File spoon-archives/avant-garde.archive/avant-garde_1996/96-11-03.013, message 30


Date: Sat, 21 Sep 1996 12:18:24 GMT
Subject: Pornography and Art


   Financial Times, September 21, 1996, pp. I, II. 
 
 
   Pornography and art: we are the censors now 
 
   Christian Tyler finds a moral in the sado-masochistic work 
   of the late New York photographer Robert Mapplethorpe 
 
      Words such as "taste" mean nothing in a world where the 
      artist is sacred and where art is self-referentially 
      defined as anything which challenges our notions of what 
      art is. 
 
      "No one will ever be entirely rational. Everyone has 
      anxiety about their own sexuality. People won't admit to 
      liking pornography, so you get this raincoat image - and 
      raincoats have no lobby." 
 
 
   A photographic collection which ticks like a Geiger counter 
   of public tolerance opened in London on Thursday. The works 
   of Robert Mapplethorpe have been shown in a dozen countries 
   since 1992 with only a scattering of complaints. Before 
   that, in the US, there was uproar. A gallery director in 
   Cincinnati was taken to court (and acquitted) and another 
   in Washington caved in to threats that his museum would 
   lose a public subsidy. 
 
   The latest exhibition, at the Hayward gallery in London, 
   has partly succumbed to police advice by removing three 
   items from the catalogue on the grounds that it had no 
   control over their wider dissemination - on the Internet, 
   for example and one photograph was omitted from the 
   exhibition itself. 
 
   The picture which caused all the trouble had nothing in 
   common with the grotesque scenes of bondage and humiliation 
   which dominate the largest exhibition of Mapplethorpe's 
   work yet shown. The photograph was of a little girl of 
   about three years old wearing a dress but no knickers. 
 
   Although the gallery defended its decision to remove 
   "Rosie" by pleading lack of space and by declaring - 
   without irony - that she was not a typical work, its final 
   reason was clear, the social climate. In Britain, where an 
   intellectual liberal elite had taken pride in a 
   post-Mapplethorpe mentality of accepting all hung before 
   it, no matter how vacuous the violence or exploitative the 
   image, there are limits. 
 
   As represented by juries, the British public shows a 
   remarkable tolerance of adult pornography. But it will not 
   put up with people who muck about with children. What is 
   more, the Mapplethorpe retrospective (he died in 1989 at 
   the age of 42) has coincided with an uproar in Belgium, 
   broadcast worldwide, about a murderer of young girls who 
   has apparently enjoyed official protection. In England, the 
   memory of the serial killer and torturer Frederick West is 
   still fresh. 
 
   Current preoccupations with paedophilia and child abuse are 
   so intense - even without the pre-emptive shriek from 
   British TV presenter Esther Rantzen about the Mapplethorpe 
   show, that teachers are anxious about taking pupils by the 
   hand on walks. Parents take a risk when photographing their 
   children naked, as another TV presenter, Julia Somerville, 
   found when she was arrested and quizzed by police last year 
   over snapshots of her child in the bath. 
 
   Among those vulnerable to this sensitivity are artists of 
   far greater talent than Mapplethorpe, whose photographs, 
   even by the standards of pornography, are hard core. 
 
   The modern realist Balthus, whose paintings of Lolitas who 
   have crossed the borders of innocence, are under scrutiny 
   for the taint of child pornography. Mouton Rothschild was 
   recently obliged to withdraw 30,000 bottles of its 1993 
   vintage from the US market because the label carried a 
   Balthus drawing of a naked girl with a knowing look. 
 
   So long as there were taboos to be broken, western liberal 
   intellectuals and exhibitionists could display their wares 
   and be "daring". But Mapplethorpe is already regarded by 
   the art Establishment as somewhat passe: he comes from that 
   far-off place and time, the gay sub-culture of New York in 
   the 1970s. Mapplethorpe's contribution may turn out, 
   however, to be more important than the pundits realise. 
   marking the moment when the public, reconciled to the fact 
   that sexuality takes many forms but weary of the endless 
   insult to human dignity, turned its back on the extreme 
   violence of late 20th century art. 
 
