Children in art, have they become one of today’s problems?

ovenden paintingThree pieces from the Guardian caught my eye this week. All were about Graham Ovenden.  Jonathan Jones fronts the Guardian’s view with theory, we are then offered an update by Charlotte Higgins letting us know the Tate Gallery was removing some of Ovenden’s work from public view and adding that his conviction involving  underage girls cast his work in a new light. A couple of days later the Guardian asked us to vote.

On the 2nd of April Jonathan Jones (writes on art for the Guardian) discussed how the Ovenden case related to art – “Graham Ovenden: artist thrived among 1970s self-conscious decadence.” A day later Charlotte Higgins (chief arts writer for the Guardian) notified readers that the Tate had removed a number of Ovenden’s pieces from public view – “Tate removes Graham Ovenden prints after indecency conviction offering as an explanation.” Higgins’ text offered up the following comment: Ovenden’s conviction  “‘shone a new light’ on his work.” On the 5th of April the Guardian invited readers to vote  – “Should the Tate have removed Graham Ovenden’s prints?” At the time this page was viewed the vote had just closed (11.00am, Monday 8 April, 2013). Reader opinion had the spread, 55% (yes) and 45% (no). This outcome offers up the view the Tate’s decision to remove Ovenden’s work is a highly contested move.

As a New Zealander, reading these pieces has been to experience déjà vu. In July 2012 a local artist, Brendan Nolan, with a profile considerably smaller than that of Ovenden, had his work treated the same way by the authorities – three artworks ‘taken down’. One was a set of gates he made for Paekakariki School; the second was a tui sculpture at Paraparaumu Beach (a tui is a species of bird native to New Zealand); the third was a painting on public display at the local library. It is unclear whether the painting was removed by the council, or by the library. The  New Zealand Herald did not make this clear. The news story does state the school gates and the scupture were removed by the Kapiti Coast District Council.

Both in the Ovenden case and the Nolan case, explanations were given why their art was taken out of public spaces. In New Zealand Councilor Tony Lester said, “The decision to take the sculpture down was not a hard one to make.” Since the art items Nolan had created were not of children I read Lester’s message as ‘this action to remove this man’s art from a position of social prominence is because he is a sex offender/pedophile. That point of view deserves critical thought.

There is a point of difference between the New Zealand case and Ovenden’s. Higgins’ Guardian piece refers of images of children – artworks removed from public view included “a screen-print that features an image of a young naked child.” She argues Ovenden is positioned differently because of how he exploited the girls whom he had made of his work. I am not blocking the idea that Ovenden will move to the position Nolan finds himself in, that his social stigma as a pedophile will finally be the explanation offered for why his art is no longer of value.  At this point in time The Guardian pieces seem to offer a message slightly different from the one that lives inside media reports of the New Zealand case of Brendan Nolan.

Jonathan Jones’ Guardian story was the first comment on the Ovenden case that caught my eye. It appeared to be talking about art, but my view is this is illusory. What is offered is a view that attempts to say we are modern and new in our views; older views are suspect. What Jones does in how he writes is to allow morality to be central to his view without acknowledging that this is the case.

Jonathan Jones is attempting to do something very much in step with our time – he wants to stand just outside the modern, that period in our recent past that is in his words “dead”. Philosophical commentary refers to that earlier way of thinking as a ‘grand narrative’ style. An important issue here is how modernism offers up its notion of authority. Its narrative was more than just any old story, it offered up an account that was used as a benchmark. The school of thought next to emerge in Western thought takes issue precisely with this point of authority. This ‘post-modern’ view is not a single view, it is more a collection of views which together question issues like those of authority and explain why we are comfortable with changes in opinion and fashion. Ideas now can come and go, be different from each other, and that mix is not necessarily a problem for us.

Jones further points to this past dead item as the artistic perspective of the Victorian era. He links the term ‘Victorian’ to the notion of decadence (a term he no doubt sees as negative for both him and his reader). He makes these moves in his opening sentences  – “Tastes change. In art as in clothes, the cool new thing of today may look repellent and absurd in the future.” Right from the start Jones positions us, with himself, as inside the post-modern. Our cultures and our views (including those of art) are fluid and changeable; they are not the grand narrative of the past, which saw itself as stable and unchanging.

