Richard Prince – Spiritual America, 1983 (Brook Shields)

It’s been a real art overload this week – Frieze, AVA, something in Soho, and then there was an evening trip to Tate Modern to see ‘Pop Life: Art in a Material World’.

First and foremost it was the most fun I’ve had in a gallery for a long time. That’s not to say I don’t tend to enjoy exhibitions or galleries, but it tends to be a quiet contemplation and one that doesn’t involve other people. Wandering galleries can be a bit of a solitary pursuit. Pop Life combines areas for reflection with sections that completely refuse that sort of thing.

The exhibition takes Warhol’s quotation: “good business is the best art” as a starting point and goes on to explore Pop Art’s legacy from the 1980s onward.any art exhibition focusing on a timeline or progression generally featurse work of three types – things that were very much of their time and now look vaguely odd/quaint/inoffensive, things that are enduringly controversial and problematic, and things which are current but will probably fall out of favour.

The most interesting of these is the second category because it means that rather than tapping into something zeitgeisty the artist has prodded at something fundamentally more raw. Richard Prince is one such artist. His photograph ‘Spiritual America’ (1983) – which is actually a photograph of a photograph by Garry Gross of a ten-year-old Brooke Shields, nude and oiled, wearing make up and staring directly at the camera – was removed from the exhibition after the Metropolitan Police began investigating whether it breached obscenity laws. It was replaced (with the consent/collaboration) of the artist with the 2005 recreation featuring a 40-year-old Shields in a gold bikini leaning on a motorbike.

Paedophilia-panic seems to be the key thing here. Michael Portillo noted on This Week that in the current climate concerns about loss of civil liberties are waved aside when the matter in question is paedophilia. It seems that, rather than viewers or institutions becoming more blase as time passes, with perceived child sexualisation the kneejerk response is getting stronger and less well reasoned.

The actual gallery placement of the image bears this out – the room it was in is a dead end. Art cannot progress from this point and instead must return to the path and make its departure from another point. It is also interesting to note that when the image was recreated in 2005 with the same actress and it was far more socially acceptable for her to appear nude, she did not. Further to this, a 1983 US court judgement ruled that the picture was not “sexually suggestive, provocative or pornographic”. The fact that it continues to worry viewers (and was intended to) demonstrates just how troubled we are by the fact there is no real and defined border between childhood innocence and adult experience.

For my tuppenceworth I don’t think it’s to do with child sexualisation at all. I think it’s the child’s gaze along with the trappings of something more adult than we thinks she is entitled to that provokes the complaints as it makes the child a knowing participant – too knowing – in the sleazy world of celebrity. It flies in the face of out attempts to believe in the world of High School Musical where the big finish is a chaste kiss on the lips between abstaining 20-year-olds and a world without gawky awkward inbetween-ness.

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