Photography and Censorship – On the Nudity in the Photographs by Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin
A woman approaches me and asks in a piercing American voice whether there are any exhibitions on at the museum that do not contain any naked pictures. After all, she has got two teenagers with her. She totally expects me to take that as a full and entirely logical explanation for her request. I direct her to the plant studies by Karl Blossfeldt. My first thought is full of pity for the two kids involved. I would have been mortified if my parents had ever dragged me away from art, presumably for being too explicit.
But it raises an interesting question about censorship and art, and more specifically about censorship and photography. Not so long ago there was a huge outcry over the inclusion of a Richard Prince picture of Brooke Shields in an an exhibition at the Tate Modern, even though apparently the photograph itself was physically separated from the rest of the exhibition and ample warnings were given to the audience before seeing it. I felt the media outcry was rather hypocritical, since every newspaper felt obliged to print at least part of the offending picture, thus completely negating the point.
In my little anecdote above the offending pictures are nudes produced by the Dutch fashion photographers Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin. Yes, many of their images are of (half-)naked people. Occasionally they are hinting at things, almost in a Carry On kind of way. One can dispute their artistic merit or lack thereof. But frankly speaking I do not see a problem with them from a moral point of view, as the American woman clearly did.
There seems to be an increasingly paranoid view of photography, where any nudity is considered to be pornographic and therefore bad, leading various parties to censor what are legitimate works of photographic art.
Would she forbid her children to watch any works of art that contain some bared skin? The Venus of Milo is quite naked. Classical Greek pottery is covered with unclothed bodies. Rubens loved his women, well, Rubenesque and bare-skinned besides. Quite a few depictions of biblical or Arcadian scenes, such as made by Titian, show people in various states of undress. Some of Rodin’s sculptures like The Kiss, are quite explicit. The list of potentially offending artworks is endless. Would the woman really go up to the reception at the Prado for example, and say: “Excuse me, but are there any exhibitions without any nude paintings or sculptures in it?”
Or could it be something in the nature of photography that makes the American woman object? Is it because of this supposed link to reality, this potential registration of real people, real things, real events, real nudity, even though the scene played out in front of the camera is obviously fiction? One would have thought that after photography having been around for over 150 years, there would be a more general understanding of both the facts and the fictions the medium is able to reproduce.
Instead there seems to be an increasingly paranoid view of photography, where any nudity is considered to be pornographic and therefore bad, leading various parties to censor what are legitimate works of photographic art. I find it a worrisome trend.