Comment: Vile mindset pollutes depictions of innocence

The Tate Modern Gallery. Picture: PA
The Tate Modern Gallery. Picture: PA
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As art galleries become more censorious over images of youngsters, the air of suspicion has a poisonous effect on us all, writes Tiffany Jenkins

A COUPLE of years ago, at a major modern art 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 disturbing.

Included in the exhibition was a picture made from a photograph of a young girl, aged ten, naked. The work, entitled Spiritual America, was created by the artist Richard Prince, from a photograph of Brooke Shields, the star from the 1970s. It showed her standing in a bathtub, wearing heavy make-up, covered in oil. Although it was provocative, and an 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 we needed much more than a warning because the institution (Tate Modern) quickly removed the photograph, having sought legal advice.

Numerous other pictures of very sexual, quite nasty stuff that I don’t want to describe here remained on the walls, unchallenged. Out of them all, Spiritual America was the one deemed suspect, the one seen as obscene.

Pictures of children are very common images; just think about all your own family photographs, or any advert for a domestic product showing a happy home life.

They 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 view we have of all children. We now see them through abuser-tinted glasses.

Art history is being rewritten through this prism. The Tate Gallery has announced that it is “reviewing” its policy on the display of prints by the artist Chris Ovenden. The gallery has removed them from our sight; taken them offline. This is because of the actions of the artist. Ovenden has been convicted of a serious crime: six charges of indecency with a child and one count of indecent assault. All 34 prints owned by the gallery have been removed, because the Tate states the conviction “shone a new light” on his work.

A Tate spokeswoman explained: “Until this review is complete, 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, and his art is admired; they have 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 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, and 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 prepubescent youth in museums? Young men were seen in a very different light then to the way they are today, and they were treated differently too. The Renaissance goldsmith and sculptor Benventuo Cellini was well known for seducing young boys. He was 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 was one of the greatest painters, who created spectacular work. He was also a violent individual, who murdered a man in a duel, in the summer of 1606, as well as being generally lawless. These acts were questionably bad, but should his art be put behind closed doors? No, it should not. Nor should any of it, including the Ovenden prints. Not only can the art work be separated from the actions of the artist, in order to hold the artist to account for what they did, we should not confuse the two.

The censorious outlook is not restricted to those charged with indecency. The first major hysterical reaction to pictures of young children was in the 1990s, with the American photographer Sally Mann, whose photographs of her own kids caused a furore. They are tremendous, capturing well the character of her children, and all children. There is some nudity, a direct gaze, smoking and, most importantly of all, truthfulness. But newspapers blacked out her pictures of her children, which Mann argued were “natural 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, called Klara and Edda Belly-Dancing, was of 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. The gallery phoned the police about the work, no longer confident that they could display it.

Just think about what is being said here, and the consequences. It is us, normal gallery goers, who are being targeted. We are the ones that are not trusted to look at a picture of young kids. That is a vile sentiment, and one that poisons not only our appreciation of art, but how we relate to young generations.

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 untainted by this mind-set. This, as much as the terrible actions that have been and are committed against them, will harm their innocence.