A 1983 photo of a 1975 photo of a nude 10 year old is stirring up the controversy battle stations. Appropriately enough, it is connected to an exhibition about controversy in art.
The original title for the Tate show "Sold Out" was changed because some of the artists took offense. (Insert soundtrack of me snickering at what an oxymoron THAT is.) A shame really because it would have left no question in the public's mind that the exhibition was about artists selling out, commercializing, prostituting, exploiting (whatever you want to call it) art for money and fame. As a movement, Pop Art was steeped in sarcasm and self mockery, dedicated to playing off the business end while utilizing controversy to add to the value of a piece by giving the artist his/her fifteen minutes of fame. God bless Mister Warhol everyone.
A 1983 piece by Richard Prince features a photograph of Brooke Shields posing naked in a bathtub. Public outrage and the police have caused the piece to be removed from the exhibition. (Interestingly enough the video of an artist being fucked by her collector is acceptable, as are the other graphically sexual images in the exhibition.)
Mr. Prince's piece is a photograph of a photograph taken by commercial photographer Garry Gross in 1975. A point that is brought up repeatedly is that Ms. Shields unsuccessfully sued Mr. Gross to reclaim the image's copyright.
What isn't brought up as often is that she posed in 2005 for Mr. Prince, standing in the same position but wearing a bikini, for a piece called "Spiritual America IV." Considering his "reclaimed" photo of her had been on
exhibit since 1983, there can be little doubt that she was aware that he had created a piece of art using her image. Her posing for him in a similar pose could easily be construed as consent for use, in my book anyway.
Jack Bankowsky, a New York-based curator says the piece is meant as a comment on exploitation. "I think it's important to be very careful about confusing a work that asks us to think about a situation, with the situation itself,"
“It’s the visual equivalent of the novel Lolita,” Matthew Kieran said. “Do we think Lolita shouldn’t be read? No. Do we think it is deeply morally troubling? Yes. Why is it so good? Because it is deeply morally troubling. Purpose and context are vital. It would be morally repugnant to post the picture on a paedophile website because the intention would be to excite sexual interest. By contrast the same image in an art gallery invites the viewer to confront and explore issues of child sexuality and morality."
The Tate exhibition is about exploitation. It is about the extremes that artists will go to. It is about the dark side of art and human nature. Mr. Prince's piece is one of the most powerful in the show since it hits the topic right on the head on multiple levels. Using an iconic child star was no accident. Using one whose own mother sold her out was no accident. Using one who was exploited and used repeatedly in the name of art (film) and in the name of commerce (advertising) was bloody brilliant on the artist's part. He couldn't have conveyed the message better.
Exploitation of children for money, for sex, for fame...for ART is a reality that many of us shy from thinking too hard on. It is beyond horrific that a parent, a teacher, a relative, a stranger would use a helpless child in such a way. But it is a reality and it happens every day in beauty pageants across the country, in porn studios all over the world, in foster homes and schools, and the supposed sanctuary of a child's home.
And there is no hope of change if no one will talk about it. Not rant, not howl, but TALK about it. The job of good art is to open a path of dialogue. The job of the public is to follow that path and be outraged enough to do something, not just complain.
To wrap it up, one brilliant comment from a blog post about artist Richard Prince:
"many of the most influential artists from the 20th century leave us with ideas and philosophies that have a greater lasting impact than their actual work supports."
And one dumbass comment from Mike Judge, the head of communications for the Christian Institute about the Tate exhibition:
"Art is where you can look at something and be lifted in your soul about the great works humans can accomplish, but to look at something and see the depths to which humility can sink, that is not art."
I think Mister Judge needs to take an art history class.