Thirteen years ago, he was an up and coming artist, spreading his talents across various media. Painter, graphic artist, film-maker, dancer, actor and performance artist – these are just the things I saw him doing. Handsome and charming, his performances in particular were intense and riveting. And sometimes – not always – he did them naked.
Like that of many young artists in the late 1990s and early 2000s, his art was often about the body, about its vulnerability, about movement, about endurance. It was not about sex or sexuality. For a brief moment there appeared to be a general understanding that nudity was not “dirty” or sexy. That an artist or actor or performer could be nude in the same way a statue in a museum could be nude.
Actually, in the world of art and art appreciation I’d say attitudes have not changed, but outside of those rarefied circles they certainly have.
In 2009 Richard Prince’s piece Spiritual America (1983) was removed from “Pop Life, Art in a Material World”. The Tate removed it after a visit by the police. This was unusual; in western society over the past fifty years or so outright censorship is very rare. Police are normally not involved unless there is evidence an actual crime. In Prince’s case the provenance of the work is both well documented and more than acknowledged by Prince; in fact the provenance is the whole point. The work is a 1976 Playboy nude photograph of a heavily made-up prepubescent girl (an actress) which was authorised by the girl’s mother as a commercial venture. To my mind it is an absolutely necessary piece of work to be on display. It tells us everything need to know about Western sexual attitudes in that era. (It tell us about the current British Light Entertainment scandal when Jimmy Saville and other entertainers have been guilty of rape and exploitation of children throughout the 60s and 70s.) It tell us that sexualisation of children, and the whole porno-cratic ideal, is not glamorous and clever but sad and tawdry. And about money. Spiritual America is an unpleasant art work but a necessary one. It forces us to look and then think. And so it was strange and horrible that the police removed it.1
This is important because Prince’s piece was made in 1983 after he appropriated the original photograph, and has been shown numerous times since then. After the removal it appeared on the web, where clearly it reached many more people than would ever pay to see Pop Life. What happened between 1983 and 2009? The picture was awful in 1976, vile in 1983 but by 2009 it is itself a crime? Did the Taliban take control?
Hardly. The New Puritanism in the museum has not been matched by any kind of reining in of social behaviour. The exploitation of children continues. Politicians and the media continue to score points for themselves with periodic self serving ‘crusades.’ Little has changed.
So, thirteen years ago it was perfectly all right and perfectly fashionable for an artist or an actor to appear nude. It probably still is. But this breezy assumption does not take into account what happens when for whatever reason you are no longer and artist or an actor. Thirteen years ago if you met someone who used to be an actor and did a few nude scenes, unless you had the video tape, you’d never get to see it. It’s hard to believe it but in 2000 relatively few people had the internet at home. It existed but it was expensive and insanely slow. Low grade videos, small photos and no interactivity. Broadband barely existed; it only became available in the UK in 2000, and this was far too expensive for most. Ofcom (UK Office of Communications) notes that “If you travelled back in time to 1999 and stopped the first person you met, it’s quite possible they’d have yet to try out the internet.”
Fast forward from 2000 to 2013. The dynamic young artist is now a middling-aged school teacher. Perhaps not his first choice, but Saatchi never came calling. Bills have to be paid. The Bohemian antics of thirteen years ago are long forgotten. And then comes the phone call. “It has come to our attention that there are salacious images of you on the Internet.” What? Our hero is bemused. He cannot think what they mean. He agrees to the meeting with the Governors, and rushes to his website to see what on earth it can possibly mean. No, the site is clean – just photos of his paintings, which he sells from time to time. Flickr – nope just family stuff. Picnics. Facebook? He has exactly two photos on it, one of a work party and the other of a particularly impressive burger. He doesn’t tweet and has no time to blog.
He goes to the meeting and is confronted with photos and video he had forgotten about – because they dated from 2000. Photos from obscure art festivals, and a short film in a film maker’s archive. He does not own these sites and has no control over the content. Do the governors understand that? No, they don’t. Children can find this stuff and can be harmed by it, is the line. He realises that even if they are not right about the harm (from a vague non-erect pixelated penis), the fact that this stuff has surfaced means that it’s going to be difficult for him to take control of the situation at work. The school does not seem prepared to back him up and perhaps making it a ‘teaching moment’. He promises to try to remove the offending images though he does not really know how.
With Richard Prince it was easy. The police came, threatened the Tate’s workers, who promptly removed the picture. Though no doubt the Tate workers were traumatized, it was a matter easily rectified. With the case of our man though, it was not. He is currently trying to get various websites around the world, none of which he has any relationship with, to remove or hide the images. Legally, none of them has to. Some of them won’t want to, since they are part of an institution’s archive and therefore are valuable to the institution. I know about this because he approached me, about one of my films. I was able and willing to hide my content behind a password but some of the images of my work are on sites that I don’t own, film festivals etc.
Now, trying to help him, I see that a particularly hideous situation is unfolding. How many artists from the late 90s and early 2000s have images of themselves in positions that today might be considered compromising? Huge numbers. Virtually every performer I worked with in that era used nudity. I look at my own back catalogue and I find several other cases where I used an actor or performer – and there they are, nude on the Internet. Still photographs, too; whole series. Some of these sites aren’t mine; they belong to the curator or the exhibiting organisation. Should I remove all the ones I can remove? After all, it’s my work. And the arrangement was entered into freely. And what of the performers? Are they just to erase their creative past?
The funny – ok, unfunny – thing is that despite this insistence that children not be harmed by fuzzy low quality images of their teacher as a youth doing performance art, despite this righteous prudery, nobody sees to give a crap about what the actual kids are actually doing. The rapes, the exploitations, the neglect; the coarse sexualisation of childhood, the brutalities of social media, the ever present sexual (and otherwise) bullying .. all of this continues with impunity. But if the teacher just gets rid of his web page then it will all be okay.
There’s no space for an honest in class discussion of things like, what is nudity in art? What is performance art? Even, how we do change as we go through the course of our lives? No, no time for that. Just a big bucket of snow white paint and a massive brush, thank you very much.
Even a criminal conviction is considered spent after a while, but Internet images, apparently, brand you a sinner for all time.