Having been reading up on the announcement of Frieze Magazine’s 2010 Writer’s Prize, we came across this great article about child nudity in art. Frieze is a UK publication and there are some differences between American and UK law, but attitudes are similar and this enlightening piece explores the fine line between exploitation and censorship. In a broader sense, this piece is also about the subject of childhood sexuality in general and most primal instincts that underscore both religious and social morality regarding sex and children.
The Last Taboo by Daniel McClean
Naked children are ubiquitous in the history of western art, whether as adornments – Bronzino’s amorous Cupid, cheekily kissing Venus in his Allegory of Love (1545) – or as subjects (as in Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1976 photograph, Rosie).
Yet the contemporary incarnation of this long tradition often causes hysteria in the tabloid press, even leading to threats being made by police officers against museums and galleries on the grounds that such art works are ‘paedophilic’ and that their display violates criminal indecency laws. This has created a climate in which galleries are understandably wary of exhibiting such works, leading in practice to self-censorship.
In October last year, Tate Modern decided to omit Richard Prince’s Spiritual America (1983), the artist’s ironic appropriation of a Playboy magazine image of a naked, pre-pubescent Brooke Shields from the ‘Pop Life’ exhibition. Tate’s directors had been threatened with prosecution by London police’s obscene publications unit after being alerted by The Daily Mail, and told that conviction would lead automatically to their names being included on the sex offenders register.
In 2007, a controversial Nan Goldin photograph (above) of naked little girls playing, Klara and Eddy Belly Dancing (2000), was seized from BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art by Tyneside police after complaints from the public. The work was part of a collection of Goldin’s work loaned to BALTIC by Sir Elton John for the exhibition. Although the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) eventually declared the work not to be ‘indecent’ and returned it, its removal and the surrounding climate of hysteria, led John to request the closure of the exhibition .
The recent exhibition of certain photographs by Sally Mann, in ‘The Family and the Land’ at the Photographers’ Gallery (June–September 2010), has brought these issues up once again. The exhibition included Mann’s series of nostalgic, 19th-century-style, black and white photographs, ‘Immediate Family’ (1984–94), taken while her three young children – Emmett, Jessie and Virginia – were growing up. The artist intimately captures her children playing, swimming and acting before the camera, in and around the family home in Lexington, Virginia; these photographs show her children naked, yet are wholly innocent and depicted without any sexual overtones. Indeed, it would seem absurd that Mann’s photographs could invite the prospect of legal censure. Yet, in today’s climate of collective, undifferentiated anxiety regarding images of child nudity, the series prompted The Photographers’ Gallery to seek my firm’s legal advice before mounting the exhibition to be sure that it could safely exhibit these photographs under UK law.
Joe Nolan <3