What do you think: is this child porn or art?

Nathalie Rothschild took the banned picture of Brooke Shields back to the Tate Modern to let gallery visitors decide for themselves.

Nathalie Rothschild

Share
Topics Politics

Since the emergence of the pop art movement and the rise of conceptual art, the circular debate about what constitutes art has become ever-more tedious and difficult to resolve. But, arguably, most artists at the very least wish to challenge their audiences – intellectually, emotionally or aesthetically. After all, art is not just another form of interior design.

It is peculiar, therefore, to find a warning sign in a modern art gallery that reads: ‘This room contains images that some visitors may find challenging.’ That seems rather tautological.

As has been widely reported in the British and international media since the opening of the Pop Life show in London’s Tate Modern gallery last week, the ‘challenging’ image shows a nude, 10-year-old Brooke Shields, and has now been removed. The dark red painted room where the gilt framed photograph hung until the police warned gallery chiefs it could constitute child pornography is now, a sign informs visitors, ‘temporarily closed’.

The Tate Modern had sought legal advice before including in the show the 1983 photograph by Richard Prince, titled ‘Spiritual America’, which is, in fact, a photo of a photo by a commercial photographer, ironically named Gary Gross. Prince borrowed the title of his work from a 1923 photograph by Alfred Stieglitz which shows the midsection and castrated genitals of a gelded workhorse. Gross’s original photograph had been authorised by Shields’s mother for $450 in 1976. Gross took the picture for the Playboy Press magazine Sugar’n’Spice. Later, Brooke Shields unsuccessfully tried to suppress the image (1).

When Prince first displayed ‘Spiritual America’ in an otherwise empty gallery – a shop front in a rundown part of the Lower East Side, New York – he did not include any labelling to explain the image. But he has said of Gross’s photograph, in which Shields pouts and strikes a provocative pose in a steamy bathtub, her prepubescent body oiled and her face heavily made up, that it shows ‘a body with two different sexes, maybe more, and a head that looks like it’s got a different birthday’ (2). It seems Prince was fascinated by the activity around the photograph; what it suggested about Shields’s mother, celebrity culture and the management and ownership of images. He was interested in the questions it raises around sexuality and the separation between perception and reality in photographs.

But according to Michele Elliott, founder of children’s charity Kidscape, ‘Spiritual America’ is simply ‘soft kiddy porn’. For her, even the warning sign at the entrance of the room in Tate Modern that contained Prince’s image is problematic, but not because it compromises the gallery visitors’ experience (after all, if you’ve been warned that you’re about to be shocked, the shock element of an art work is inevitably subdued). Instead, Elliott believes that ‘putting a sign on the door like that means every paedophile in the land will head straight to that room’ (3). So in Elliott’s feverish imagination, the warning sign could lead to a mass pilgrimage to Tate Modern of paedophiles who want to fulfil their perverse desires by looking at a picture of a naked child amidst throngs of art-interested tourists and members of the British public.

‘Spiritual America’ has been displayed in public before, including in a 2007 retrospective of Prince’s work at the Guggenheim Museum in New York where it did not cause major controversy (4). And even though the Pop Life catalogue containing Prince’s photograph has been withdrawn from the Tate Modern bookshop, a simple Google search allows anyone to view the image and print it out.

Which is exactly what I did. I decided that the postmodern thing to do in this situation was to show gallery visitors a colour printout of Prince’s photograph of Gross’s photograph in order to give people a chance to judge for themselves what to make of the picture of Brooke Shields.

One young Londoner, Gordon, thought that the picture, though it is difficult to look at, should have been left in the Pop Life show. ‘It makes you think “does it make you a pervert looking at it?”’, he said. But Gordon thought much of the exhibition raises these kinds of questions as it ‘is about showing porn in an artistic way’, and he did not find Prince’s image any more disturbing than other work he had just witnessed, including hardcore porn and sexually explicit
sculptures.

His friend Ruth was undecided about whether the gallery should have included Prince’s picture or not. She found the whole show ‘quite shocking’ and told me that ‘if you got caught with pictures like this on your computer you’d most likely be judged to be a paedophile’. Both Gordon and Ruth agreed ‘artists should not be above the law’, but acknowledged that the image itself was not illegal.

A Daily Mail picture editor I spoke to said brashly: ‘To me the exhibition wasn’t shocking at all.’ But he still felt that the curators should not have included Prince’s photograph. ‘She’s a child and if they don’t have Brooke Shields’s consent they shouldn’t show it.’ His colleague thought it was more shocking than any of the explicit porn on display in Pop Life because Shields is underaged in the photo. ‘Imagine doing that to your child’, she said of Shields’s mother.

Another young gallery visitor, who works part-time selling programmes at Tate Modern, thought it was hard to judge the meaning and aesthetics of the image based on my printout because he was viewing it out of context. But he did not feel including it in an exhibition was unethical per se. ‘People who come to an art gallery have some awareness of art’, he said. ‘But if it was shown in the Sun or somewhere like that, it would be different. Those kind of people, who don’t know much about art, might misunderstand it.’

