Thursday, 27 September 2007

Elton's Porn Panic

In a kitchen somewhere, two little girls are playing a game of let's pretend. And what are they pretending to be? Belly dancers. The elder, partially clothed, is posing with one arm upraised, looking down at the younger, naked girl, who is attempting to limbo-dance between her legs. They are clearly having fun. But a shadow cast by the elder girl throws a faint air of menace onto the scene. For there is someone else in the kitchen. A photographer. A voyeur. An investigator. You.

The photograph, by renowned American artist Nan Goldin, best known for her studies of lovemaking couples and AIDS victims, is now under police investigation. It had been about to go on show at the Baltic Centre of Contemporary Art, Tyneside, for the first time since it was acquired, along with others in the collection, by Sir Elton John. But a curator, concerned no doubt by the provisions of a law both ambiguous and arbitrary, took fright and brought in the local constabulary. And so resources that could have been spent on chasing real child abusers have been diverted, and a photograph that until now had been confined to exhibitions and expensive art books is now all over the Internet.

There may well be people who find images like this a turn-on. There are some sick people out there. It is unlikely, though, that many would take the trouble of visiting an art exhibition in order to view them when it is so much easier to go online. The trouble is that the law (originating in the 1978 Protection of Children Act, since extended) takes a very restrictive view on the matter. Pictures of children swimming, in the park, in the bath, have all been treated as obscene for the purposes of prosecution. There was confusion in 2005 after an undoubted pervert was convicted of possessing 9000 indecent images, among which were those contained in a book by respected photographer David Hamilton. The police claimed that anyone who had a copy of the book in their possession was guilty of an offence punishable by many years imprisonment. And in 2001 the Saatchi Gallery in London was investigated after exhibiting some pictures by Tierney Gearon of her own children, on a beach, wearing masks. The investigation went nowhere, but caused the artist considerable distress.

Klara and Edda belly-dancing has been exhibited before, as part of Goldin's Devil's Playground exhibition, in Madrid, Paris, and even in London (at the Whitechapel Gallery) without attracting the attention of the police. But not without attracting adverse comment. In France, the French Union for the Safety of Children complained after the photo featured in a catalogue when the collection was exhibited at the Centre Pompidou; scarcely credibly, they were concerned that the image might encourage attacks on children. The museum apologised and withdrew the catalogue, but not the picture itself.

Viewed in that context, one can see where the Baltic Centre are coming from. Indeed, once the notion of child porn enters the picture, Klara and Edda suddenly seems disturbing. Captured mid-flight, the child's legs are spread, affording a clear view of her pudenda. The pose is, for those who know anything about art, uncomfortably close to that in Gustave Courbet's L'Origine du Monde, an echo which the artist might well have been intending.


Yet the implicit sexuality of these images is, in itself, a testimony to their innocence. The girls' expressiveness, their unselfconscious freedom, their delight in movement, their acceptance (pre-puberty and pre-shame) of the reality of their bodies, of the body's naturalness: these things are the opposite of sexuality. Because they are not aware of the sexual implications of what they are doing, it is in pointing to it that the obscenity lies. The sexual degradation of children robs them of their childhood; but seeing sexuality here is in itself, I would contend, a form of abuse. Imagine seeing children like this, having innocent fun, mucking about, enjoying their childhood, and then telling them that it was "wrong", that it was "sexual", that it was "porn"; and then trying to explain to them was porn was. Wouldn't that be an act of corruption?

In a 2001 interview, after the Saatchi controversy, Gearon said of the photographs at the centre of the storm,

I look at them and think they're funny - twisted and eerie, yes, but in a funny way, not in a bad way. I didn't think people would see something so dark in them. It was never because of the nudity, for instance; it was something else people were seeing, something in their own psyche.

And this, of course, is the point. Gearon's photos, like the one by Goldin, are disturbing not because they are themselves sexual, but because it is difficult to look at them without being reminded of sex. Because sex is everywhere. We drown infants in a sea of sex, surrounding them with images of sexual provocation. Small girls are dressed to resemble streetwalkers. Much of what passes for sex education is barely distinguishable from porn. It's hardly surprising that youngsters become sexually active at ever younger ages, get pregnant, contract STDs.