It is here that I suggest caution – there is a twist.  Jones is saying, to be us is to have a ‘more advanced sensibility’. But here is his twist: our ability to see the dark side. Jones suggests, but does not state openly, for him there is a moral absolute. It is hinted at, its existence disclosed, via child nudity and the pedophile (the term pedophile is not stated, none the lesss it is an identity offered up as Ovenden’s real self that Jones’ text depends on). It is this philosophical position that images are not dark in and of themselves. It is in  the linkage between an image and its viewer that this darkness becomes palpable. I do not see Jones arguing here that Ovenden alone is his concern. For Jones the concern is that linkage of Ovenden to his images of girls. Jonathan Jones’ article is not, in my view, merely about Ovenden’s identity and profile. No it’s about a perspective, a way of seeing.

In addition to how Jones wants to position Ovenden’s art, he also offers an unacknowledged blending of the post-modern and the modern. He wants a dollar each way. Why, you might ask. My guess is he wants to lay claim to that quality of authority – this view is more than mere opinion, this is the view, this is how it is, this is how it is for all of us, this is how it is for all time. It is this situation where an argument appears to offer up openness, an acknowledgement that past claims of authority are now invalid, to suggest we are more open, and less controlled by others … And yet  that new argument shuts the door to future debate.

Notice, I am not swayed by the inclusion of a simple yes/no vote that has been offered by the Guardian.  If anything that kind of vote is more an invitation for prejudice and emotion to control debate, rather than some idea of democracy. What I look for is the exposure of the structure of people’s thinking, to lay it bare and then reflect.

The structure of Jones’ thinking can also be read in his links to other texts. He does not say why Charles Dodgson, author of Alice in Wonderland; Nabokov, author of the novel Lolita; and select characters in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, are scary and dark. No, he anticipates the reader will nod in agreement that these figures are scary and dark. And leaves it there – they are for him his fixed points – they are not free to be moved or viewed differently by some future age or from within the diversity of a post-modern universe. It is significant he argues simply that they are dark and scary. It is just an act of pointing, and a seeking support from the reader.

Ovenden, we learn from Higgins’ piece in the Guardian, will be treated in the same way as his images. Both will not to be before our eyes and amongst us – Ovenden’s art has been taken down; he will disappear into prison spaces. One notes the images taken down by the Tate played no role in Ovenden’s conviction.

No doubt other people too are uneasy about the Tate’s decision to take down some of Ovenden’s work. Some, like me, will have questions both about what is art and what is just. Jones rather cleverly acknowledges this by using the term hero when referring to Ovenden. Inside the art community, Jones tells us Ovenden is “a star of the dawning post-modern age”, but  he immediately knocks this down because he tells his readers Ovenden is also a person who takes pictures of naked girls, a man whose internal life is “deeply worrying and bizarre”.

I am not convinced by the contributions of Jones or Higgins, nor do I trust the Guardian’s yes/no vote will put my sceptical soul to sleep. I live in New Zealand. The morality of our culture and the stigma of pedophilia are in some sense closer to the surface. Councilor Tony Lester’s words can be paraphrased this way, “The decision to take down artwork of a sex offender/pedophile is not a hard one to make.” That is most definitely a cultural perspective – a deeply felt one for some – but remember we have come to see the post-modern perspective may indeed be right – nothing is absolute, authority is more complex than the words “I told you so, therefore it must be true.”

References:

Blundell, K. (2012, 27/06). School gates created by sex offender removed [Newspaper]. In Stuff.co.nz (News/Kapiti). The Dominion Post(Online Story). Retrieved 7 April, 2013, from http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/news/kapiti/7181199/School-gates-created-by-sex-offender-removed

Higgins, C. (2013, 03/04). Tate removes Graham Ovenden prints after indecency conviction. In http://www.guardian.co.uk (Tate Britain). The Guardian(Online Story). Retrieved 3 April, 2013, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2013/apr/03/tate-removes-graham-ovenden-prints

Jones, J. (2013, 2/04). Graham Ovenden: Artist thrived among 1970s self-conscious decadence [Newspaper]. In http://www.guardian.co.uk (Crime). The Guardian(Online Story). Retrieved 2 April, 2013, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2013/apr/02/graham-ovenden-artist-1970s-decadence

Communities tear down sex offender’s artwork [Newspaper]. (2012, 02/07). In http://www.nzherald.co.nz (National). The New Zealand Herald(Online Story). Retrieved 05/04, from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10816808

Should the Tate have removed Graham Ovenden’s prints? [Online Newspaper]. (2013, 05/04). In http://www.guardian.co.uk (Comment is free). The Guardian(Online Story). Retrieved 7 April, 2013, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/poll/2013/apr/05/tate-removed-graham-ovenden-prints-conviction

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16 thoughts on “Children in art, have they become one of today’s problems?

  1. We are well on our way to being able to enjoy only “approved” or “official” art, or work of “approved or “official” artists. Will we now examine the pasts of every artist to make sure his work is acceptable?