In fact, this young man hit the nail on the head. The censorious impulse of child-protection activists like Elliott and officers at the Metropolitan Police obscene publications unit, who advised Tate Modern chiefs to remove the photograph, is informed by a suspicion of the dimwitted public and a fear that a paedophile lurks within us all. Sophisticated art aficionados and apparently enlightened law enforcers may be able to separate ‘real art’ from ‘pornography’, but the rest of us must be protected from ourselves, the logic goes.

In truth, if the Prince photograph had stayed in the Pop Life exhibition it would have likely stood out as one of the least shocking and more interesting images of the show, which includes some pretty kitschy, garish, obscene, unsettling and sordid work by artists including Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Takashi Murakami, Jeff Koons, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst (5).

Sections containing some of the more sexually explicit work are restricted to over-18s, including Jeff Koons’s series of photographs called Made in Heaven that are hidden behind heavy wooden doors that visitors tentatively opened, many looking awkward as they went in and making sure they did not stay too long. Upon entering the room, viewers are confronted by an image of the former porn star Ilona Staller’s behind, titled ‘Ilona’s Asshole’, and various other hardcore pornographic photographs and sculptures.

The work of Cosey Fanni Tutti is displayed in a narrow, claustrophobic corridor. She worked as a porn and glamour model in the 1970s and images from her portfolio were displayed in an exhibition at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art in 1976 titled Prostitution, which caused outrage and angry media headlines. Now, both the magazine images of Cosey Fanni Tutti, documentary photographs from the ICA show and newspaper clippings with the reviews and reactions at the time are all on show in Pop Life, along with ads for dildos and vibrators. In another room, gallery visitors can watch an unedited, 60-minute video of Andrea Fraser having intercourse in a hotel room with a stranger whom she paid $20,000 to create this piece of art with her. That’s before entering a room occupied solely by an impaled, stuffed horse.

While Prostitution, which was truly pornographic, had the prudes up in arms back in 1976, today a comparatively innocent image of a young child who is now a grown woman has led to similar screaming headlines about the Tate’s misuse of public funds and the degraded nature of contemporary art. Prince’s intentions, which can be interpreted as an empathic statement on the exploitation of a child star rather than as a crass attempt to shock the art world, are rendered irrelevant here. All the fuss and controversy surrounding the image have turned it into something indecent and dirty and, ironically, those who want to censure it have brought more attention to it than it would have otherwise received.

In an essay in the exhibition catalogue, which is no longer available, Jack Bankowsky, co-curator of Pop Life, writes that ‘When Prince invites us to ogle Brooke Shields in her prepubescent nakedness, his impulse has less to do with his desire to savour the lubricious titillations that it was shot to spark in its original context … than with a profound fascination for the child star’s story’ (6).

Yet the gallery directors did not have the guts to resist the police and child-protection activists. The Tate Modern is, after all, an institution whose purpose it is to allow the public to view, learn from and be inspired by art. They should be helping to create debate about the merits of art and about the ideas that artists wish to communicate. Here, instead of defending artistic freedom and standing up for the public’s ability to judge for themselves what constitutes good and bad art, Tate Modern first consulted lawyers on whether or not we should be allowed to engage with Prince’s photograph and later simply took the picture down when they came under a bit of pressure from the authorities.

But it shouldn’t be up to the cops to decide what goes in and stays out of public art galleries; since when did the Met become art critics? Regardless of what we make of the Pop Life exhibition – most of it is in pretty bad taste – its content should be up for public debate. But if we’re not even allowed to see it, then we can’t make up our own minds up about it, either.

It is a good thing that society has not always been infused with the ‘great paedophile scare’ or else paintings, sculptures and photographs of children would never have come about, let alone been on display in the public sphere.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild thought censoring an advertisement featuring someone who looked too young took prudishness to a new low. She also argued against the Baltic gallery’s ban on Nan Goldin’s ‘Klara and Edda’. She thought a film about Diane Arbus flattered the photographer of ‘freaks’. Elsewhere, she tried to make sense of the controversy surrounding a portrait of teen star Miley Cyrus by Annie Leibowitz, who, as a documentary has shown, is more than a celebrity snapper. Or read more at spiked issues Arts and entertainment and Free speech.

.

(1) See Brooke Shields by Gary Gross on the Iconic Photos blog.

(2) See Richard Prince’s website.

(3) Tate removes nude picture of 10-year-old Brooke Shields after police pornography probe, Daily Mail, 1 October 2009

(4) Tate Modern removes naked Brooke Shields picture after police visit, Guardian, 30 September 2009

(5) You can read more about the exhibition here.

(6) Tate Modern removes naked Brooke Shields picture after police visit, Guardian, 30 September 2009

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

Share
Topics Politics

Comments

Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Become a spiked supporter
Share