Friday, October 02, 2009

Tory Maguire, Brooke Shields, Bill Henson, child pornography and further questions for Australia's most fatuous conversation

Shocked by the above image? Think it's paedophiliac, sick and disgusting, dirty and outrageous? Creates uncomfortable, disturbing thoughts in your mind?

Please see a psychiatrist, they can sometimes help a troubled mind. Let's place the image in context:

Yep, it's The Madonna and Child with Saints John the Baptist and Jerome aka The Vision of St. Jerome, painted 1526-27 by the Italian high Renaissance artist Parmigianino, and last I knew it hung in the National Gallery in London (I ripped this incomplete frame from a book on the artist, you can find more details online at the National Gallery and a better picture (here)).

Does it change anything to realize you're looking at a portrait of the young Christ, complete with small penis, done in the florid style favored by Parmigianino's inspirations, such as Correggio, Raphael and Michelangelo? The painting's interesting on a gestural level (the dynamics of the figures) as well as the graceful elongation of the work, but perhaps you got caught up in a primal response, and didn't think of the work as art.

Perhaps you still don't. Perhaps you still find it somehow queasy, sick inducing and disturbing, because there's something sexual and erotic about the image? After all, it features a nude child. Never mind if he's the son of god.

No worries, go read Miranda the Devine. She'll confirm your prejudices are surely worth a small moral panic. Perhaps fig leaves should be deployed world wide, or Vatican style, offending bits and pieces smashed off or painted over?

Art is always in the eye of the beholder, but again can I suggest if you feel that way please consult a shrink. They can help.

Because nudity isn't pornography, and a nude child isn't an invitation to paedophilia.

How are we back on this tired old saw?

Well it's no thanks to Tory Maguire, who in The Punch, Australia's most feeble and fatuous conversation, yesterday yet again tried to stir the possum with Is it child porn if the subject is famous?

Using the news that the Tate Modern in London has just withdrawn a picture of Brooke Shields taken when she was ten, she takes the opportunity to trawl through The Blue Lagoon, and Pretty Baby, and then in case you're wondering what the fuss is all about, she provides a convenient link to an uncropped version of the controversial photo in question, available at artist Richard Prince's own website (and here it is, so she doesn't get any bonus hits out of this particular bit of shamelessness).

I don't think much of the piece by Prince. It's pretentious - with referential maquette in foreground, and a vulgar flourishing of steam - and at the centre a coy oiled up pose which is reminiscent of cheesecake. So I'm not running it here.

Up against the best works of Bill Henson, it shows its age, and its provenance - photos taken on assignment as a result of Brooke Shield's mother's determination to give her daughter a showbiz career.

Naturally Tory Maguire can't resist dragging Bill Henson into her column:

The scandal at the Tate has been likened to the Bill Henson affair in Sydney last year when police raided the Roslyn Oxley9 gallery in Paddington and seized some of the celebrated photographer’s works.

And by whom has it been so likened? Well the likes of Tory Maguire, even thought the situations are entirely different. But still it allows her to get off a random shot at Henson:

I was uncomfortable with some of the shots, not because I thought dirty old men were going to go to the Roslyn Oxley9 gallery to get off on the pictures, but because I thought the children involved were too young to decide for themselves whether or not to take part.

I also reckon it’s very easy for a photographer to cloak their work with an artistic purpose like “exploring innocence”, or “provoking thought.”

For the love of the lord, go tell that to Parmigianino, and hundreds of others. Because you know it's very easy for bubble heads to slur photographers with sly innuendos about misuse and abuse of artistic purpose, especially when misrepresenting someone like Bill Henson.

And you know the funniest thing? I'm not such a big fan of Bill Henson, but when you read the level of musings on offer from Maguire, I suddenly have a deep sympathy, because indirectly and by way of innuendo, she's hinting that he's a fake and a fraud, cloaking porn with the contrivance of artistic purpose.

It's about as offensive as she can get without calling him a child pornographer directly. And all the more outrageous that in the process of slagging off Henson, she provides a link to a photo by Prince of much more dubious quality and merit.

Does that mean I can call her a child pornographer, as she cloaks her real intent with a 'journalistic purpose' that means she can hide behind being fair and balanced, and interested in discussing the 'puncturing of innocence' and the 'provoking of thought'?

Well it wouldn't be a wrap in this kind of column without an attempt at a redemptive disclaimer:

The subjects of the Henson pictures had their anonymity protected it they choose that.

And then a final flurry of floozies:

Shields has none. She now has to live with her entire childhood as part of the public record.

Her entire childhood as part of the public record? You mean a couple of photo shoots and a couple of movies? Or the standard biogs we get as fans slobber over their favorite stars? Or perhaps Maguire's talking about the way she's shamelessly provided a link to Prince's photo, so if we weren't aware - or didn't care - about the public record, we could be brought up to speed.

By being told these photos are somehow naughty and arousing. Well check out the mote in your own eye before you start telling me about the mote in mine ...

Which brings up my own question. Is Maguire part of the cure, or part of the disease? Part of the spread of discomfort throughout the intertubes? Part of a media willing to trade in moral panics just to crank up the hits?

Never mind, I tend to think that anyone who looks at art and gets sexually aroused is likely to be mistaking the point of the art. If that's it's only ambition, then it's a very limited and limiting ambition ... the distinctive quality of porn is that it just gets on with the job at hand, and doesn't worry too much about arty farty nonsense.

Meantime, here's a few nude images to go on with. See how they work for you.

How about we start with a photo of nudists by Diane Arbus?

Okay, still not cooking? Well how about a couple of works by John Currin? He's always controversial, and sells well, and some hate him and some love him for his post-modernist irony:

Still not sure? Well how about Marilyn Monroe?

Ah, at last some decent art! I can't generally recognize art, but I like it when I see it, and perhaps now I'll get busy curating a retrospective look at nineteen fifties calendar art as signifiers of a pop art sensibility. And the patriarchal stare.

What do you mean, they've already done that?

Oops, drifted off the track a little bit.

What's all this got to do with art in general? Absolutely nothing. Does it answer the question "Is it child porn if the subject is famous?" Not really.

As opposed to the equally incisive question "Is it child porn if the subject is infamous?" Probably not.

As opposed to the insightful question "Is it child porn if the subject is completely unknown?" Only if you're determined to be silly.

As opposed to the perplexing question "Is it child porn if the subject is exploited for sexual purposes irrespective of whether they're famous or the janitor's daughter?" Remind me which tabloid rag you work for again?

Or the more problematic question: "Is it art if a journalist wants to write a story about child porn?" Come again? Oh no, when I wrote come again, I didn't mean that ...

Perhaps all we can hope is that we've gone a small way towards answering the quintessential question: "Is it really a fatuous stupid question if the questioner framing the question is a journalist in search of a quick, simple minded column?"

Oh heck, how about we just get back to landscapes and urban decay. The 25 best of urban decay will get you going, and here's a couple of figure-less samples:

1 comment:

  1. "And by whom has it been so likened? Well the likes of Tory Maguire, even thought the situations are entirely different. But still it allows her to get off a random shot at Henson"

    Bill Henson's material is CP in Britain, PoCA 1978, if anything, Henson's 'art' is L2, or L3, if there is 'context' is it only relevant to the prosecution, not to the defence.

    So the adjacent porn exhibits re: Tate, is context, but not 'good' context. There are no artistic exceptions allowed, social merit, atistic licence, none of that is a get out of jail card.


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