    With a lifetime of artistic production, much of which portrays girls in myriad ways (including nude) and contexts, Ovenden may well have had an attraction to pubescent females. As such, one must wonder if Ovenden is another example of what Father of Sexology John Money denominated as “pedophilic genius,” the phenomenon by which one’s masterpieces are inspired by one’s love of children.

    Is there any doubt that had the Rev. Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland) taken his abundance of nude photographs of Alice Liddell today he would be branded and convicted of indecency? In that case does the world need to be deprived of his literary masterpieces that have so entertained us as children for many generations now? I maintain that the harm to the world and its children from the loss of Alice in Wonderland would be far greater than the “damage” (if any at all) from a single subject being photographed nude.

    Finally, isn’t the latter assumption untested anyway? Just where is the evidence for the idea that nude photography is somehow damaging?

    What a sad day for art, and us all.

  2. Pingback: Police are the only art critics who count | Heretic TOC

    • Tom O’Carroll’s post is frank and calls a spade a spade.

      It is my view the power of the state is being used/appropriated by a group inside society to make the world be the way they want, and the methods they are deploying bypasses genuinely democratic processes, Ovenden and Nolan are examples of this process where their work has been ‘taken down’. For me this is of deep concern. I believe we have a group inside our societies who are focused on the erasure of pedophile culture, and perhaps the pedophile himself!

      I use the word ‘himself’ here not out of indifference to women who are minor attracted. I state openly that this is not my message. I do think male culture is viewed negatively by these lobbyists pushing for their utopic dreams. Currently it is men who are the largest group of victims under attack. I want to remind people the pedophile/minor attracted person is both an individual and a citizen inside society; not simply ‘other’. There is only us.

      • The critics you cite are centralists. Higgins and others are speaking from the centre of a cultural discourse in which — though only if you are worthy — you are urged to join. Correct, up-to-the-minute morality, also, will require to join in condemning artists like Ovenden and Nolan.
        In this, I offer a far simpler way of looking at the contemporay art than whether it is modern, ot postmodern. Artists are either in, or out, in this populist view? The viewers of such art are likewise in or out? M T-W.

      • A theorist who has influenced me is Michel Foucault. You use the term discourse, and this is a term he uses. What is at stake is more than mere fashion – an issue perhaps of being in or out.

        It is reasonable to ask just what or who is it that shapes my thought. Foucault is certainly a major figure for me. He was introduced to me fifteen years ago and still shapes my thinking. When writing on discourse he uses the term regime of power, and argues one can discover the rules that govern discourse at any point in time and in any given cultural and social context. His interest in both knowledge and power emerged for him over time, and near the close of his life he looked at the issue of the care of the self. You and other readers may be familiar with his writings on prisons, mental institutions, and his comments on sexuality and homosexuality in particular. It is my view the discourse about the pedophile is governed by power/knowledge struggles that are in need of a public and critical eye.

      • OK, Peter, I admit that I tend to oversimplify things! I also studied Foucault, but found myself always trying to summarise his thoughts. And mine, for that matter.
        If you read any books on journalism, you will quickly realize that the most successful authors do centralize themselves. Thus they are able justifiably saying: “We don’t like this…” or that.
        This trick is used by shock-jocks, too. “If you don’t agree with me, you are marginal!” In other words, find a populist view and push hard?
        Then do a 180 the following week? M T-W.

      • Please forgive any flaws in my way of responding, I mention authors as a way of being more honest about where I get ideas. It is my attempt to send a message – I learn from others 99% of the time.

        Soon after my mother’s death I decided to do some courses on media studies at Victoria University of Wellington. I told myself maybe I can get inside the head of the folks who write in Newspapers and offer opinions from inside our TVs. Two lessons were gained, first most journalists never study media studies (and people who do wish they would), and second media studies can be great where the faculty/lecturers are willing to be genuinely critical.

        I do appreciate your willingness to comment and build up an exchange of ideas/feelings that hopefully will lift this kind of topic out of the control of journalists and shock-jocks and allow people to get back in control of their own lives.

