Larry Clark’s Exhibition “Kiss The Past Hello” Opens Today in France
October 8, 2010 § 2 Comments
The opening of a new retrospective on Larry Clark’s decades of photographic work at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in France on October 8, 2010 rekindled controversies over both the content on display and who should be allowed to see it [notes 1,2,3,4,5].
The decision was made to allow all of Clark’s photos – including explicit ones from “Tulsa” and “Teenage Lust” – to be displayed uncensored, but only on view by adults due to their pornographic nature.
Larry Clark is an American citizen and lives in New York. This means his work is restricted, at least in theory, by U.S. federal law and by New York state law.
A precedent-setting U.S. Supreme Court case [note 6] decided that pornography depicting minors was not constitutionally protected free speech and could be prohibited even if it had artistic, educational, medical, or other value. The context (an art show, a booklet for teens, a documentary film, or a porn magazine) is irrelevant because the image itself is contraband. That’s why pornographic images of children and adolescents in Will McBride’s sex education book “Show Me!” were removed from retail circulation by its publisher, St. Martin’s Press, shortly after the decision was handed down.
The court upheld New York’s law against showing lewd exhibitions of the genitals, masturbation, and sexual interaction when one or more of the subjects is under the age of 16. New York’s age limit remains 16, but federal law established the age limit of 18 in 1984. Current French law also holds an age limit of 18.
These laws make no exception for works that were made prior to the passage or modification of the laws.
Several facts aren’t discussed in many of the most recent articles about Clark’s work.
For example, it has been demonstrated that some of the subjects of Clark’s most pornographic images are under the age of 18. This is hinted at in some of the newspaper articles from October 2010 but without supporting details. Now is a good time to bring those details to light.
Clark self-published a book called “Teenage Lust” in 1983. The content lives up to the title. An infamous photo called “Prostitute Gives Teenager His First Blow Job, 1974” shows a 16-year-old teenage boy being serviced by an adult woman. The picture leaves nothing to the imagination. (19 additional sexually explicit photos from the blowjob shoot are contained in Clark’s 1993 book “The Perfect Childhood”.) A non-pornographic nude photo of this boy elsewhere in “Teenage Lust” is captioned “Runaway, California” and was also made in 1974. There’s no such thing as an 18-year-old runaway from home since adults aren’t constrained the way minors are. I was informed that one or both of the books directly state that his age was 16.
Also in “Teenage Lust” is the photo of a teenage girl who’s surely only about 14 years old. She’s frontally nude and the salient factors are that her entire pubic area is visible while her legs are open and that her hands grasp a boy’s penis.
The ages are less obvious, or not stated, in some other photos in the book. There are some teenagers shown copulating and being masturbated. How old are they? Some look potentially 16 or 17. I have not seen the entire book so I don’t know if their ages are revealed. Some of the other photos depict mere nudity and are not legally contentious under U.S. federal law.
To my knowledge, the book “Tulsa” doesn’t have images of underage fornication but it does show at least one nude adolescent girl and at least two nude adolescent boys (see “Threesome, 1971”). That picture isn’t technically illegal.
Anyway, it’s no wonder why the Miami Herald wrote about Clark’s “photo books filled with graphic images of underage prostitutes” [note 9] and why the Atlanta-Journal Constitution spoke of “underage Times Square hustlers – in a manner that was boldly graphic” [note 10].
Davies noted that “Adolescents feature in pictures taken… they make love, explore their bodies, take drugs and drink alcohol.” [note 3]
Amy Adler wrote, “One of the most disturbing and well-known art photographers, Larry Clark, who documents the lives of drug addicted and violent teenagers, takes photographs which, one could argue, easily meet the definition of child pornography.” [note 11]
Clark himself acknowledged that some of his subjects are under 18. Speaking to the French newspaper Libération, he condemned the decision to bar people under 18 from visiting his exhibition in Paris: “I see this as an attack on youth, on adolescents. These photos are for them … Forbidding people of 16 or 17 years old to come here and to see themselves is stupid.” (translated from the French) [note 3]
The only way to interpret Clark’s comment “see themselves” is to understand that he photographed 16 and 17 year olds among others.
It’s odd to find curators of art galleries around the world along with others in the art world making what are quite possibly the only contemporary statements defending a hardcore underage pornographer.
Sébastien Gokalp, a curator of the show in Paris, told ARTINFO France “if we removed some of the images, it would no longer be Larry Clark” and acknowledged it “concerns itself with the coming of age and all that this entails: love, firearms, drugs, sex.”
Fabrice Hergott, another of the curators, claimed the photos “have nothing to do with any kind of supposed pornography or paedophilia”.
Staff members of the International Center of Photography (ICP), an institution in New York City, expressed their support for Clark’s work, arguing that they are legitimate expressions because the photos have artistic qualities and were not made for the express purpose of sexually arousing viewers. ICP put Clark’s entire “Tulsa” and “Teenage Lust” collections on display from March-June 2005. Norway’s Preus Museum published a summary of ICP’s point of view on their website [note 7] and must have agreed with that perspective since they themselves showed Clark’s “Teenage Lust” to the public in June-August 2007.
