Klara and Edda: banned at the Baltic

Censoring photos of children, whether smoking or belly dancing naked, is damaging to artistic licence and our own freedom of thought.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Flickr, the Yahoo-owned photo-sharing website, recently deleted an image of a Romanian boy smoking a cigarette from a user’s page, and last week police officers removed a photograph of two young girls, one of them naked, from the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, UK. Both incidents have sparked debates about the portrayal of children in public forums, artistic freedom and censorship.

Flickr wrote to the user who had uploaded a photograph of an impoverished Romanian child to inform him that the image had been deleted. The moderator explained: ‘Images of children under the age of 18 who are smoking tobacco is prohibited across all of Yahoo’s properties. I’ve gone ahead and deleted the image “The Romanian Way” from your photostream. We appreciate your understanding.’ (1)

But neither the photographer, Maarten Dors, nor the many Flickr users who posted messages of support after his photograph was deleted, showed much understanding for this censorious move. Dors responded: ‘They appreciate my understanding? Which understanding? I just want my photo back! It was my most interesting photo and has been on Flickr for almost two months… I didn’t upload it because I thought it was a pretty sight to see a small boy smoking [but] because I wanted to tell something. I wanted to show the world how living in poverty can be, what it does with small children and wanted to start a discussion about it (and they deleted that very good discussion too!).’ (2)

After causing a storm amongst its photo-sharing users (3), Flickr sent Dors an apology, saying the photograph should not have been removed, but that it has not yet developed the functionality to put posts back on the site. Dors has since re-posted his photograph. Like other social-networking sites where people upload images, videos or comments, Flickr has found that treading a line between openness and censorship can be tricky. These sites are premised on the idea and functionality of user-generated content, but moderators still judge what content is or is not appropriate. Too often, they end up replicating the petty censorship existing in the real world.

Yet if there is a bigger taboo around than pictures of smoking children, then it must be pictures of nude children. The photograph ‘Klara And Edda Belly-Dancing’ by Nan Goldin, who is renowned for her work among gay and transvestite communities in the United States, was on loan to the Baltic for an exhibition. That is, until cops seized it after a complaint from a gallery employee (4). Before the exhibition opened to the public, the gallery management, concerned that the photograph might appear pornographic, invited the police to view the image and to advise them on its suitability.

‘Klara And Edda Belly-Dancing’ shows two young girls, one dancing and clothed and the other naked with her legs apart. It is owned by singer-songwriter Sir Elton John, known not just for his ballads and extravagant suits and sunglasses, but also for owning the largest private collection of twentieth-century photography in the world. It includes prized pieces by photographic heavies such as Diane Arbus, Ansel Adams and Man Ray – and 150 photographs by Nan Goldin.

It is dismaying that The Baltic, an institution that exists in order to display and share art with the public and to inspire debates about the value of art works and the ideas they communicate, should have such little confidence in its own judgment and show such complete disregard for artistic freedom. The Northumbria police are now leading an investigation to consider whether or not the photograph violates the 1978 Protection of Children Act, and they are taking advice from the Crown Prosecution Service.

Why should it be up to law-enforcing authorities to decide what we, the public, can and cannot see in an art gallery? And why is it that an image that was not taken with the intent to exploit children, does not show any pornographic content and was not displayed in an exploitative setting, is still seen as potentially exploitative? The Baltic’s move expresses the current obsession with child protection and fear of paedophilia. The fact that the gallery sought advice from the police demonstrates just how uncomfortable it is about the idea that ‘someone dodgy’ might see Goldin’s photograph, and maybe even distribute it to fellow perverts on the internet. But looking at the world through the eyes of an imagined pervert means that just about anything, especially if it involves children, could be deemed ‘inappropriate’.