   If the sexuality of children is to be altogether off 
   limits, should we not worry about the gratuitous violence 
   of Quentin Tarantino's films, the mindless brutality of 
   pornographic videos and the ugliness of Mapplethorpe's fine 
   photography? If, after all, there is a line to be drawn - 
   in life as well as art - who is to draw it? 
 
   The portrait of the artist emerging from the Mapplethorpe 
   selection is not of a clever studio photographer who took 
   sex pictures on the side, but of an obsessive sado- 
   masochist who happened to have an eye for composition, a 
   knack with lights and camera (which did not extend to the 
   dark-room - his printing was done by an assistant) and who 
   also had a fondness for flowers and famous people. 
 
   An early sign of Mapplethorpe rejection came from the 
   critic Robert Hughes of Time magazine. enemy of ultra- 
   conservatives and ultra-liberals alike. Hughes recounts in 
   *Culture of Complaint* how he refused Mapplethorpe's 
   invitation to write a catalogue introduction. 
 
   "I had to tell him that since the X portfolio was obviously 
   a key to his work and ... his main claim to originality, 
   and since I found the images of sexual humiliation and 
   torture in it ... too disgusting to write about with 
   enthusiasm, he had better find someone else. Which he did." 
 
   If pictures like these were on open display in London's 
   Soho, still a bit sleazier than the New York variant, the 
   joint would be closed down. If these scenes had involved 
   women, however complaisant, or - perhaps even worse - 
   animals, not even the gallery's status as a temple of 
   culture would have protected it from the mob. Indeed, the 
   last time the Hayward took precautions before an exhibition 
   was with an "installation" which required a live parrot to 
   sit on a perch. (The parrot stayed.) 
 
   David Elliott, director of the Museum of Modern Art in 
   Oxford, half-jokingly described the Hayward's precautions 
   as "asking a copper what to hang on your walls". Having put 
   on his own Mapplethorpe show in 1983 he regards the event 
   as somewhat old hat: the pictures themselves he described 
   as "a mixture of beautiful, trivial and comic". 
 
   His museum would like to stage a Balthus exhibition. "We 
   would never be afraid of the consequences," he said. "If 
   you are going to have a battle, have it about something 
   interesting, so something valuable can come out of it." 
 
   The distinction between art and pornography has never been 
   clear: Courbet, Picasso, even Degas, Turner and Titian 
   produced erotic works which would have offended public 
   morals in their day. But time and context remove the sting. 
   We laugh at the innocence of priapic figures on Attic vases 
   or the fertility symbols of primitive cultures. 
 
   Today the distinction has all but vanished. Words such as 
   "taste" mean nothing in a world where the artist is sacred 
   and where art is self-referentially defined as anything 
   which challenges our notions of what art is. 
 
   "This work is honest work by an artist of integrity, a 
   complex artist," said Martin Caiger-Smith, organiser of the 
   Hayward exhibition. "It is problematic, but this is part of 
   the potency of the work." Could Mapplethorpe's work be 
   called perverted? "By the standards of many people it might 
   be. But some people think homosexuality is a perversion." 
 
   And that is the point. Social prohibitions - including 
   legal controls - depend on current diagnoses. At one time 
   homosexuality was thought to be the result of older men 
   corrupting youths, at other times a disease or a mental 
   illness. In the same way, images of women which were once 
   banned on grounds of decency (or "prudery" to use the 
   modern term) are now banned because they show men 
   exploiting women. 
 
   The fluctuating nature of the controversy is recognised in 
   British law: there is a two-year time limit on prosecutions 
   for obscenity, the only indictable crime with such 
   provision. 
 
   Galleries and similar bodies enjoy special protection under 
   the Obscene Publications Act, 1959: even if a published 
   work is found obscene it can be defended on the ground that 
   it advances the cause of science, literature, art or 
   learning. 
 
   Prosecutions of art galleries are rare and the police do 
   not usually investigate unless they get a complaint from 
   the public. But, in 1990, the Court of Appeal upheld fines 
   on an artist and the owner of a gallery near Waterloo 
   Station in London for the common law offence of outraging 
   public decency. The offending work, "Human Earrings", 
   consisted of freeze-dried human foetuses attached to a 
   modelled head. 
 