And then we obsess about paedophiles, as though they were at the root of the problem. The worst excesses are to be found in the News of the World, a newspaper not distinctively different from a top-shelf magazine, but which is always the first to cry "paedo!" as it attempts to salve its distinctly soiled conscience. The hypocrisy of it stinks.

But it's not just the News of the World. We are all complicit in the paedophilia of society. The old sexual taboos have gone. Sex outside marriage went first, then homosexuality, then abortion, then porn. And a good thing too, many will say. But now childhood sexuality remains the final, the untransgressible taboo. And so all the tension and guilt that used to surround sex between adults has been loaded onto children. They cannot cope. We cannot cope.

Which is why provocative art like Klara and Edda matters. For make no mistake, the photograph is a provocation. In itself, it is innocent; but it is being shown, not as a family snap, but as a work of art. And the purpose of art is (among much else) to ask questions, to stimulate debate. I have no doubt that Nan Goldin knew precisely the reaction this photograph would produce: nor that she was right to provoke it.

It's a mistake to categorise this as an "Is it art or is it porn?" debate, as several newspapers have tried to do. In that category belong products like Michael Winterbottom's depressing film 9 Songs, or the Made in Heaven series by Jeff Koons. Whatever one's views on the quality of Nan Goldin's photography, this isn't porn. No, the trouble goes deeper than that. The genie can never be put back in the bottle: we can never return (perhaps thankfully) to the days when Lewis Carroll could take snaps of a partially-clothed Alice without anyone batting an eyelid. But we could perhaps allow these issues to be considered in the restrained and civilised atmosphere of a museum, rather than the cauldron of the media, let alone the rule-bound world of the police station or the courts.

As a character in Avenue Q put it so memorably, the Internet is for porn. Art galleries are for art. There's a difference.

6 comments:

·.¸.·*·.¸.· ivy & caja ·.¸.·*·.¸.· said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

"...when Lewis Carroll could take snaps of a partially-clothed Alice without anyone batting an eyelid."

Not entirely true. Her family likely did bat an eyelid at these photos.

Alice recounted at 80, in a reminiscence of her relationship with Lewis Carroll "Unfortunately my mother tore up all the letters that Mr Dodgson wrote to me when I was a small girl."

Katie Roiphe's fictionalized account of their relationship is fascinating: Still she haunts me.

Trooper Thompson said...

Good post. The heart of the problem is the way children are being deprived of their innocence.

Farkle said...

Thank you for saying what seems to many in the art field to be so obvious. As a feline owned by a retired art museum curator neither she or I could have said it better. The belated 20th century recognition of photography as the potent art form it always was has concurrently led to such unfortunate efforts to suppress and abuse the truth and beauty that lie in its heart.

Farkle (now-to-a-nap-
on-the-scanner) Kitty

Edward said...

Sorry, but bollocks.

Because they are not aware of the sexual implications of what they are doing, it is in pointing to it that the obscenity lies. The sexual degradation of children robs them of their childhood; but seeing sexuality here is in itself, I would contend, a form of abuse.

The degradation exists in taking a photograph of this moment or, having done so, in choosing not only to keep it, but to display it hither and yon. And then to make money out of it. Because whether you, in your cosy ivory tower choose to think it or not, this picture is sexual. Of course, when the girls were playing their game of "limbo dancing" (assuming that the accompanying narrative is reliable, which I don't) there was no sexuality involved. But taking a picture like this, knowing that the genitalia were in full view, has only one possible purpose - to shock - which is not, really, the point of art (in case you're interested, the point of art is to illuminate the noumenal). What's completely unforgiveable is that it's actually a completely rubbish picture.

mom-and-art-addict said...

thanks, Heresiarch, for the follow-up. I am SO UPSET that Goldin and Prince would exhibit those photos. And the Elton John would've bought one!
Courbet painted and exhibited an ADULT woman, who was mentally and legally able to give 'consent.' Children can NEVER 'consent.' Period.
We must avoid making, exhibiting, buying, etc. any art that (deliberately or inadvertently) exposes a child's genitals in a 'spotlight' position. Period.
No more fuel for a pedophile's fire!