News that the Tate gallery was removing the work of a leading artist from public view following his conviction for child sex offences made headlines globally a week ago. The sense of shock in the art world was palpable following the downfall of renowned painter and photographer Graham Ovenden, whose sensuous images of prepubescent girls have been critically acclaimed but also the subject of suspicious police attention for decades.
No wonder the arty types are stunned: suddenly, they find themselves rudely demoted by the Tate’s implicit acknowledgment that when push comes to shove the police and the courts are the only important art critics in the business. They thought Ovenden’s work was high art, but suddenly they find to their embarrassment and confusion that, no, it is low pornography.
There has been, to be sure, a great deal of agonised resistance to this stark revisionism in recent days. The cultural commentariat have pondered parallels: is the music of Wagner less great because the man himself was a notorious racist and hero of the Nazis? Dig deep enough and you might well find a bit of a scumbag behind most of the world’s significant cultural output: being troubled, unbalanced, difficult, even downright immoral and wicked frequently goes hand in hand with seeing the world in new and significant ways, and rendering those perceptions artistically.
Well, anyway, that’s what I think. And if the plods can have a view worth listening to, why shouldn’t Heretic TOC? So, in the time honoured manner of the opinionated philistine, I hereby announce that I don’t know much about art but I know what I like: porn!
Yes, I know, we’re not supposed to say that, but I rather suspect some of Ovenden’s work really is porn, and none the worse for that, despite all the subtle arty farty stuff said in its defence, including by the artist himself. Take this for instance, which was Ovenden writing about his book States of Grace many years ago after it had been seized by US Customs:
“Symbolically speaking, we are dealing with feelings of the heart and the human yearning for Edenic simplicity – a state of grace, as it were, where there is neither sin nor corruption. The apple has yet to be eaten. The subject, of course, symbolizes this state in the photograph. At the same time, we see that the attainment of Eden is no easy task: the vulnerability of the child suggests, or rather confirms, the fragility of Eden, as well as its fleeting nature in the face of the concerns of the adult world and the demands of modernity.”
Yeah, right. Or, as Ovenden might have said to a fellow Loli-lover, “Gorgeous, isn’t she? I do have some naughtier ones, if you’re interested.”
If my speculation here is correct (and it is only speculation so sorry, Graham, if all your art is actually “pure”), then the question arises as to whether his porn is good porn. The public debate in the newspaper columns and the blogs appears to have ignored this possibility entirely, or have defined it out of existence. In other words, they have been saying if it is porn it cannot be art.
What nonsense! Look no further than the Wikipedia entry on Erotic art and you will find entries that are highly accomplished by any standards (not just mine) and also downright pornographic rather than just subtly erotic. Paedophilic porn can also be excellent art, as the Japanese, especially, have shown with their amazing manga – alas now no longer legally accessible in the UK following section 62 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.
For another view, by Heretic TOC commentator Peter Hooper, see Children in art, have they become one of today’s problems?
Footnote: Today’s big news is the death of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Heretic TOC will not be shedding tears over her departure but she did at least have the great merit of visionary leadership, unlike today’s focus group politicians, who don’t know what to think until a largely ignorant, irrational and bigoted electorate tells them.