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Scandal at the Spitz

Paedophile panics blur our view of Betsy Schneider's photos.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

On 7 March a photographic exhibition exploring childhood was launched at the Spitz Gallery in London, as part of the Spit-Lit Festival of women’s writing. That evening the police were called and the gallery’s windows covered up; by the next day some of the photos had been removed.

The offending pieces were by the American Betsy Schneider, showing naked pictures of her daughter between birth and age five. The dramatic chain of events on 7 March gives a shapshot of society’s pernicious obsession with paedophilia – and the low value placed on artistic freedom.

The exhibition launch, between 11am and 1pm, had gone smoothly – ‘there were between 200 and 300 people, not one person complained’, Spit-Lit producer Maggie Pinhorn told me. According to the exhibition’s curator Heather Mcdonough, about 4pm some of the Spitz staff began to group around Schneider’s photos – one apparently claimed that they were ‘indecent’ and ‘illegal’, and tried to cover them with a piece of tarpaulin. A jostling crowd grew – including Schneider herself – arguing about the pieces and taking photos of each other for evidence. ‘It was quite theatrical’, reflects Mcdonough.

The Spitz Gallery director then called the police. Two police officers arrived in the early evening, and reportedly said that they lacked the expertise to decide whether the photos were obscene, but if the gallery had any doubts it should take the pictures down (1). One concern was that internet paedophiles might get hold of them, encouraged by reports that a visitor had been seen taking pictures. Pinhorn told me that she was ‘deeply disappointed’ by the removal of the photos; both Spit-Lit and the Spitz Gallery are now consulting their lawyers.

Why the fuss? In comparison to the past, our society is much more relaxed about the naked body. But what we have today is a climate of bad faith, a suspicion that somebody else might use these images in a perverted manner. This really means looking at things through the eyes of a paedophile, rather than through our own eyes. It is not really about the images themselves; it is about what would happen if somebody dodgy got hold of them.

This explains why the reaction to Schneider’s photos was so confused: the gallery ran to the police and lawyers for advice on whether they were ‘obscene’, but the police weren’t sure themselves. Because the question hangs on what an imagined perverted individual might think when looking at the images, the issue is difficult to decide either way. Instead of strict moral codes about what can and cannot be shown, we have a precautionary jumpiness, where images are removed in case they fall into the wrong hands.

Such a view contaminates adults’ relationship with children – it makes innocent nakedness seem seedy, and imagines that every gallery-goer might be leering over Schneider’s daughter. As Maggie Pinhorn said, ‘it is important that children are allowed to run free and be naked, rather than seeing problems that don’t exist. We can’t allow that element of society to dictate to us, and stop us from looking at innocent pictures innocently’.

The summary removal of these photos betrays a low view of artistic freedom. Spitz Gallery seemed not to rate the view that art should be shown, regardless of any offence taken by some viewers. Art requires a space where possibilities and ideas can be freely explored, without fear of censorship. You might not like the results, in which case you can criticise or ignore them, rather than demanding their removal. ‘Artists question all kinds of things’, Pinhorn tells me: ‘one of the roles of the artist is to question society’s views and values, not to endorse them.’

There is a crucial difference between the photos themselves and the guilty thoughts or actions of a person who views them. ‘The buck should be passed to the person who’s looking at them’, said Heather Mcdonough: ‘It’s not the photographer’s problem.’ If you get off on Schneider’s pictures, you’re the sick one, not her.

But it should be noted that modern art helps to fuel these kinds of controversies. There is a deliberate attempt to shock, which we saw in the paedophile pots and fellatio dummies that made up the 2003 Turner Prize exhibition. Shock art lives for the sharp intake of breath and the ranting tabloid headlines, and tends to push things further and further in order to get them. This habit goes back to the Modernist movement of the early twentieth century, which first made a mission out of violating bourgeois taste and sensibility.

Another trend in art, which Schneider is part of, is the personal turn, projecting intimate objects, photos and stories into the gallery arena. An infamous example of this is Tracy Emin’s bed, including the soiled knickers and used condoms that resulted from one of her downers.

It is the intimacy of Schneider’s work that makes it deeply uncomfortable – perhaps even ‘indecent’ – rather than her subject’s nakedness. Schneider took two photographs of her daughter Madeleine every day since her birth, and these are displayed packed together in panels, each representing a stage of life (2). The tiny, gradual changes in a child’s development become an artwork displayed in a public gallery. Schneider has said that she ‘wanted to record the incidental changes which happen day to day: their cuts and bruises, dirt, drawings on themselves, temporary tattoos, tans and sunburns’ (3). Such a perspective seems more appropriate for the family photo album than the gazes of strangers. This is a far cry from naked cherubs or artful photographs: it is the raw record of one individual’s growth, which perhaps shouldn’t really be for our eyes.

There is also something odd about a mother relating to her daughter through the lens of a camera, apparently using it as a way to observe the pattern of her growing up. Photographing her daughter, Schneider says, ‘remains an integral part of our lives, the first (sometimes the only) thing we do together each day’. This is clearly not an experience that most mothers share – or would want to.

However, this is no reason to remove the work. Art has a right to be uncomfortable, especially if it is to represent the more disturbing aspects of our lives. Schneider’s pictures should be shown – and we should look at them through our own eyes rather than through the eyes of some imaginary paedophile. Are they good art, what do they say about our intimate relationships, why are they uncomfortable? Reaching for the tarpaulin should not be an option.

The photography exhibition, Inventory, is running at the Spitz Gallery as part of the Spit-Lit Festival.

(1) Nude row artist tells of arrest, Guardian, 9 March 2004

(2) See Photo of the Day: a work in progress

(3) See Photo of the Day: a work in progress

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Topics Politics

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