   The law is "an absolute lottery", according to Howard 
   Manning, the police officer who, with an inspector 
   colleague, was called in to review the works at the Hayward 
   Gallery. 
 
   Manning works in the obscene publications section of the 
   Clubs and Vice Unit of the Metropolitan Police. He said the 
   law on indecency, designed to protect children, is 
   vulnerable to fashion but relatively tough. 
 
   Obscenity verdicts, on the other hand, are erratic and 
   convictions very difficult to secure. "The same material 
   can be convicted and acquitted in the same court in 
   different weeks. We don't know where we stand." But Sgt 
   Manning is a realist who accepts that if there is no 
   consensus today, there probably never was one. 
 
   A graphic illustration was provided earlier this year when 
   members of the O'Sullivan family and others, said by the 
   police to be Britain's biggest suppliers of hard core 
   pornography, were acquitted by a jury which had spent more 
   than 30 hours looking at videos and magazines containing 
   extreme sexual violence. 
 
   Were those jurors repelled? Were they disgusted? It does 
   not matter. The prosecution has to show that the material 
   is likely to deprave and corrupt. And the obvious defence 
   is: anyone likely to see such stuff is depraved and 
   corrupted already. 
 
   It is difficult to determine whether the juries are showing 
   a commonsense response to irresolvable issues, or are being 
   frustrated by badly drafted law. 
 
   One of the defence barristers in the O'Sullivan case was 
   Charles Salter. Inclined to agree with Manning's "lottery" 
   verdict. he also thinks juries will convict if they are 
   determined to, whatever the law says. 
 
   Salter, a liberal with doubts, said: "No one will ever be 
   entirely rational. Everyone has anxiety about their own 
   sexuality. People won't admit to liking pornography, so you 
   get this raincoat image - and raincoats have no lobby." 
 
   He claims to have found sympathy in the most unlikely 
   places, such as a jury including four Irish Catholics and 
   a Moslem woman which let pass magazines containing pictures 
   of women in bondage. "But my favourites are old ladies. 
   They were girls through the war and have seen it all. They 
   think this stuff is silly." 
 
   Meanwhile the art pundits, terrified of making judgments 
   that might be deemed censorship, are striking ever stranger 
   poses in order to demonstrate artistic justification. Here 
   is Germano Celant, catalogue editor of the Mapplethorpe 
   exhibition, on *Gentlemen*: 
 
   "*Gentlemen* seems to declare Christ's rebellion against 
   the 'law' and, with a reversal and overthrow of symbolic 
   values, it makes everything interchangeable, confusing god 
   and demon ... Mapplethorpe salvages the homosexual 
   discourse, which is taken on as a discourse on criticising 
   and breaking the paradoxical assumptions of current 
   ideology." 
 
   And the object of this critique? A photograph of a man 
   sitting on a barrel, doubled up, with his bare buttocks 
   spread over a crucifix. (You hardly need to know that 
   Mapplethorpe, like the pop star Madonna and Andres Serrano. 
   author of *Piss Christ* was brought up a Roman Catholic.) 
 
   No amount of intellectual tergiversation will convince the 
   man and woman on the Clapham (or Cincinnati) omnibus that 
   this is the last word on the matter. Nor can they rely on 
   the law to settle things, for the law has shown itself at 
   a loss in a society where norms are no longer handed down 
   by political and religious leaders to the grateful masses. 
   From now on, in the era of post-Mapplethorpe morality, the 
   public will have to play jury to itself. 
 
   In *The Secret Museum*, a history of pornography, Walter 
   Kendrick refers to a speech by Richard Nixon - a man not 
   often accused of artistic pretensions. "As free men 
   willingly restrain a measure of their freedom to prevent 
   anarchy, so must we draw the line against pornography to 
   protect freedom of expression." 
 
   Nixon added that if dirty books had no lasting harmful 
   effect on character, then great books, paintings and plays 
   had no ennobling effect. "Centuries of civilisation and ten 
   minutes of common sense," the former American president 
   said, "tell us otherwise." 
 
   [Self-photo of Mapplethorpe omitted] 
 
   [End] 
 
   To see "Rosie": 
 
      http://jya.com/rosie.jpg 
 
 


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