A policeman goes past an art gallery in Mayfair on a bus, and sees the artwork above through the window.
The policeman decided that it might be dodgy, and alerted the Station.
The Station duly sent two Officers around, who told the gallery that they might be promoting bestiality, and that it must be taken down. Immediately.
Jag Mehta, sales director at the gallery owned by Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood’s sons Tyrone and Jamie, said: “We asked them what the problem was and they said it suggested we condoned bestiality, which they said was an arrestable offence. The show, Metamorphosis, had been running for a month and was really well received.”
Derrick Santini uses (sorry – posh art comes with posh artistic bollocks) lenticular photography to give an impression of movement as you walk past the artwork. You see a simulated movement effect, which makes the work slightly more explicit (nipples and writhing, in a movie of about 6 frames), on his website by looking at the lenticular artworks link. It is not clear whether the movement is visible from the bus to the mortally alarmed policeman.
‘Lenticular artworks” means an expensive version of the 28p keyrings where you moved the panel by 10 degrees, and the monkey eats the banana in a single chomp because you suddenly see a picture printed at a different angle.
I’m not impressed by the artist or the technique, but doubtless he will eventually catch up with 1995 and discover animated GIF images.
The only problem is that you can’t charge thousands of pounds for an animated GIF, even in Mayfair.
We can laugh at the Metropolitan Police for not knowing their Greek Myths, that pretty much identical, or even frutier, depictions of the same story pepper 500 years+ of Western Culture, and 2000 years of Roman and Greek culture before that (see photo), and are on display – uncensored – all over London.
Or we can point out that one of our great poems, by William Butler Yeates, tells the same story
Leda And The Swan
A SUDDEN blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
William Butler Yeats
And we can correctly point out that, yes, this policeman is a Philistine and a Buffoon.
But that’s not really the issue here.
I’m more disturbed by the assumptions and the process around this intervention. The Telegraph reports of the police:
“They said they didn’t know anything about the myth,” she said. “They asked if we had had any complaints and we said quite the contrary. Lots of people were intrigued by it.”
The photographer grew up in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, and is well known for his work with musicians and fashion models. His art has been displayed in London, Istanbul and New York.
A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police said the incident had not been recorded as a crime.
Firstly, this was the last day of a 4 week exhibition, running from 23rd March to 21st April, and up until the point where the policeman on the bus decided to intervene, there had not been any complaints whatsoever.
No complaints from anyone sitting on the buses going past day by day. No concerns from anyone walking down the street. And no complaints from anyone else, either.
Usually, the police only take action after a complaint. Here, that did not happen.
Why on earth did the Met take it upon themselves to get involved when no offence was being caused, no crime had been reported, and seemingly no crime had been committed?
The law under which the police seem to have applied pressure is not well-defined, but may be one of those unfortunate New Labour panic knee-jerks, the ‘Extreme Pornography’ parts of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008:
Sections 63 to 67 of the Act makes it an offence to possess pornographic images that depict threaten a person’s life, acts which result in or are likely to result in serious injury to a person’s anus, breasts or genitals, bestiality or necrophilia; they also provide for the exclusion of classified films etc. and set out defences and the penalties for the offence.
Weirdly, this act criminalises possession of images of acts which are themselves legal. That is the act under which a North Wales man was arrested for possession of a joke clip involving a CGI computer simulated tiger:
Following a raid by North Wales police last summer, Holland was charged with two offences under ss.63-68 of the Criminal Justice Act 2008.
The first charge centred on an allegation that he had in his possession a clip featuring human-animal sex. This was dropped after the prosecution discovered that the animal in question – a tiger – was actually a CGI-generated spoof, modelled loosely on Tony the Tiger of Frosties fame, and that the tiger finished off his sex act by turning to camera and saying “That beats doing adverts for a living”.
This case was eventually dropped by the CPS when they saw the ‘evidence’ which had not been initially forwarded by the police, but not before it came to court with all the concomitent disturbance to the family life of the victim. The Register has been monitoring this Act.
According to the CPS, the distinction between the two images at the top is that the first may be criminal because it is realistic, because it is a picture of a real woman combined with one of a real swan, while the second is a painting. Leda and the Swan even gets a mention in the CPS Guidance:
The painting “Leda and the Swan”, another example raised during debates in Parliament, would also not be caught by the new offence, because it would not meet the “explicit and realistic” test.
