A perverted view of art

It was daft of the Tate to remove Graham Ovenden’s paintings after his indecent assault conviction.

Tiffany Jenkins

Topics Culture

A couple of years ago, at the Tate Modern gallery, a sign alerted the visitor: ‘This room contains images that some visitors may find challenging.’ Not very surprising, you might think; an art gallery today is bound to show something challenging.

Included in the exhibition was a picture made from a photograph of a naked, 10-year-old girl. The work, entitled ‘Spiritual America’, was created by the artist Richard Prince, from a 1970s photograph of Brooke Shields, then a young film star. It showed her standing in a bathtub, wearing heavy make-up, covered in oil. Although it was a provocative exploration of celebrity, it depicted nothing illegal. So did we really need the warning sign? It was, after all, just a picture of a photo of a well-known young woman, nude.

Apparently, though, we needed much more than a warning because the Tate Modern took legal advice and quickly removed the photograph. So while numerous other pictures featuring highly sexual content remained on the walls, ‘Spiritual America’ was the one deemed suspect, the one seen as obscene.

Pictures of children are common images – just think about all your own family photographs, or any advert for a domestic product showing a happy home life. Yet pictures featuring children are also the most sensitive. Today, simple images of young kids – nude or not – can create great unease and trigger a controversy. It is a reaction that is sadly polluting the way we view children. We now see them through abuser-tinted glasses.

Art history is being rewritten through the prism of abuse, too. So it was that the Tate gallery has announced that it is ‘reviewing’ its policy on the display of prints by the artist Graham Ovenden and has already taken them offline. This is because of the actions of the artist: Ovenden was recently convicted of six charges of indecency with a child and one count of indecent assault. All 34 prints owned by the gallery have come under scrutiny because the Tate believes that Ovenden’s conviction ‘shone a new light’ on his work. ‘Until this review is complete’, a Tate spokeswoman explained, ‘the images will not be available online and the works will not be available to view by appointment.’ At this stage, there is no suggestion that the works feature anyone who was the victim of sexual assault.

The prints were given to the gallery in 1975 as part of a larger gift of about 3,000 works. His art is clearly admired; the gallery has far fewer works of other artists. The Ovenden prints include work inspired by Alice in Wonderland and, yes, images of naked young girls. But what has changed is our view of him, not the work. The prints are not indecent, even though what he did was.

We should not to confuse the actions of the artist with their work. Firstly, where would we stop? A quick glance at the history of art, and multiple paintings suddenly become suspect, our appreciation of them tainted. Take Degas: can we really trust that his interest in young, female ballerinas was entirely appropriate? It certainly was not in the case of Gauguin, whose paintings depict his teenage Polynesian lovers. What about all those Greek statues of pre-pubescent youth in museums? Young men in the past were seen in a very different light than they are today; they were treated differently, too. The Renaissance goldsmith and sculptor Benventuo Cellini was well known for seducing young boys. He was eventually prosecuted for sodomy. Should his pieces be removed from galleries?

Conflating the artist with their actions could extend well beyond suspect behaviour with children. Caravaggio is one of the greatest painters who has created spectacular work. He was also a violent individual who murdered a man in a duel in the summer of 1606. These acts were unquestionably bad, but should his art be put behind closed doors? No, it should not. The same rule should apply to the Ovenden prints.

The first major hysterical reaction to pictures of young children was in the 1990s, when American photographer Sally Mann’s own photographs of her kids caused a furore. They are tremendous, capturing well the character not just of her children, but all children. There is some nudity, a direct gaze, smoking and most important of all: truthfulness. But newspapers still blacked out the pictures of Mann’s kids, despite Mann arguing that they were, ‘natural seen through the eyes of a mother, since she has seen her children in every state: happy, sad, playful, sick, bloodied, angry and even naked’.

A few years ago, at the Baltic Gallery in Gateshead, a photograph by the artist Nan Goldin was removed and seized by police. The image, ‘Klara and Edda Belly-Dancing’, showed two girls playing, one naked, the other partly dressed. It is a lovely picture of a delightful moment between the kids. But it is now polluted with suspicion. It is important to note that not one person complained about the picture. The police were reacting to a call from the gallery officials who were no longer confident that they could display it.

Just think about what is being suggested by such actions. It is we, normal gallery goers, who are being targeted. We are the ones who are not trusted to look at a picture of young kids. In recent times there have been reports that parents have been restricted from photographing children at school, at Nativity plays, and, on occasion, in the gym. At my local gym, the windows to the room where the young children exercise have been papered over, so we – gym goers and parents – cannot watch them.

That is a vile sentiment and one that poisons, in this instance, not only our appreciation of art, but how we relate to young generations. For this is about more than the Ovenden prints, although that’s enough for serious concern. This is also about how we see ourselves and how we view children. No picture of a young child is un-tainted with this mindset. This, just as much as the terrible actions that are sometimes committed against children, will destroy their innocence.

Tiffany Jenkins is a cultural sociologist and author of Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: The Crisis of Cultural Authority, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)). Visit Tiffany’s website here. A version of his article was published in the Scotsman on 9 April.

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Topics Culture


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