[Back to Newsletter E 16] [Back to Articles & Essays - S]
Pornography in the eye of the beholder
Context should govern how we judge artistic images of children
Three years ago, police were called to the Saatchi gallery in north-west London when the question of indecency was raised in connection with photographs by the American Tierney Gearon of her young children in various states of undress. This week it has been photographs by Betsy Schneider of her daughter naked at east London's Spitz gallery that have made headlines.
The Gearon case was resolved when Chris Smith, the then culture secretary, intervened on the gallery's behalf with a brisk lecture to the police about censorship. Much of the furore had been got up, with characteristically synthetic moral outrage, by the News of the World. What is disturbing now is that the Spitz gallery itself has closed the exhibition and blacked out windows - acting on complaints from the public.
In 2001, the Saatchi gallery stayed open and refused to remove any of Gearon's pictures, despite a police threat to seize them. Today, it is the Spitz gallery that has called in the police.
One of the ironies of Schneider's predicament is that she knows her work could not be exhibited in her conservative small-town home of Tempe, Arizona, without provoking trouble, but she had assumed a more liberal standard might apply in a cosmopolitan European capital. A further irony is that Schneider once worked as an assistant to Sally Mann, who not only pioneered this territory of intimate family portraiture, but also took far greater risks with offending public sensibilities.
Mann's work is tinged with an ambiguity about her daughters' precocious sense of themselves both as subjects and objects. Perhaps the very heart of her matter is to question our cherished idea of childhood innocence. In turn, some of Gearon's pictures captured a little of this unsettling sensation with their elements of the surreal - the children photographed semi-nude wearing masks.
By comparison, Schneider's series of snaps of her daughter seems platitudinous, so bald in statement as to be almost bland. One might ask not whether her work is pornographic, but whether it gets past developmental anatomy to count as art. Since her work has made it on to the walls of a gallery, it is, ipso facto, art. But because some onlookers choose to regard it as pornographic, that does not mean that it becomes, ipso facto, pornography. If Schneider had posted these photographs on the web and was charging people via credit cards to download them, that would be pornography. The context governs the meaning.
Artists cannot ultimately control what people make of their work, but there are laws of copyright to restrain improper distribution. Unfortunately, part of the context governing the meaning of these pictures is a state of heightened anxiety about child sex abuse and paedophilia. Where images of adult nudity are concerned, we have a category for stuff we haven't quite made up our minds about - a practically useful, if morally grey, area of sexual content known as "the erotic". No such category exists for images of children since children are not officially regarded as sexual beings until they reach the age of consent.
This social rule may be naive, but since the overriding concern is to forestall the potential sexual exploitation of a child by an adult, that is where we are at. Public awareness of child sex abuse has grown enormously in recent decades. But what comes with such an awareness is the knowledge that most child sex abuse takes place within the home and that the perpetrator is an adult known to the child. And that knowledge is unacceptable; it holds up too harsh a mirror to the contemporary family. So a convenient scapegoat is devised - the paedophile.
Art that addresses this collective psychodynamic becomes explosive. Perhaps it would be nice if Tessa Jowell "did a Chris Smith" and stepped in to restore a little sanity in this instance, but should we have to rely on the good sense and liberal instincts of whichever elected politician happens to fill the seat of culture secretary at the time?
From the Saatchi gallery to the Spitz gallery, it is only too clear how controversy knits itself into self-censorship. It is time to look again at the legislation governing "indecency". It is impossible to believe that there is no statutory way to make a distinction between the work of artists and the work of pornographers.
The final irony of the Schneider case is that it is precisely those who are most hysterically insistent on the innocence of childhood who are, by their actions, reneging its possibility. To slap the label of pornography on any nude image of a child is, through fear, to view everything with the tainted eye of the paedophile. Is that really a grown-up way to look at the issue?