Some people may feel that both Dors’ and Goldin’s photographs are meaningless, unaesthetic or even offensive. The way we react to pictures and works of art is subjective. But when they are judged – and dismissed – through the framework of contemporary panics about paedophilia and smoking, we are no longer dealing with them in artistic terms. Here, considerations, not just of the photographs’ artistic values, but also their subject matter and the photographers’ intentions have been subordinated to new moral codes and panics about offensiveness and ‘inapproriate reactions’. The Baltic’s move is another blow to artistic freedom, and Yahoo’s policy is another blow to the free exchange of ideas online.

Goldin’s photograph looks like a spontaneous shot of two girls playing in a private space. I personally can’t see the beauty or deeper meaning in it, but then I might just not have the same taste in photography as Sir Elton John and other Goldin enthusiasts, and, importantly, I haven’t seen the photograph in the context of the installation of which it is part. And now, because it has been judged unsuitable for me and other people to look at, I never will.

‘Klara And Edda Belly-Dancing’ is one of 149 images comprising Goldin’s Thanksgiving installation. Earlier this week, Jane Jackson, curator of the Elton John Photographic Collection, announced that the installation at The Baltic would be closed with immediate effect. ‘It was always intended that the installation be exhibited as a whole’, said Jackson, ‘and not on a piecemeal basis, and our decision has been made with regard to the artistic integrity of the work and the artist’. (5)

Taking this individual image out of context skews its meaning and significance, especially when it becomes part of a police investigation and debates about child pornography. We are then more likely to imagine how it would appear to a paedophile rather than judging it on artistic merit or on how effectively it puts its message across.

As for Dors’ photograph, it was part of a set of pictures posted on Flickr, which is a more informal setting than an art gallery and which is used mainly by amateur photographers. This set also includes a picture of a young boy sniffing glue. Clamping down on photographs of under-18s smoking is, as many outraged Flickr users pointed out after Dors’ picture got deleted, arbitrary considering there are plenty of images on the site of children smoking, taking drugs and engaging in other activities that could be seen as harmful. Yahoo may be keen to send a message, in this anti-smoking age, that it does not endorse tobacco, but where will it draw the line of what is and is not acceptable to take, and show, pictures of?

When it comes to looking at children, our very gaze, it seems, has lost its innocence. As Cosmo Landesman pointed out in The Sunday Times: ‘The naked child, once a normal part of public life, has become a public nuisance – a source of embarrassment and parental anxiety for one simple reason: paedophilia. Or to be more precise, paedophobia, the fear that someone is secretly taking pictures of our innocent child and then posting them on the internet and using them for perverted sexual gratification.’ (6)

It has been pointed out that Goldin’s image has been offered for sale at Sotheby’s New York twice and has been exhibited across the world – from Houston to London, Madrid, New York, Portugal, Warsaw and Zurich – without previously causing such a controversy as it did in Gateshead. Yet even in this case, it was the sensitivities and insecurities of a few individuals that led to an installation being removed from a public exhibition. This is another example of the ‘tyranny of the minority’ where a handful of people can call on the authorities to decide what is or is not appropriate for the rest of us to see.

Moves such as deleting ‘inappropriate’ pictures from Flickr or removing photographs from art galleries are only likely to increase self-censorship amongst web users, gallery curators and artists. It will only serve to further contaminate relations between adults and children, as it sends a signal that just looking at kids is somehow shameful and indecent.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked. She is producer of the film strand at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.

Previously on spiked

Alison Perrett said it is unreasonable to imagine pornographers are everywhere. Josie Appleton said paedophile panics had blurred our view of photographs at a London gallery. David Clements argued that while Every Child Matters, so does our privacy. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick looked at the consequences of stigmatising smokers. Or read more at spiked issue Liberties.

(1) Beware the Flickr brain police, E-consultancy, 24 September

(2) Beware the Flickr brain police, E-consultancy, 24 September

(3) See this discussion thread on Flickr.

(4) Art or Porn? Elton John’s Photos Seized, ABC News, 27 September

(5) See Jane Jackson’s statement on Sir Elton John’s website.

(6) Naked fear on display, Cosmo
Landesman, The Sunday Times (London), 30 September 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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