When Danish-Norwegian artist Nina Maria Kleivan exhibited photos of her newborn dressed up as notoriously evil historic figures like Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Idi Amin, the castigating commentary that followed was predictable. Kleivan’s baleful and shameless display of motherhood was a justifiable shock to our sensibilities.
We rightfully venerate the loving and protective mother-infant bond because it is essential for healthy infant development. What also captivated my attention about this woman was her contradictory line of reasoning about infant innocence and her peculiar way of raising the nature/nurture debate.
Kleivan actually disgraced the innocence of her infant to illustrate that we are “born a blank slate,” topping off the photos with a nude picture of her daughter, explaining that it was to reveal her innate innocence. Kleivan perfidiously stated in a subsequent interview that it was an emotional process and something she could never do to someone else’s child. Heaven help her infant with the environment she has already been exposed to, the very factor suggested by Kleivan as influential to what people become.
Her argument that “infants are born a blank slate” was a 17th-century theory by philosopher John Locke, who refuted innatism (that we are born with ideas) while asserting experience as the determinant in human development. With modern science, both nature and nurture have been found to interplay with one another. Genetic research has shown that people are wired with certain predispositions, even behavioural. This certainly does not mean that an infant can be evil. Choice determines outcome, which is indubitably influenced by nurture.
The sociopathic mental condition is a consummate example of the modern evolution of innatism, of which a strong genetic link has been established. Sociopaths are marked by their absence of conscience, amoral conduct, and inability to feel guilt and remorse. Researchers have also noted they are charming, manipulative and characteristically charismatic by nature; traits ironically reminiscent of the historic demons of doom that Kleivan displays her innocent infant as.
On a positive note, later studies have shown that even with the callous nature of sociopaths, they can be softened through environmental influences, implying that whatever our propensities, there is a light at the end of the tunnel with proper nurturing. So, just to be safe, let’s not sport our infants in a collection of homemade tyrant ware. Instead, let’s keep up the great work of dressing our precious bundles with bows, bow ties and booties!