To call that distinction ‘clunky’ and ‘crude’ is an understatement. It is an attempt to introduce a concrete test into the greyest of grey spectra, and an indication why the law is, to be very kind, a disfunctional mess.
Alternatively, the Obscene Publications Act may have been the one in the mind of the officer.
Thirdly, the police allegation was that the artwork ‘appeared‘ to condone bestiality.
In other words, the police were acting on an assumption about impact of an artwork, displayed in an art gallery, on members of the public, none of whom had complained over the period of a month.
We do not need to be protected.
At the start I linked to an occasion where a photo of a 10 year old Brooke Shields was censored from a Tate Modern exhibition in 2009 to stop the gallery from “inadvertently break the law or cause any offence to their visitors”. It is called ‘Spiritual America’, by the artist Richard Prince, a 1982 photo of a photo taken in 1975, by the Garry Gross, of the Shields made up like a grown woman. You can see the photos, and an analysis of the photos, here; the comments are vigorous.
Offence is surely properly a matter for the gallery and its visitors.
A year earlier in 2008 the Internet Watch Foundation, part of Britains anti-child-pornography infrastructure, blocked Wikipedia because of the cover of the Scorpions’ Virgin Killer album. The problem here is firstly that the image is a high-street record cover, rendering the whole exercise ridiculous, but also that the IWF does its work in secret with little accountability, so there is no way of knowing how reliable it is, nor whether material has been censored for other reasons.
In 2007, a photo by Nan Goldin – Edda and Clara Belly Dancing (right), was censored from an exhibition at the Baltic Gallery in Gateshead after police gave a ridiculous warning the gallery. As Libby Brooks in an excellent analysis, and the Guardian Headline Writer, put it:
The notional paedophile now dictates what we can look at
Whatever the artistic import, images of naked children are now viewed by society exclusively through a sexual filter
Or, to be a little provocative, where art is concerned we seem to have crippled our own minds, and then allowed our policemen to attempt to make artistic judgements. We are all children now, and the policemen are our parents.
Welcome to the infant school.
In researching this article the number of these photographs which have also been censored or clipped to exclude the naughty bits in publications discussing the censorship is startling.
This is important politically, as the Coalition – and within it Theresa May in particular – is showing every sign of having caught moral-panic disease, from the nonsense of the Linda Pappadopolous Sexualization of Young People Report to the latest ‘censor internet services by default‘ campaign.
And that when there was at least a hope (to optimistic fools like me) that our politicians were going to grow-up; it was not to be.
The beginnings of a solution seem to me to be threefold.
Firstly, we need to assert that these are simply not judgements for the police. We are not living in a Carry On film.
Secondly, we need to remove – somehow – crazy laws such as those mentioned above introduced by New Labour on ‘Extreme Pornography’.
Finally, we need to be far more combative in opposing attempts at censorship. I’d like to see some galleries say to the police: ‘Bullshit and nonsense, Constable, it’s fine and it stays’, and follow through with some appropriate legal action.
To my eye, if we go back to 2001, Chris Smith, the former Arts Minister, showed the way, when an attempt was made to remove photos by Tierney Gearon from an exhibition:
The minister would not speak directly about the police visit but said: Culture Secretary Chris Smith has warned of the dangers of censorship in the wake of a row over an exhibition featuring photos of naked children.
Mr Smith was speaking after police had visited a gallery in London after complaints about some of the photographs.
“I am much more worried about paedophile material that’s available on the Internet than about an art gallery somewhere in the middle of London.”
“We must be very careful in this country before we start censoring things that are happening, either in newspapers or in art galleries.”
Would any of our current Ministers have the courage of these convictions?
What say you? Where are the decisions on censorship in Art to be made, how should they be made, and by whom?
And what are the wider linked questions?
(*) A note to any policemen or regulators thinking of having a go at this blog for displaying the Goldin picture. We are hosted in the USA and published from France. There are reasons why much of the British Political Blogosphere is offshore; one of them is to avoid the kind of overzealous enforcers who, along with mad defamation laws, abound in our country.