Friday, October 02, 2009


Controversies at art museums follow the fashions as surely as hem and heels. This year's appalling becomes next year's fascinating until tumbling into obscurity. And of course, within a general concensus, everyone has a different view on what is fashionable. If there was ever proof of this process in art. it was demonstrated by the Diane Arbus exhibition when it was shown in Lower Hutt in 1979. The show caused an uproar with councillors demanding its closure, and shocked visitors calling for items to be removed. The interesting thing was that everyone seemed to be shocked by something different while often, at the same time, being strongly in support of works that shocked others. For one person nudity was fine but pics of freaks were not, for another transexuals were ok but showing disability were too much to bear.

Yesterday Tate Modern pulled Richard Prince’s Spiritual America from its Pop Life exhibition after Scotland Yard warned the naked photo of Brooke Shields, aged ten, could break obscenity laws. The museum has also removed the exhibition catalogue from sale. Curiously, in the same exhibition, images from Jeff Koons’ Made in Heaven series, showing him having sex with La Cicciolina are good to go. It certainly highlights the now deeply ambivalent attitude to children in the western world: exploit and sexualise hard alongside protect and nurture.

The return of the Prince work to the show is dependent on Tate lawyers giving the ok. This is a long way from the days when institutions of this stature would consider it a matter of professional responsibility to defend an artist’s freedom of expression. Prince’s Spiritual America is a copy of a 1976 image published in Playboy magazine's Sugar and Spice publication taken by photographer Gary Gross. Prince made the work in 1983 in an edition of 10 and it was shown without comment in his recent retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York. It is easily sourced on the internet.
Image: artist Richard Prince