Sunday, 7 April 2013

Ban this filth!

Eric Gill, ‘Slaughter of the Innocents’ 1914
Picture: Tate
I was shocked to discover that the Tate still has sculptures and graphic art by Eric Gill, freely available for public viewing.  Don't they know that he sexually abused his children (& his dog)?  This print, which can be viewed by appointment, even includes an image of a naked child!
Landscape with Figures
Picture: BBC Your Paintings

Ulster Museum has this painting by Agostino Tassi (Landscape with Figures), despite Tassi being a well-known rapist.  
Sounds ridiculous?  Yes, but no more so than the Tate's decision to remove prints by Graham Ovenden when he was convicted of indecency with a child.  The prints have been widely shown before, but now the Tate says that his conviction 'sheds new light' on the images.  In other words, they are not being removed because of anything inherent in the pictures, but rather because of the perceived intent behind the works has changed.  That's a creepy concept - that an art gallery can remove works from view because of the inferences they have drawn about the intent behind their creation. 
I find it perverse that people are so ready to read indecent meanings into pictures, rather than appreciate artistic merit.  I don't know Ovenden's work at all (and the images are now not even available on the Tate website), but clearly the Tate judged them to be of sufficient merit to display.  However repugnant the artist's intentions may have been, their artistic quality is unchanged.  This is just a contemporary version of covering up nude statues. 


  1. What is most funny is that artists throughout the ages have done "wrong" things, yet their art is on view (i.e. Fra Filippo Lippi kidnapping his spouse from a nunnery?). Must be a statue of limitations on these things :)

  2. I'm sorry I'm confused, you seem to contradict yourself (or are you being sarcastic in the first part of the post?). The artist's intention obviously has a bearing on the artistic merit of the finished work of art (Surrealists' experiments vs children's art and the art of the mentally ill, from which they drew inspiration). But even if you wholeheartedly subscribe to Roland Bathes' death of the author, in the present case the author cannot be buried completely given all the publicity the case has received! And the fact that his intentions can now be seen as tainted and the works were possibly an excuse to indulge his perversion, in my view justifies their removal.

  3. Thanks for comment - yes, I'm being sarcastic in the first part. I don't agree that the artist's intention has a bearing on the artistic quality of the finished work. Take Titian's Venus of Urbino - would it make a difference to our assessment of its quality if we knew that he painted it as a purely lecherous exercise? Artistic intention is certainly important and interesting, but evil intent doesn't necessarily make bad art. You may legitimately hate the works that the Tate took down, but I think it's wrong to deprive us all of the opportunity to make our own assessment.

  4. (same person, just changed my blog name). I was just about to launch into a "passionate" response when I had a conversation with a friend who said that she shared your view. I then did a little digging and saw that on The Guardian site 55%voted to remove the works and 45% voted against. So, clearly, it is not a clear cut matter. I personally think that the majority (if not all) nudes ever made were done for lecherous purposes (Velazquez's 'The Toilet of Venus' was famously covered up whenever the Queen passed by). And I do agree that this doesn't detract from their aesthetic appeal. In the same way I am not against exhibiting Mihaly Munkacsy's "Tiszaeszlar Affair" (as discussed in The Art Newspaper April 2013) despite of its anti-Semitic message. I personally never saw any of Ovenden's work until this fuss with the trial. You say you are not familiar with it either. Have you Googled the images? What do you think? What I think makes his work different from Titian and Velazquez (apart from the fact that it was never illegal to look at/sleep with naked grown women) is the contemporaneity of it. He is still alive. These girls are still alive (his models). They may be, in fact, his victims. Your example of Agostino Tassi is not equivalent because it is a landscape, not his rape victim. If Ovenden had hundreds of still lives exhibited at the Tate I would have no problem with them. Would your view be different if, for example, he was convicted of such crimes first and then commenced on this subject matter in art? In my view, once you know this information the works become irrevocably tainted. I'm not trying to convince and apologies if I come across as if I have an axe to grind. I genuinely don't, just interested in different points of view.

  5. I tend to agree with you that knowledge of Ovenden's behaviour taints the work; you're certainly right that we see them differently in light of that knowledge. But I cannot accept that their artistic worth diminishes as a result. If Leonardo had killed people to get bodies to dissect and draw, it would certainly affect the way we see his drawings, but it wouldn't diminish their artistry. In Ovenden's case, the works have been on display for a very long time without complaint (so far as I'm aware). No doubt some people will be repulsed by them because of what is now known about his behaviour, but I'm afraid that it's unavoidable in a free society that some things that are heard or seen will be offensive to some people.

    I've had a look online, and I can't say his art appeals to me much. But it's not really a debate about artistic quality - the Tate clearly thought the quality was high enough to justify its display. Taking it down is a dreadful injustice to its visitors, taking away our ability to judge for ourselves. I don't much care whether Ovenden's works are on display, but I care passionately that museums don't impose moral judgments and prevent us from deciding for ourselves.

  6. The issue is very complicated... I am against censorship and my argument is that the removal from Tate was justified not on the grounds of censorship but on the grounds that, in my opinion, the works have been revealed not to be works of art. And consequently they have no place in an art gallery. But I base this on the premise that artistic intent is important (on which we don't agree). And also this would apply to some of his works and not to others i.e. depending in their subject matter.

    This case is slightly different from the Leonardo example because making indecent images of children is a crime in and of itself. Whereas in Leonardo example he commits a crime of murder and then represents it artistically. This of course then raises a question of whether they qualify as 'indecent images' (they were never judged so by a court).

    I've come across this interesting article by A. D. Coleman (the guy who gave supporting testimony for Ovenden in his 1991 US trial) on the subject of censure and photography generally:

    Coleman mentions an interesting legal point of US law (at p.4), that Ovenden's drawings were exempt as "graphic art"; yet if any photographs could be found from which such drawing were made those same images, as photographs, would be illegal. Art therefore (rightfully) gives licence to the creation of images that are borderline, challenging, shocking. This artistic licence should not be treated lightly and I feel Ovenden has misused it.

    In relation to artists' intentions, they appear to matter in law - in both his 1991 US trial and in his 2009 UK trial his defence argued that the works should be protected as works of art as, among other arguments, they were not created with a criminal intent. His recent conviction of actual child abuse now puts under question the veracity of his earlier defence claims and the innocence of his intent. But then we can never prove what his intent was when creating each individual work....

    There are also ancient images of child abuse which do not provoke such a reaction in me (i.e. the Warren Cup at the BM). The only difference is the amount of time that has passed since their creation, which shouldn't affect their artistic status....

    So, as I struggle to construct a persuasive argument I am tending towards the conclusion that my response to this subject must be emotional rather than rational...