From Rachel Cooke in The Guardian with “The idea of ‘ethical art’ is nonsense. We have to separate art from life”.
Last Friday morning, I stood in front of this cartoon, a cup of tea in my hand, and I thought yet again about the fraught line between a man’s life and his work. Moments before, I’d read that the Tate had removed from its online collection 34 prints by Graham Ovenden, the artist who was last week found guilty at Truro crown court of six charges of indecency with a child and one count of indecent assault. And while I didn’t disapprove of this decision one little bit (the gallery, quite properly, is seeking information about whether any of these images of children portray Ovenden’s victims), I could feel an old anxiety creeping over me.
Where, I wonder, will this investigation end? According to what I read, the Tate is also considering the “wider ethics” of showing work by Ovenden, and until this review is complete, these 34 prints “will not be available to view by appointment”. Wider ethics. What does this mean, exactly? It sounds a touch North Korean. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the images in question do not portray Ovenden’s victims. What then? Will the Tate return them to the public view? Surely it must, for if it is unethical to show work by a paedophile, what are they going to do about all the other artists who had dubious sex lives? Unless, of course, this rule only applies to perverts who are living.
It’s baffling to me, the belief that art must be “ethical”, as if it were so much fair trade chocolate. It’s so much more complicated than that. The laughable idea that it can pass or fail some kind of tick-box test! What was art in March must surely be art in April. You can’t un-art art, though Hitler had a go, when he decided that what was modern was also degenerate and set about destroying it and, far worse, those who made it.
There are those who will say that Ovenden’s images of children are now revealed to be porn rather than art, but that argument crumbles to dust in this case, since the subjects of many of the Tate’s images aren’t even naked. Just to be clear, though – even if the children were naked, I wouldn’t feel any differently. The qualities that won them a place in the Tate’s collection can’t be extinguished – rubbed out, like chalk on a board – by the perversions of the man who created them. If those qualities now make you feel uncomfortable as you look on, well, that is a part of their power. Live with it.
I disagree with much of this.
You know, I haven’t ever seen child porn (thank god) but I would bet that some of it is quite beautiful. By that I mean, some of the photographs and films are probably artfully composed and professionally shot with very pretty children as their subjects. It is still child porn though, and producing it involved the same amount of pain, abuse, degradation and manipulation as any amateur child porn image.
The measure for whether something is ethical for us to consume or display is not beauty or artistic merit (and nor is it the degree of nudity), it is about something bigger than that.
Sure, you can’t un-art art, but being art doesn’t over-ride problems of exploitation, particularly when it involves children. I don’t want to be limited to only consuming art, music and literature produced by those who lived admirable lives and nor do I want to be limited to only seeing art which doesn’t disturb me, but given art affords a certain level of power to the artist and the audience at the expense of the muse, contrary to Rachel Cooke’s view, it is always worth considering the ethics of that power.