflected by the image has disappeared.
The reality is that those who sexually exploit real children under the age of consent are criminals, and filming that exploitation does not transform the criminality into artistry. But in creating an imaginary world, the artist does not become a criminal simply because the imagery or narrative is shocking. The law should protect children, but repealing the artistic merit defence does little to protect the vulnerable and has the potential to suppress valuable lessons that are often learned when staring into the mirror of art.