The art historian Jean-Christophe Amman wrote a biography of Clark that included the bizarre claim that people don’t object to underage pornography these days: “Drugs get harder, sex is taken for granted more than ever, attitudes get tougher, and so nobody minds Larry taking photos of young people getting laid.” (translated from the German) [note 8]
It also must be the case that Clark has an extra stash of underage pornography in his home in New York that has never been published or exhibited – outtakes from the photo sessions with the youths. After all, he didn’t publish 19 of the 20 blowjob photos showing the 16-year-old boy in 1983 but waited until 1993. By the same token, Clark’s 2003 book “punk Picasso” included previously unpublished pictures from the “Tulsa” and “42nd Series” series. How much else exists? Under current laws private ownership of such photos is considered “possession of child pornography” even if the youths have attained the age of consent for sexual encounters in the flesh (17 in New York and, incidentally, 15 in France).
In 2005, Clark was frustrated that no real American publisher would reprint “Teenage Lust”. [note 12] The San Francisco Chronicle reported on how “U.S. publishers are disgusted by the pictures of underage sex and drug abuse. Clark… has a stack of explicit pictures waiting to be published, but so far no one in America has been prepared to take the risk.” The news brief went on to say that the pictures in question were on display at the ICP that year.
In this day and age, porn magazines and art books alike have hardcore pornography featuring adults, which is no longer considered obscene under U.S. federal law, and is allowed under New York law too, so there is only one explanation for the reluctance of American publishers: legal worries. That in itself contradicts the ICP’s claim that the photos aren’t pornographic, because as Adler so aptly noted a case could easily be made in court by a U.S. Attorney with a vindictive nature. The difference between Clark and other pornographers is that he has more supporters, or at least more supporters who lend their voices to the public square.
In 2001, Clark told Tulsa Kinney, “Well it’s not porn because it’s documentary. It’s real things happening; it’s not set up. I mean why can’t you photograph everything about life? Why can’t you photograph intimate moments? People say, ‘Oh no, I can’t take a picture of that.’ Why can’t you? People photograph your first communion, why can’t you photograph your first blowjob? It’s part of life. That’s why it’s not porn.”[note 13]
No, Larry, you can’t photograph anything you want under the guise of art or documentation. You’ll have to get the law changed, or a court to rule in favor of those exceptions, in order to do that legally. Why aren’t you being prosecuted like almost everyone else who depicts 16 year olds involved in fellatio and 14 year olds in lascivious poses?
The rule of law is made into a joke when exceptions are unofficially carved out for famous and respected people by means of selective prosecution.
Newspapers report that “sexting” by adolescents remains a current concern of school officials, law enforcement, and legislators. Some of these adolescents are photographing their “real”, unstaged “intimate moments” that are “part of life”, whether it’s their “first blowjob”, their first intercourse, their first cunnilingus, or simply masturbating alone in their bedrooms. Can any of these adolescents claim a documentary or artistic exemption? Can these adolescents exhibit their own pictures to the public at even one art gallery without an incident?
How often have we heard the phrase “That couldn’t be remade today!” That says it all very succinctly. For better or worse, no adolescent can create work like Clark’s even if it’s with their friends or just showing themselves.
Meanwhile, the famous adult Clark has never been arrested over his pictures and does not restrain himself from showing his underage nudes time and time again. Is that justice? The whole point of child pornography legislation is to prevent adults from “exploiting” minors. If that point is being undermined by allowing Larry Clark, Bill Henson, David Hamilton, Jock Sturges, and others to sell and exhibit their works of questionable legality, because of an implicit acknowledgement that that kind of content isn’t really bad after all, it’s high time for legislators to revisit the texts of the laws on the books and make them more equitable – by officially allowing certain types of underage porn. Sadly, they haven’t got the guts to do that at this time.
Clark’s show “Kiss The Past Hello” will remain on exhibit until January 2, 2011. During these three months I am forced to predict we’ll see more cell phone confiscations, computer confiscations, police interrogations, patronizing lectures, arrests, plea deals, and convictions related to 16 and 17 year old boys and girls involved in pornography in the United States.
1. “Paris Slaps Racy Larry Clark Show With an X Rating” by Nicolai Hartvig in ARTINFO France, September 23, 2010, http://www.artinfo.com/news/story/35856/paris-slaps-racy-larry-clark-show-with-an-x-rating/
2. “Paris decides exhibition about teenage sex is too raunchy – for teenagers” in The Independent, October 8, 2010, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/news/paris-decides-exhibition-about-teenage-sex-is-too-raunchy-ndash-for-teenagers-2101009.html
3. “Outcry as Paris bans under 18s from Larry Clark exhibition” by Lizzy Davies in The Guardian, October 7, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/oct/07/larry-clark-under-18s-exhibition-ban
4. “Photographer Larry Clark attacks age limit on his Paris show” by AFP, http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5i7w_7iXeHidwk0RqBnXieKR1gT0A?docId=CNG.269d5b4d24611193b334b94159602133.d41
5. “Jugendverbot bei Larry Clark-Ausstellung” in Die Presse, September 20, 2010, http://diepresse.com/home/kultur/kunst/595763/index.do?from=gl.home_kultur
6. New York v. Ferber 458 U.S. 747 (1982).
9. “Kids May Be Kids — But, Oh, The Heartbreak Director Documents…” (full title not known to me) in the Miami Herald, July 30, 1995.
10. Visual Arts section, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 27, 1995.
11. Amy Adler, “The Perverse Law of Child Pornography” in The Columbia Law Review, March 2001, note 154.
12. “Clark Turns to Europe With His Explicit Photos” in the Daily Dish column of the San Francisco Chronicle, April 19, 2005, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/g/a/2005/04/19/ddish.DTL&ao=2
13. Tulsa Kinney, “Lust and Liberty” in LA Weekly, December 6, 2001, http://www.laweekly.com/2001-12-06/news/lust-and-liberty/2