      • There are no flaws in the way you responded. I, too, learned an enormous amount from authors as varied as Foucault, Barthes and Shakespeare. In my MA thesis, I tirelessly quoted feminist critics whom you might have thought would be my worst enemies. Since I was researching Shakespeare’s boy actors! Not so — but thereby hangs a tale-of-tails… What I believe to be of vital interest on the subject of journalists, radio-commentators and others in the public eye, is that these people don’t supply a service; the supply a product. They are paid for what they say and write. The pieces they produce appear in programmes or papers or magazines that carry advertisements. In mostly subtle ways, their pieces therefore sell Joe’s Tyres. If the piece doesn’t fit the editorial mould, the piece is damned soon changed, or deleted altogether? Even “publicly owned” outfits like the ABC or the BBC are in competition with the commercial channels — as is reflected in the new sensationalism in the ABC News, in particular. While I was studying media at my first university, I was vilified by the press for breaking the law. They did not only try to destroy ME, they set about my family, too…
        I’m afraid my rabidly caustic view of journos therefore colours all of my thinking on commentators of any stripe. I hope that I therefore don’t cause offense? M T-W.

        I

      • Dear Faustfor11s, your message reached me fine. I will say this, we clearly have a great deal about which we can exchange ideas and feelings. An interesting aspect of your comment is your reference the use of feminist authors. A clever move I think. I used just this approach when presenting a talk at the Sociological Association of Aotearoa New Zealand Annual Confernce 2011. Women had claimed in New Zealand they had suffered at the hands of an unethical set of medical experiments and strategies. The outcome was a requirement all future medical work use increased involvement of the client group. I argued the methodology underpinning this recommendation was sound, saying this same method is ethically required when the client group being worked with is the pedophile. Put frankly, I don’t think all attendees and presenters were keen on what I was proposing.

        I will give the details of my talk below. Faustfor11s, I acknowledge your skills and your life experiences. I am very lucky to have people who come to my blog and contribute as you do.

        DETAILS:
        Hooper, P. (2011, 8/11). A model for mental health care delivery to minor attracted persons based in Maryland, USA, lensed through “the unfortunate experiment.” In Looking forward: Trends, Horizons and Utopias [Conference Paper]. Victoria University of Wellington: Sociological Association of Aotearoa, New Zealand Annual Conference.

  3. Dear Peter, HELP! My ten year old granddaughter knows more about tweeting than I do… How do I reply, on a personal level, to your excellent blogs? M T-W.

    • My technical skills are not high either. Your message has reached me fine. On my blog site I am able to moderate posts. This allows me to ensure those who comment can do so safely, Internet spaces sadly can be opportunities for unethical conduct.

  4. Very good analysis Peter. You might also compare the treatment of children’s author William Mayne, still widely regarded, by critics at least, as one of the greatest of Britain’s children’s authors, but banished from library shelves and bookshops around the world following his conviction for historical sexual offences against girls.

  5. Hi I was checking out your website, you have an awesome website, but I see your not ranking well on Google, which means customers cant find your website!, I can fix this for you, I can get you better rankings and a ton more traffic to your website, Fast! If your interested please let me know. Thanks, Paul Johnson

  6. It should be pointed out that Charlotte Higgins’ statement, that “Ovenden is positioned differently because of how he exploited the girls whom he had made of his work” is simply untrue. She, like most of the mainstream press, relied on the reports of two lazy journalists who attended a couple days of the trial but were unaware that three of the “string” of offenses for which Mr. Ovenden was accused were dismissed by the judge due to lack of evidence (the supposed victim stated she was never abused) and two others were disbelieved by the jury. That left 2 minor charges against one witness, and the incidents had nothing whatsoever to do with photographing or painting. As for the “indecent” photographs (there were 3, on top of which were placed 2 “specimen” charges that the photographs were taken with pornographic intent — despite no evidence of such intent), the two models depicted in those images defended Mr. Ovenden’s work of them during the 1990s when they were in their 20s. What changed? Pressure from the police primarily, to some degree opinions of the times, and quite possibly disappointments in later life. You can read about it on my blog, artist-on-trial.blogspot.com.

    • The added detail this comment offers is welcome. I see shifting public attitudes to those who are minor attracted. Some who watch the increased focus on persecuting child sex offenders persist in the belief that where law courts and official voices are given access to ‘the facts’, then the injustices and unfair outcomes will end. My position is one of caution.

      The reference by Charlotte Higgins to a changed position for Ovenden goes beyond the issue of false representation of the man as a child abuser. What has shifted socially is the profile of the minor attracted person – this profile is ‘guilty’ without a need for evidence of abuse against children. We have moved, I believe, to the judgement regarding the internal life of the minor attracted person. To view images of children, to look and acknowledge desire is not an expression of individual freedom; it is to offend. It is this shift to social exclusion and the deeply prejudiced status of the minor attracted person that I chose to focus on and write about. Gaining more accurate evidence that can be placed before a courtroom, to show how gross inaccuracies and ‘untruths’ can be told, is worth fighting for, of course.

      Bruce Wagner’s comment is helpful, and readers can visit his informative website on Overden’s case.

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